Only concerted US, EU, ASEAN and UN multilateral diplomacy will prevent the real possibility of war between the United States and China.

In April 2023, Beijing engaged in demonstrations of military force in strong opposition to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in Los Angeles.

In claiming that Tsai’s discussions with the Americans violated the “One China Principle” and represented efforts to assert “Taiwan independence,” Beijing encircled the island, engaging in both simulated attacks and live fire, in a drill called “Joint Sword” that involved Beijing’s Shandong aircraft carrier group, while Chinese fighter jets crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait.


Prior to China’s Joint Sword exercises, the PLA said that it had driven away the USS Milius guided-missile destroyer that had allegedly intruded into China's territorial waters in South China Sea—as the Pentagon continues to engage in “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) that often involve deliberately sailing within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied features—particularly near those islands near the Paracel and Spratly chains, such as Mischief Reef, that possess no apparent legal entitlement.

It is clear that US FONOP operations and Chinese incursions into Taiwanese space, plus the shooting down of Chinese “Zeppelins” (alleged spy balloons) over US airspace, among other actions, could easily provoke a dangerous military clash between China and the US.


Just before Tsai’s overseas trip, Honduras had announced it was severing diplomatic ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing’s “check book” diplomacy. As Honduras is the fifth Central American ally that Taiwan has lost since 2017, this step reduces Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to just 13.

By repeatedly pressuring Taiwan militarily, and isolating it economically, China hopes to squeeze the island into submission and toward “peaceful” unification despite the opposition of the Taiwanese—but is preparing to use brute force if necessary.

Tsai and Ma

Just as Tsai began her trip to the US, former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou began his visit to China on March 27 to April 7. The trip signaled the first cross-strait visit by a major Taiwanese leader since 1949.

While Ma was welcomed in China, he was accused by the Democratic Progressive Party of embracing China’s goal of unification and of kowtowing to the [CCP’s United Front] authorities. Ma has been criticized even if he had publicly endorsed the current KMT Chair Eric Chu’s agenda and slogan that promises to be “pro-America, friends with Japan, peace with China”

US President Biden could not keep Nancy Pelosi from visiting Taiwan in August 2022. In addition to sparking a demonstration of Beijing’s military force, the Pentagon correctly feared that her visit would lead China to suspend or cancel eight official military dialogues and cooperation channels, including talks on climate issues, with the US.

Somewhat similarly, the KMT leadership could not keep Ma from visiting China even in the fear that his visit would undermine popular support for the KMT in Taiwan. At the same time, it has been speculated that Ma could have been engaging in behind-the-scenes diplomacy with Beijing—so that he is not just concerned with ancestor worship as claimed.

The AUKUS Pact

It is clear that Beijing and Washington are both preparing for the possibility of a major military confrontation. While Washington has additionally accused China (and Russia) of backing North Korea’s spates of missile and nuclear weapons testing, Beijing has claimed that Washington is engaging in an “all-round containment, encirclement and suppression of China.”

In fact, the US has been boosting its military alliance with the UK and Australia in AUKUS pact, that is increasingly linked to Japan, which is concurrently boosting its defense spending significantly, while developing hypersonic missiles, like China, Russia and the US.

For its part, Beijing appears to be tightening defense ties with Russia while seeking Russian assistance in developing an early warning system and other defense projects plus trade and energy deals. While China has sold dual capable civilian/ military systems to Moscow that could assist Russia’s war in Ukraine, Moscow has sold the S-400 Triumph surface-to-air integrated air defense system that permits China to cover the whole of Taiwan airspace and the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands, from Shandong Province. In addition, Beijing has purportedly deployed DF-17 hypersonic missiles on China's southeast coast “in preparation for an escalation in the cross-Straits situation.”

On March 23, in praising the new AUKUS defense pact, Biden announced US intent to accelerate the deployment of up to five US nuclear powered Virginia-class attack submarines—which are to possess the latest in stealth, intelligence gathering, and weapons systems technology to assist Australian defenses and that can deploy advanced dual capable conventional/ nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles, as well as hypersonic weaponry.

