China And The U.S. Are 'Drifting Toward A War' Over Taiwan, Says Report : Consider This from NPR There has been no shortage of confrontations between the U.S. and China this year. This week, shortly after a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing, intended to thaw relations with China, President Biden likened Chinese President Xi Jinping to a "dictator" in off the cuff remarks. A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry called that "an open political provocation." Before that there were dust ups over TikTok and a Chinese spy balloon.

But one of the most intractable and volatile issues continues to be the fate of Taiwan. And a new report sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations says that the U.S. and China are 'drifting toward a war' over the island.

Two of the report's authors, former Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon and Admiral Mike Mullen, formerly the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argue the U.S. should take action now to prevent that outcome.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

A New Report Warns China And The U.S. Are 'Drifting Toward A War' Over Taiwan

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When it comes to the U.S. and China, bland diplomatic rhetoric can cloud at times just how high the stakes are. Like when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited China this week, he said the two countries need to, quote, "responsibly manage the relationship." Well, here's how Jude Blanchette at the Center for Strategic and International Studies translated that in an interview with NPR's A Martínez.

JUDE BLANCHETTE: At this point, the relationship has deteriorated to such an extent that I think, at a foundational level, manage means steering these two countries away from conflict.

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: So basically, just don't get into a war with each other. That's how low this has gotten to.

BLANCHETTE: Sadly, yes.

CHANG: Stakes don't get much higher than avoiding a war between the world's biggest superpowers, right? And yet new confrontations between these two countries continue to bubble up, as we saw almost immediately after Blinken's trip to Beijing.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Just hours after Joe Biden's top diplomat seemed to bring the U.S. and China closer together, an offhand comment by the American president has put new strain on the superpower relationship.

CHANG: At a campaign event, Biden likened some of President Xi Jinping's recent behavior to that of a, quote, "dictator." A spokesperson for China's foreign ministry called the remarks utterly absurd and irresponsible and said that Biden's words were, quote, "an open political provocation." And before this latest dustup, there was the push to crack down on TikTok, the popular app from the Chinese tech firm ByteDance...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: TikTok's CEO did not find a single friendly face when he was questioned by House lawmakers on...

CHANG: ...Which came not long after the U.S. shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon that entered its airspace.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The violation of our sovereignty is unacceptable. We'll act to protect our country, and we did.

CHANG: But there is one issue especially that seems both irreconcilable and potentially combustible. Here's Blanchette again.

BLANCHETTE: Core is the issue of Taiwan, and I think there's a growing fear around the world that Taiwan is an issue where the two countries could directly clash.

CHANG: CONSIDER THIS - a new report says the United States and China are, quote, "drifting toward a war over Taiwan." Two former top government officials say the U.S. should take action now to steer the countries off that path.

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CHANG: From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Thursday, June 22.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Taiwan exists in a sort of perpetual limbo.

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CHANG: It's self-ruled and has a democratic government, but at the same time, the government in Beijing says Taiwan is part of China. The looming question now is - would China launch a military operation to bring Taiwan under its control? Antony Blinken said at a press conference this week that that would be a disaster.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: Were there to be a crisis over Taiwan, the likelihood is that that would produce an economic crisis that could affect quite literally the entire world. Fifty percent of commercial container traffic goes through the Taiwan Strait every day. Seventy percent of semiconductors are manufactured on Taiwan.

CHANG: So Blinken made clear that the U.S. would like to keep things just as they are.

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BLINKEN: We do not support Taiwan independence. We remain opposed to any unilateral changes to the status quo by either side. We continue to expect the peaceful resolution of cross-strait differences.

CHANG: But that status quo is under increasing strain, according to a report from the bipartisan Independent Task Force on Taiwan from the Council on Foreign Relations. I spoke with two members of the task force, former deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon and Adm. Mike Mullen, formerly the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And I asked them, given the fact that Taiwan has dealt with the threat of a more aggressive China for several years now, what is it about this moment in particular that feels more urgent?

SUE GORDON: I think there are probably three things that particularly are front of mind. One is just China's actions in the region that are aggressive, not just relating to Taiwan but in the South China Sea, and coupled with that, a general expansion in military capabilities. So that's one. Two is Xi Jinping's statements on this topic that's cited as something that he believes is unresolved and even putting time frames on which reunification should happen. And then I think the third thing is what I'll call provocative actions, specifically in the strait of Taiwan that could be taken as coercive action to undermine the will of the Taiwan people to have a different view of what their position should be. So I think those are three that just really come to mind.

