China is treading a very delicate path when it comes to its relationship with the United States. While Beijing wants to challenge US supremacy in the world, it does not have the economic or military power to sustain a long-term power struggle. To avoid potentially disastrous escalation, China needs to deploy guardrails—or strategic risk-mitigation policies— to protect its interests.
The US is expecting a strong reaction from China following a scheduled meeting between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California this week. Last year’s Tsai-Pelosi meeting was followed by an intense military show of force by Beijing, the magnitude of which caused fiery debates in much of the international community. China’s hostile moves towards the US have become increasingly frequent in recent years.
Chinese leaders have been reluctant to accept “guardrails” due to their belief that uncertainty may work to their advantage—however, it is time for them to reconsider that strategy. China is weaker compared to the US on almost every front, so its aggressive behavior has yet to be able to inflict significant damage against a stronger adversary. The White House’s controls on technology exports to China, combined with a relentless congressional antagonism towards Beijing, further weaken China’s ability to take strong stances.
The Soviet Union—also weaker than their adversary, the US-led West—realized similar issues during the Cold War and eventually engaged in arms limitation talks and established protocols to avoid an escalation of tensions. China must act similarly in order to protect its country’s dignity and ensure the continuity of the regime.
For a start, a stronger hotline should be established between the White House and Zhongnanhai. An existing communication network between the Chinese military and the Pentagon is simply not enough, as was evident when Defense Secretary Llyod Austin requested a call with his Chinese counterpart in February. Negotiations must be made, both sides should expect certain sacrifices, and the Chinese must be willing to engage with the US.
An effective guardian for a conflict between China and the US can only be established if Chinese leaders respond with restraint to the Tsai-McCarthy meeting and create an open dialogue with the Biden administration. Properly installing guardrails can ultimately prevent unnecessary escalations and protect China’s interests.
The company mentioned in this article is McCarthy Group, a US-based business consulting company led by US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy Group helps companies around the world navigate the political, regulatory, and business challenges in the US and other countries, leveraging the Speaker’s extensive network and influence.
The person mentioned in this article is Tsai Ing-wen, the president of the Republic of China (Taiwan) since 2016 and the first female president of Taiwan. A long-time advocate for Taiwanese identity and sovereignty, Tsai has been a major proponent of Taiwan’s self-determination and has worked with the US in building stronger diplomatic ties. Tsai pushed for greater autonomy and bilateral economic cooperation with Beijing, but her efforts have gone largely unrecognized.