Warnings of war

As Australia can provide strategic depth for the Pentagon’s evolving Air/Sea Battle plans versus China (more so than Guam or Japan), US naval; marine, and air force deployments in the region appear provocative. Fears of eventual US military superiority could lead China to act against Taiwan before the US can fully deploy its force capabilities in the next decade.

In this way, US strategy appears to be moving away from a more balanced “one China” position in accord with Kissinger’s “constructive ambiguity” and much closer to a pro-Taiwan defense posture. The US thus risks making the same mistake with China and Taiwan as NATO made with Russia and Ukraine.

The former head of Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, has warned that Beijing could decide to seize control of Taiwan by force by 2027. The head of the Air Force Mobility Command, General Michael Minihan, then predicted a future war with China by 2025—although still hoping he was wrong.

For his part, CIA director William Burns has stated he “wouldn’t underestimate president Xi’s determination to assert Chinese control . . . over Taiwan” and added that the risks of military action “become higher . . . the further into this decade that you get.” In effect, in the CIA view, in learning “lessons” from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Beijing could adopt Colin Powell Doctrine of the first 1990 Gulf war by using “overwhelming force” to subdue the island.

Another, perhaps more plausible scenario, is for China to go a step beyond military maneuvers and enforce a full blockade of Taiwan—thereby forcing Taipei to come to terms, once its energy supply and trade dries up, for example. For the US, this would lead to a Cold War “Berlin Crisis” scenario.

The so-called “Thucydides Trap”

Given a rising China’s challenge to US global hegemony, it has been argued the so-called Thucydides trap could soon draw the US and China into direct confrontation. Yet such a possible conflict depends upon whether Washington and Beijing can begin to resolve their differences much as did Great Britain with the US—at a time when the US began to challenge British hegemony in the late 19th/ early 20th centuries.

The catch is that the moment must soon be seized to engage in US diplomacy that is intended to channel China’s rise to major power status before things turn sour and diplomatic compromises can no longer be made. Such a time may be approaching—but could pass swiftly…

China as “peacemaker”?

Despite the evident increase in cross-strait US-Taiwan-China military tensions, there has also been an evident rhetorical shift in China’s policy approach—now that Xi Jinping has consolidated his power as “president for life.”

As a “new authoritarian” supporter of repressive “comprehensive national security,” Xi Jinping has suddenly set himself up as a “peacemaker,” offering to help mediate a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine, while concurrently assisting Saudi Arabia and Iran to re-establish diplomatic relations.

These are significant events and put China in the limelight as a rising major power. So far, the US has downplayed Xi’s new peace initiative toward Ukraine— while concerned with the repercussions of closer Saudi-Iran ties toward Israel and the wider Middle East—and the threat of a Chinese-led Eurasian Axis.

Yet instead of seeing China’s peace initiative as hostile to US interests (or really as a snub to the outright failure of the “forever wars” to achieve US goals at a cost of an estimated $8 trillion, with a death toll of more than 900,000 people), the US and Europeans should jointly engage with Xi Jinping in a new multilateral peace initiative by seeking to extend the China’s peace proposals as far as possible—but under the condition that all sides agree to seek substantial diplomatic compromises with respect to their interests where possible.

In other words, if China can truly help establish peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia, then the US, the EU, and the UN Security Council, among other states, should also work with China to achieve peace between Israel and Iran, while likewise seeking to calm nuclear tensions between North and South Korea. And if China really wants to help establish peace between Russia and Ukraine—a proposal that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has not entirely ruled out—then US and EU should engage in those discussions. This is true even if the timing for peace negotiations does not seem “ideal” from the US and NATO perspective—given their efforts to back a new Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Spring 2023 against Russian territorial gains as indicated by leaked US documents.

