Let's be clear: Nancy Pelosi's trip to Taiwan was not a great opportunity to show America's support for the island; it did not chasten Beijing to exert greater restraint toward Taipei. To the contrary--countless China and foreign policy specialists predicted it would produce a major, likely sustained, coercive Chinese reaction that will deepen our current slide toward conflict in the Sino-U.S. relationship.
That is exactly what is happening.
Pelosi's trip to Taiwan was a stunt, likely intended as a last hurrah before leaving office as speaker of the House, designed to cement her legacy as a tough opponent of China and upholder of human rights.
Well, good for her. The only problem is that by traveling to Taiwan she has given Beijing an ideal opportunity to exercise a combined force simulation of an attack on each of Taiwan's ports and put virtually the last nail in the coffin of the U.S. policy that has helped sustain peace in Asia for decades: the One China policy.
As a direct result of Pelosi's trip, Beijing has created six maritime and air closure zones circling the island, each in a strategic location near Taiwan ports, etc.; started firing missiles into those zones, some directly over Taiwan; deployed two carrier battle groups from the north and south toward the island; shut down numerous government and commercial websites in Taiwan; and suspended critical exports and imports to and from Taiwan.
This makes the last major crisis of this nature, the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, look pretty tame in comparison--and more is no doubt to come. China has vastly more capabilities, and hence options, to create pain and tension on Taiwan and concern in Washington. And the U.S. will not be able to successfully halt this process, as it did last time, by deploying two carrier battle groups of its own to the area and deploying harsh rhetoric.
Today, the stakes are appreciably much higher than they were in 1995-96. The Sino-U.S. relationship is far more strained. China is now viewed in Washington as a power-hungry state, seeking to seize Taiwan in order to dominate Asia; from Beijing, the U.S. is seen as needing to defend its eroding primacy in the region by keeping Taiwan from China. Both sides view Taiwan in ominous strategic terms, suggesting that neither is inclined to make concessions or strive for mutual accommodation or a clear off-ramp. To the contrary, both seem to think that only never-ending levels of military deterrence and threats will avert a conflict, with little if anything in the way of assurances regarding the One China policy or Beijing's commitment to peaceful unification.
These are not the ingredients for a stable peace. Rising tensions could cause Beijing to steadily increase its pressure on Taiwan, establishing a new status quo of constant confrontation and demands for concessions; in response, the U.S. could accept the demands now emanating from Congress and elsewhere to declare Taiwan a non-NATO ally and deploy U.S. forces near and perhaps on Taiwan on a more or less permanent basis.
This is a recipe for conflict and disaster. What is the ostensible purpose of walking further down this dangerous path?
Rather than sleepwalk toward conflict, Beijing and Washington need to wake up, get a grip, find two senior interlocutors who have some credibility on both sides (such as Hank Paulsen and Henry Kissinger or Dai Bingguo or Cui Tiankai) and start discussing off-ramps, in which both show some willingness to make concessions. The alternatives--a never-ending, increasingly precarious arms race and brinkmanship, or a supposedly limited conflict intended to instill caution on both sides--pose far greater risks.
Michael D. Swaine is director of the East Asia Program for Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.