CHANG: Right. You mentioned time frames that Xi Jinping has declared about possible reunification with Taiwan. When it comes to China's possible reunification by force with Taiwan, what conditions do you think have to be in place before Xi would decide to go through with that?

MIKE MULLEN: I really believe that - actually, this isn't just Xi Jinping. I think any Chinese leader, if they believe that Taiwan was going to become independent - and then Xi Jinping himself, he's been very specific when he tells his military to be ready by 2027 - when he says that it's critical to what he calls this national rejuvenation and that it can't be passed on from leader to leader as has been the case in the past.

CHANG: How much do we know about whether the war in Ukraine is giving Xi Jinping any pause about invading or taking Taiwan one day? Do you think it is?

GORDON: I have to believe that seeing how much more difficult this has been for Putin has to give Xi pause in terms of how prepared he would be for any forcible military action on the island. And Taiwan is not a simple military target.

MULLEN: In fact, it's an incredibly complex - some believe the most complex - kind of military operation that he would have to actually execute in order to successfully take Taiwan.

CHANG: Do you think the U.S. should come to Taiwan's direct defense should China invade Taiwan one day?

MULLEN: I'm - you know, that's a decision for the president - actually, president...

CHANG: Well, how would you advise the president if you were in the position to do so on that question?

MULLEN: No, I actually only did that when I was in a position to do that. Clearly, his advisors are backing off. What President Biden has said on four separate occasions seemed to indicate that he would. His staff has then backed those...

CHANG: Backed away.

MULLEN: ...Words down after each one. What we're trying to say in this report is we support the "One China" policy. Peaceful reunification is still the goal. We just need to make sure, you know, we don't reunify under conflict.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about the "One China" policy. This policy, which the U.S. adheres to, recognizes the People's Republic of China as the sole legal government of China. The policy - it requires what's called strategic ambiguity. But let me ask you, is strategic ambiguity sustainable in the long term, or do you think the U.S. needs to land on a policy of strategic clarity? Sue, what do you think?

GORDON: We backed away from coming down hard one way or another - instead, staying with the "One China" policy. But here's where I think we did come in terms of area of clarity that is needed. We need to be clear, as a nation, what our interests are with Taiwan, and we need to have that conversation with the American people. We need to be clear with Taiwan about the actions we're taking with them so that they are more resilient whether that is more weapons or more training. And I think we need to be clear with China that we have not changed the point that we have an opinion about reunification or not but rather on the point of peaceful. And so if you look through the report, we may not have taken on your question of strategic ambiguity or clarity but rather clarity in specific areas that advance our interests and make it clear that China does not influence what our interests are.

CHANG: Well, one of the biggest takeaways from your report is that you advise that the U.S. should more proactively build up Taiwan's self-defense capabilities. But let me ask you, wouldn't that inherently provoke China?

MULLEN: I mean, we find ourselves at a time - first of all, the overall relationship is in the worst shape it's been since 1979. And the tensions are way up. That said, at a time when these tensions are way up, it becomes that much more difficult to raise our own capabilities, if you will, because that'll increase tensions. And I think that's what we have to do to create the kind of deterrence that has eroded over time. And so that's a necessary step.

CHANG: Even if China sees that as provocative?

MULLEN: I think people will say that. I think it's the risk that you have to take. The other is to look at it and sort of walk away and let it happen, and I just don't think that's a realistic possibility.

CHANG: But that, I guess, returns me to the previous question. Is the "One China" policy ultimately sustainable? Are these gestures to be indefinitely quiet on the part of the U.S. towards Taiwan?

GORDON: So I think time will tell. But I think the "One China" policy is consistent with letting Taiwan and China decide how they want to resolve it. And that's standing by, basically, our view of what is allowable in terms of hostile actions. And also, you know, you led with Blinken's visit. I think more of those things - harder-working diplomacy, more connections, and more people-to-people visits - so it's not just seen as a military buildup, although that is always part of deterrence. There are other pieces of it that we think also needed to be strengthened and in which you can be clear about what our interests are in the region without directly being in confrontation to China.

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CHANG: That was former Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon and Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They're both part of the Council on Foreign Relations' Taiwan Task Force.

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CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ailsa Chang.

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