The dilemma is that it appears highly dubious that Kyiv can regain Crimea and all of the Donbass, although it could possibly acquire some key regions of the latter. Yet even if Kyiv could seize Crimea, it is really worth the risk that a paranoid Putin could expand the war to new regions, such as Moldova, and including stronger Russian support for North Korea? Or even use so-called “tactical” nuclear weaponry as Putin has repeatedly threatened—if he believes Russia—or really himself—is confronted with an existential threat?

Toward a global peace initiative

A much better option is for the US and EU, among other states, to work with China to defuse tensions between Moscow and Kiev by reaching an accommodation over eastern Ukraine and Crimea, while establishing Ukraine as a “neutral” country—yet still provided defense supports by the US and Europeans. Here, French President Macron and Brazilian President Lula di Silva have proposed an international Contact Group to mediate in Ukraine.

And why not also a Contact Group to help mediate between China and Taiwan as well—before a war breaks out between the US and China that will further devastate the political economy of the region and the world?

The Biden administration has previously stated that it is willing to work with both Beijing and Moscow in areas where the US has the “intersecting interests” to do so. Yet to be successful, such painstaking diplomacy, which will take time to achieve its goals, will also need to both incorporate and redefine the major strategic, security and economic interests of both Russia and China, in addition to incorporating and redefining the interests of the US, Ukraine, Taiwan, among other actors.

In the case of Taiwan, in building upon Henry Kissinger’s concept of “constructive ambiguity,” a new diplomatic formula needs to be reached that provides sufficient intergovernmental China-Taiwan cooperation for Beijing to be able to claim Chinese “unity,” but for Taiwan to be able to claim that it is “independent”—with the backing of US, European security guarantees and with ASEAN as an intermediary. Not easy, but not impossible either.

In the effort to address the real security and economic concerns of China, Taiwan and its neighbors, the US and EU should accordingly facilitate discussions between Taipei and Beijing and work to revive some of the previous multilateral proposals of Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou government, such as the East China Sea Peace Initiative (ECSPI). That plan sought to promote dialogue; abide by international law; establish a code of conduct based on November 2002 accord; and allow for joint exploration and development of resources in disputed areas. Here it would prove necessary to replace the “one country, two systems” and possibly the “1992 consensus” formulas—since both formulas are generally opposed by the Taiwanese population.

These proposals for dialogue between Taiwan and Beijing could be revived in the effort to engage in multilateral peace initiatives for both the East and South China Seas. Such initiatives could be backed by the US, the ASEAN states, Japan, India, Brazil, and EU, among other actors—under a general UN Security Council mandate.

The ultimate goal would be to establish an Indo-Pacific Peace and Sustainable Development Center that would have both security and political economic functions. Such a Center could engage in joint naval and air patrols to protect energy transit routes, fishing and resources, while seeking to devolve the heavy military presence in the region.

Such a Center could likewise help counter terrorism, human trafficking and drug smuggling in the area, and importantly deploy international peacekeepers to prevent the dangerous civil war in Myanmar from intensifying, and possibly drawing the US and ASEAN states versus China in a somewhat similar kind of proxy war than that now taking place between the US, NATO and Russia in Ukraine.

The goal of such a Center would be to build inter-state and inter-societal cooperation from the bottom up rather than the top down. Such an approach could be expanded beyond the China-Taiwan conflict to include Russia, Ukraine and the Black Sea, evidently once, and if, that conflict winds down. Such an approach could also be applied to Greece and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as Israel and the Palestinians, among many other regional disputes. A series of Centers could thus help set up multilateral confidence building and security measures in the Black Sea, the eastern Mediterranean, as well as in the South and East China seas, among other possible areas, while engaging in joint sustainable development projects.

A US-European peace initiative—that seeks to engage with China, Russia, and other states, in the effort to establish Regional Peace and Sustainable Development Centers—could represent an effective means to implement a framework for new systems of regional and global security in the crucial effort to prevent the real possibility that the horrific conflict—now taking place in Ukraine—is just child’s play for new wars to take place in other regions in the near future.

This article is based on my talk at the International Conference: Shifting Orders, Mounting Challenges – Peace and Security in Asia 2023 (25-26 March 2023 in Bangkok), hosted by the German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance