China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and has threatened to annex it by force if necessary. Taiwan's leaders, however, say it is much more than a province and argue that it is a sovereign state.
The U.S. is an ally of Taiwan — it has sold Taiwan billions of dollars worth of arms and hasn’t ruled out defending it against an attack from China. In 1996, China conducted missile tests in an attempt to influence the presidential election in Taiwan. In response, President Bill Clinton sent ships to the Taiwan Strait — the “biggest display of U.S. military power in Asia since the Vietnam War,” according to the BBC.
China’s military power has advanced significantly in the past 30 years, since it launched a military modernization program with a focus on deterring and undermining U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region. Initially, China set its sights on attaining the most advanced weapons, Mastro explained, but once Xi Jinping became president in 2013, it shifted its focus to growing its human capital and ensuring that members of its military are trained to use China’s advanced weapons and systems.
“They think they’re now at the tail end of that process, and should be finished by 2024 or 2025,” Mastro added. “U.S. military planners and Chinese military planners are preparing for limited wars with each other. There is a real possibility of hot war.”
Relations between the U.S. and China are more tense than ever over issues such as trade, a new national security law in Hong Kong, U.S. attempts to restrict Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mastro predicts that President-elect Joe Biden and his administration will attempt to strengthen U.S. allies and partnerships to allow for more influence with those countries when it comes to their approaches to China.
Allies and partnerships not only strengthen the U.S. competitive edge — they also strengthen the deterrent, she explained.
“If China thinks they have to fight the United States to gain Taiwan back into the fold, they’ll do it,” she said. “If they think that they are going to be diplomatically isolated and have their relationships harmed for the long-term with not only the U.S., but with Japan, and Europe, and Australia, they won’t do it.”
She explained to McFaul — who is a former U.S. ambassador to Russia — that the biggest difference between the U.S. and China now and the situation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 1980s is that there’s no hostility between the Chinese people and the American people.
“The problem isn’t that we don't like each other,” Mastro said. “The problem is we're too similar. We're two countries that think we are exceptional, that the rules don't apply to us, and that our natural place is on top.”