Analysing international policy processes and Lithuania’s role in them
Bulletin Jun 13, 2023

Bonnie Glaser: We do need to de-risk from China

“The Chinese are studying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the tactical level. <…> I think Xi Jinping has looked at what is taking place in Ukraine and has been horrified at how poorly the Russian military has performed. And indeed, that has induced caution,” says Bonnie Glaser, the director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, about the potential readiness of China to use force against Taiwan. The tension between the US and China, the risk of China’s aggression against Taiwan and the meaning of selecting the right wording – decoupling or de-risking from China – those topics were covered in an interview taken by Tomas Janeliūnas, the Chief Research Programme Officer at the Eastern Europe Studies Centre.

You have published a book on US-Taiwan relations and a potential crisis with China recently with your colleagues Richard Bush and Ryan Hass. What is your main thesis?

In the United States, in the last few years, Taiwan has received a great deal of attention, especially from defense experts. There has been a lot of talk about the so-called pending, imminent crisis and even invasion of Taiwan. So, one of the reasons we wanted to write this book was to ground this issue in a regional and historical perspective. And to explain why the Chinese invasion of Taiwan, though possible is not inevitable. Whether or not peace and stability continue to prevail in the Taiwan Strait will be influenced not only by the PRC’s policy but also by US policy. In the book, we review the history of the US-Taiwan relationship and the China challenge,  particularly over the last eight years. The whole first chapter covers a much longer history. The second chapter focuses on the period of the Trump and Biden administrations and covers Taiwan’s President Tsai period in power. And in the last chapter, we examine potential scenarios for the future development of cross-strait relations and put forward some policy suggestions.

We think that the right US policies and wise US leadership, along with wise leadership in Taiwan can potentially continue to preserve peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. And we examine the issue of whether there is a deadline that Xi Jinping has set. We believe that there is no hard and fast deadline. We talk about the potential costs that Xi Jinping needs to consider and his cost-benefit analysis for reunifying Taiwan by force. So, we’re essentially trying to introduce facts and some sanity into this conversation and to lower the temperature.

How do you see the most recent development in the US-China relationship? Besides some short-term ups and downs, what is the trend? Is the risk of direct confrontation growing?

The US-China relationship has changed fundamentally. And I believe we are transitioning to something else, but it has yet to be determined whether there will be a new steady state in the relationship.

When President Biden came to power, the Chinese wanted to reset the relationship. They wanted to return to something like the US-China relationship under President Obama. It took many months for China to conclude that it was not possible. Over the last two years, the Chinese have drawn some very important conclusions about the United States. For example, Xi Jinping made a statement just a couple of months ago at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, where he said that the United States, by name, is pursuing containment, suppression and encirclement of China. In his first ten years in power Xi had not made such a clear statement about US intentions towards China.

That statement is a signal to the entire system in China that they should prepare for a much more adversarial relationship with the United States. And, of course, we have heard US officials make judgements about China’s intentions to revise the international order. China is said to be the only country with both the intent and the capabilities to fundamentally change the international order in ways that would be very unfavorable to the United States and other democracies. So, it is an intensely competitive relationship in the economic, technological, and certainly the military realms, and also in the ideological realm.

We could see a period this year of temporary stabilization of relations because Xi Jinping will probably attend the APEC Summit in the United States in November. There are some signs, and maybe it’s also because of the economic headwinds that China is facing, that they would like to try and stabilize the relationship. Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang said recently that it’s essential to have a stable US-China relationship. The Chinese asked our national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, to meet in a third country. They spent two days, a total of 10 hours talking in Vienna, I was told.

Maybe this is the beginning of a stabilization process, but it will not reset the relationship. We will not return to the past. I’m pessimistic because I don’t expect US assessments of Chinese intentions or US policy to change fundamentally. And I certainly don’t expect Chinese policy to change fundamentally. From the point of view of the United States, it is Chinese policy that has caused these frictions. Chinese policy is fundamentally different than it was years ago when we had a more cooperative relationship–it was different both domestically and externally.

Bonnie Glaser

Taiwan is the central point of a potential conflict as China becomes more and more assertive in declaring its mission to complete the unification. Is there any chance of maintaining the status quo for Taiwan in some medium- or longer term?

The status quo is dynamic; it’s not static. And it depends on what aspect of the status quo you’re talking about. So, for example, if we talk about the military status quo after US Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, went to Taiwan, the Chinese have taken some very significant actions to alter that status quo. They are operating over the median line in the Taiwan Strait with navy ships, aircraft, and drones on a daily basis. For many years prior, China tacitly respected that median line.

Do you think this Pelosi visit was a kind of provocation which could have been avoided at that time?

Before Nancy Pelosi’s visit, I published an article in the New York Times with a colleague of mine, Zack Cooper, and we recommended against it. We argued that the timing was particularly bad and would likely provoke a very strong reaction from China. And I think the visit harmed Taiwan’s security more than it helped. I believe that even people in Taiwan, including many people in the government, eventually concluded that they paid a high price for that visit.

But I do understand why it is so difficult for Taiwan to say “no”. When these opportunities come to Taiwan, I think they fear that if they don’t say “yes”, this opportunity will never come again. The United States is so important to Taiwan’s security that they want to demonstrate to their people that the US supports Taiwan.

However, I think Taipei failed to appreciate how strong China’s reaction would be. Subsequently, President Tsai transited the US and met with the new Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy. It was publicly reported, and I think it’s accurate, that he had wanted to visit Taiwan, and the Taiwan government had said don’t come before our election, please. They’re looking at everything now through the lens of their January 20, 2024 elections. The KMT is telling the Taiwanese people if they vote for the KMT, it’s a vote for peace; if they vote for the DPP, it’s a vote for war. I suppose, the DPP did not want to see a replay of what happened after Nancy Pelosi’s visit.

What is your opinion about the prospect of some experts and officials who claim that China is preparing by military means to move against Taiwan by 2027 and that window of opportunity will be somewhere between 2027-2030, that this period could be the most challenging time for Taiwan?  

Xi Jinping has frequently said that the PLA should get ready for war, have more capabilities, and exercise in more realistic ways. He is sending the message that he believes the PLA isn’t ready.

At the 19th party Congress, he set out goals for the Chinese military: The PLA was tasked to basically complete its modernization by 2035 and be fully transformed into a first-tier or world-class military by 2049. However, we don’t know what these mean in concrete terms.

This 2027 date first appeared when the former commander of Indo-Pacific Command, Phil Davidson, testified before Congress in the spring of 2021. He said that he believed there could be an invasion within six years. But I’ not convinced that 2027 is particularly a meaningful date other than the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the PLA.

Undoubtedly there will be a large military parade in Tiananmen Square, but I don’t think we will see an invasion of Taiwan. There’s no evidence that Xi Jinping has made a political decision to invade, though he is telling his military to get prepared. Some people in the United States believe that the PLA could invade today and succeed. But I think that’s a minority view. Most people believe that China lacks the capability to seize and control Taiwan; the PLA itself writes about its deficiencies. So, they think they’re not ready.

An essential factor in this regard is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s an ongoing war, and the Chinese are studying at the tactical level. So, they’re looking at specific operations and capabilities of systems and how the Russians are or not using cyber and disinformation tactics, for example. There are articles in Chinese journals about how Russia uses helicopters and what China can learn from their operations. So, there’s learning from tactics, but then there’s even more important strategic learning.

Russia’s military is battle-hardened, while China’s is not. All Russia had to do was roll its tanks across a land border. China would have to cross almost one hundred miles of water. I think it would be an extremely challenging mission for any military. China needs to conduct an amphibious landing and then probably take control of ports and airfields, and they have to establish air superiority.

I think Xi Jinping has looked at what is taking place in Ukraine and has been horrified at how poorly the Russian military has performed. And indeed, that has induced caution. Xi was probably cautious before that as he weighed the cost and benefits, but surely his perception of the costs is even greater now.

 What would be the most dangerous scenarios for the United States if Xi Jinping would like to change the status quo by various means, including economic sanctions and isolation of Taiwan and what for the United States would be the most challenging actions to respond to?

Many people think that there are various scenarios of Chinese use of force against Taiwan.  Two small islands sit very close to the Chinese mainland, Kinmen and Matsu. China has long had the capability to seize those islands. If they decided to take them, it would be over before the US could do anything. It would demonstrate to Taiwan that China is very serious about using force.

However, in my view, it would probably make the goal of peaceful unification even more difficult for China to succeed. Scaring and bullying Taiwan will not make the government or the people give in to Beijing’s demands. I think that China prefers to achieve its reunification goal peacefully, not through the use of force. But we should keep in mind that China’s definition of peaceful includes coercion.

So, that is a problematic scenario. There is also the possibility that China might seize some other islands, like Pratas. But I think such scenarios are unlikely.

