The current situation is just the same as it was 20 years ago. U.S.-China relations have become tense, U.S.-Taiwan relations have improved significantly and cross-strait relations have been broken. If the strategic competition between the U.S. and China had been put into practice 20 years ago, the international power structure would have evolved into a situation that would be very different from what we see today.
On May 7, 1999, the B-2 stealth bomber that took off from the Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri flew tens of thousands of miles to Eastern Europe and destroyed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia. No one in China believed the U.S.’s claim that the bombing was accidental. Though Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said she was sorry, she wouldn’t use the word “apologize,” making it even more difficult for Beijing to swallow.
On May 25, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Elections released the Cox Report after a series of investigations, alleging that China had illegally stolen technology related to American nuclear weapons. This was a continuation of the Senate hearing that had started two years before, based on the claim that China illegally obtained U.S. military secrets through spies. Washington’s political circles have thus deepened their doubts about China.
In front of the Oval Office in the White House, an American tourist asked me, “Are you Chinese?” Having lived in Washington for 15 years at the time, I was suddenly speechless. In April 2001, staff were brought to visit the United States, which coincided with the U.S.-China Hainan Island incident. At that time, the outside world was unable to obtain images of the US EP-3E military plane’s forced landing on Hainan Island. The U.S. media only broadcast old, irrelevant videotapes of Iran holding hostages in the U.S. embassy.
At that time, I went to the United States mainly to investigate the Republican Party’s long-awaited plan to change the situation of the Bill Clinton administration’s arms sales policy with Taiwan. U.S. officials in the Pentagon stopped and asked me: Is it possible that there are any systems below sea level? Sure enough, the George W. Bush administration announced major arms sales later that same month, including Kidd-class destroyers, P-3 anti-submarine warfare, Patriot missiles, two amphibious assault vehicles and eight diesel-electric submarines.
On July 9, 1999, President Lee Teng-hui said in an interview with the German media that cross-strait relations should be a “special state-to-state relationship.” This attracted a strong reaction from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Since then, our air force fighters have aggressively cruised west of the central line of the strait. In 2000, the Democratic Progressive Party came to power for the first time and was unwilling to adopt new ideas that would obscure the 1992 Consensus. Even if Koo Chenfu and Wang Daohan were still there, official relations across the strait would still have come to an abrupt halt.
The 9/11 terrorist attack organized by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida in 2001 changed almost everything. The primary threat to U.S. national security is not China, but terrorism. The U.S. military that swiftly won the Persian Gulf War has fallen into chaos in the Middle East and has been unable to withdraw for 20 years. The astronomical war costs and the financial crisis have caused the U.S. national power and economy to be hit hard enough to require thinking about the Thucydides Trap.
Twenty years ago, the gross domestic product of the United States was 10 times that of mainland China, but now the U.S. is facing the embarrassment of that number being surpassed. Twenty years later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has determined, “China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system.” Is this the final wake-up call for American exceptionalism, or is it a wake-up call for the rise of the East and fall of the West?
It may be said that there are certain objective laws for the rise and fall of powers, or that history is not shifted by human subjective will. However, the two powers of the United States and China must face the greatest changes seen in a century, as well as a “black swan” transformation.
The strategic confrontation between the United States and China that was postponed 20 years ago is now developing right in front of Taiwan. The United States and China may be worried about their rise and fall, but Taiwan must worry about survival. People with lofty ideals from all walks of life in the ruling and opposition parties should turn around and plan for a change in the world outside of the Air Defense Identification Zone.
The author is an associate professor at the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies of Tamkang University, and the chairman of the Council on Strategic and War Gaming Studies.