China’s strategy is to use various forms of pressure on Taiwan to instill a sense of psychological despair among the people of Taiwan so that they conclude they have no future in being autonomous and therefore they should strike some deal with China. There’s constant disinformation from the PRC that the US is an unreliable partner, the DPP is dangerous, and Taiwan’s always been part of China. Countering that narrative is really challenging for Taiwan as well as for the United States.

And then, finally, there is the worst scenario of an all-out attack. It probably won’t be a surprise attack. We’ll see indicators in advance, but even if we see the indicators, it will take time for the US to mobilize a response. We need Taiwan to hold out for more than a few weeks.  And China has developed a range of anti-access area denial capabilities that will put US military assets at risk. It would be a catastrophic war and there would be high casualty rates on all sides.

If China invaded today, our ability to defend Taiwan is probably not as good as it will be maybe five years from now. We have to have a more distributed, agile, and resilient force posture in the region, which the United States is working hard on with countries like Japan, the Philippines, Australia and others. The more these other countries recognize that a war in the Taiwan Strait would be catastrophic for them, the more they are actually willing to work with us.

The European Union speaks about ‘de-risking’ China strategy rather than ‘decoupling’. The EU is not ready to minimize European investments or trade with China right now. Instead, they aim to reduce some risks by diversifying some supply chains from China with specific products. Do you think it’s enough to be secure for Europeans if any conflict China starts over Taiwan?

In my view, there was never any possibility of complete decoupling of the Chinese economy from the US economy or the EU or European economies. I think that was misunderstood from the beginning. The US had almost 700 billion dollars in trade last year with China. American companies don’t want to stop trading with China; they do not want to stop investing in China either. And our trade with China has brought tremendous benefits to Americans and Europeans.

I think decoupling was probably a wrong choice of words. It was always intended to be a targeted decoupling. Our differences with Europe are really about how targeted it should be. Using the term ‘de-risking’ has helped reassure some people in Europe. And the United States appears to have now embraced that term. So, it seems like we are currently on the same page. But we still face the same questions. How and to what extent we de-risk? The United States has talked about ‘small yards and high fences’. I think our European friends still want to know how small the yard is and they want it to be as small as possible. So, this is a work in progress.

The United States has already started to de-risk. Just last year, on October 7, the US, for the first time, imposed export controls that are essential intended to limit the ability of China to catch up and become very advanced in semiconductors. China dominates manufacturing of legacy chips — those produced with 28-nanometer (nm) technology or larger — but it is not capable of producing the most advanced chips. We coordinated that deal with our allies; this was relatively easy because it affected only a few countries and a minimal number of companies. The US issued waivers for South Korean companies. The Netherlands came on board together with Japan and Taiwan. But if we apply export controls to artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and possibly biotechnology, then we’ll probably have more pushback from Europe, perhaps also from some of our allies in Asia and even from some of the American business community.

At the same time, we’re talking about outbound investment screening and possible restrictions on investment into China. Requiring companies to be transparent about their investments is feasible and, in my view, necessary. We need to know if capital is enabling China to develop military technology and capabilities that it can use to pose threats to the United States and its allies and partners. But going beyond imposing restrictions on semiconductors will be difficult. It will be a long road to figuring out where our mutual comfort level is.

Lithuania has a different approach than bigger European countries and seeks to become one of the most-vocal anti-Chinese critics inside the EU. After economic sanctions in 2021, the decoupling from China for Lithuania has happened already. Do you see any chance that Lithuania could attract more followers to this more challenging position towards China?

Prior to China’s economic coercion against Lithuania, which was triggered by the establishment of a Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius, I believe that less than 1% of Lithuania’s exports went to China. So, the Chinese had to find other ways to punish Lithuania. They exerted pressure on companies from other countries, including from Germany, to stop sourcing components from Lithuanian suppliers. Lithuania’s circumstances are not typical. There are over 100 countries in the world for whom China is their main trading partner. So, it’s not a model that many countries are going to adopt. But governments will de-risk.

From my perspective, it is important for other countries to identify the sectors where they are overly dependent on China that connect to their national security. For example, critical minerals and pharmaceuticals. These are just two examples where the US and Europe are overly dependent on China. We do need to de-risk, and we need to diversify. We want to have supply chains in other democracies and countries that we have good relations with. I think that strategy makes sense.

There may be a handful of countries in the world that are similar to Lithuania, with a small amount of trade with China, but it doesn’t apply to most countries. For most countries, the best approaches are to  de-risk and diversify to ensure  they’re not vulnerable to economic coercion from China.

Almost two years have passed since Taiwan announced its readiness to open the Taiwanese representative office in Vilnius. The move contributed to the general tension between Western countries and China. Looking from Taiwan’s perspective – was this move a rational attempt to increase the tension and attract more attention from the Americans or Europeans?

I don’t think anybody in Taiwan anticipated what would occur after they decided to open that office and name it the Taiwanese representative office. I think that they believed that it was the right choice, and they see that there have been some benefits. The EU, of course, has developed an anti-coercion tool, which, as I understand it, was initially discussed to respond to the US tariffs, not China’s economic coercion. Still, it is thought of today as more likely to be used against China. More countries have seen that China is willing to impose economic pressure. There is a long list of the targets of Chinese economic coercion. It goes back to Norway and Japan in 2010, and subsequent targets include the Philippines, Mongolia and Sweden, South Korea and Australia. Those instances have helped to focus greater attention on the risks of being overly dependent on China. That is a positive result.  But in other cases, there have been negative results when countries conduct self-censorship: they avoid taking actions that would damage Chinese interests because they don’t want to provoke economic coercion against their countries. But I think from Taiwan’s perspective, they see it as positive.

It is noteworthy that there hasn’t been another country willing to change the name of the Taipei representative office to the Taiwan representative office in their capitals. There was a time that Taiwan was pushing very hard in Washington, DC; they wanted to change the name of their representative office in Washington DC from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office to the Taiwan Representative Office. They have not yet succeeded, but they have not given up. There is a new piece of legislation that has been introduced in Congress that supports this name change. However, the Biden administration has made it very clear to Taiwan that doing symbolic things that undermine efforts to strengthen Taiwan’s security are not in the US interest and are not in Taiwan’s interest either. Renaming the representative office would be a symbolic action. So, it is no longer a priority.

To your knowledge, how detailed consultations between Taiwanese and American diplomats could occur before this opening of the Taiwanese office? Such kinds of consultations should be expected, I guess?

I don’t know all the details. I heard from some Europeans that they believed the United States was behind the opening of the Taiwanese office in Vilnius, but I believe that is not true. I don’t think the United States was pushing for Taiwan to establish an office in Lithuania that used the name ‘Taiwan’. I’m guessing at some point US officials may have been told of the plan that was underway. But It was Taiwan’s plan. It was not the US idea, that is certain. Whether Washington learned about it from Taipei or Vilnius, I don’t know. Taiwan does not tell the United States everything it does, even though we have a very close relationship. And if Taiwan thinks the US isn’t going to support something they’re doing, then they may go out of their way not to tell the United States. I think that by the time the United States became aware that this was plan was afoot, it was already decided. I don’t think that the US did anything to oppose it, but I also don’t believe the US did anything to support it.

Despite all the harsh reactions from China to this opening of the Taiwanese office in Vilnius, Lithuania did not suffer very much because of this very low trade flow. Is it a success story of how not to give in to this Chinese pressure, or is it more like a risky game with some luck rather than a rational choice?

A few countries have been targets of China’s economic coercion and have entirely resisted. Lithuania is one, and Australia is another. In both of those cases, China has not achieved its goals. Australia has stood up for its principles, and China has recently begun to back away from and lift some of those restrictions.

I think it is important to study why in some cases, China has failed and in other cases, China has been more successful. The Norway case is an example of a Chinese success. In 2017 China and Norway signed an agreement that put an end to the period of ‘Norway in the freezer’. The political statement that was signed reads like it was written in Beijing. It states that Norway attaches great important to China’s core interests and will not support actions that undermine them. It is disappointing that some countries respond to Chinese coercion by sacrificing their own principles.

As for the Lithuania case, I think it worked for Lithuania. It is not necessarily a model that other countries will implement. Still, it is a successful case of resisting Chinese coercion and standing up for Lithuania’s interests. I hope that there will be more such cases in the future.

Tomas Janeliūnas has been a professor at the Vilnius Institute of International Relations and Political Science (TSPMI) since 2015. He defended his doctorate in the social sciences at Vilnius University in 2006.

Between 2013 and 2018, he led the TSPMI International Relations Cathedral. Between 2009 and 2020, he was the Editor in Chief for the magazine Politologija. Between 2007 and 2017, he edited the releases of the Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review. Between 2010 and 2019, he was the politics editor and analyst for the magazine IQ.

T. Janeliūnas is an expert for the National Security and Defence Committee (drafting the Lithuanian National Security Strategy review), in 2016 and 2020, he was an expert for the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), in drafting positions for the Review of the European Neighbourhood Policy (REX/458-EESC-2016) and Towards a New European Neighbourhood Policy (REX/447-EESC-2015).