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The Future of Asia 2021

US-China tension rooted in 'illusion' but Taiwan risk real: experts

Future of Asia panelists warn rivalry is here to stay with implications for all

Panelists discuss U.S.-China tensions and the risk of a conflict over Taiwan at Nikkei's Future of Asian conference on May 21. (Photo by Koji Uema)

TOKYO -- Asia-Pacific countries hoping the U.S.-China rivalry will die down and no longer dominate the region's geopolitics are likely to be disappointed, experts suggested Friday in a panel discussion during Nikkei's Future of Asia conference.

"No country in the world really is going to be immune from the direct or the indirect effects of the U.S.-China tension moving forward," Evan Medeiros, former senior director for Asia on the U.S. National Security Council, saying the tension between the two countries is likely to intensify. "We're in a new normal. The new normal presents a different geopolitical reality than the past, and it's going to create risks and costs for others."

He argued that China's diplomatic course is unlikely to change even as the country matures. "As China's capabilities grew, Chinese leaders were looking to use those capabilities in new and different ways that we're increasingly running up against American security interests and economic interests," he said.

"Despite what Deng Xiaoping said about China never seeking hegemony, perhaps that's exactly what China was seeking in the Asia-Pacific," he added.

Jia Qingguo, professor at Peking University's School of International Studies, said the U.S. and the West are threatened by China's rapid development. He said the rise of China has made it "very difficult" for both Americans and Chinese to adjust.

"Americans are psychologically worried about the implications of the rise of China," he said, as the shift has tilted the ratio of global gross domestic product away from the West.

U.S. President Joe Biden's policy, he suggested, seems to have been inherited from the Donald Trump administration, judging from the U.S. side's approach at the confrontational Alaska meeting in March.

Bilahari Kausikan, chairman of Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, argued that the confrontation is rooted in a gap between U.S. expectations for China and the reality.

"There was always an idea in America that, as China develops, and China opens its economy, there would be some convergence," Kausikan said. "That is an illusion, that is, China is a fundamentally different system from America. They've always remained a fundamentally different system."

The panelists agreed that there are increasing risks of conflict and confrontation surrounding Taiwan.

The "Taiwan situation is evolving in a very dangerous direction," Jia said, arguing that the tensions started to increase since the election of Tsai Ing-wen in 2016. He said she came into office with an agenda to "change the policy based on the 1992 consensus" -- an understanding reached by the Chinese Communist Party and Taiwan's former Nationalist government in 1992, which Beijing says represents a mutual agreement on there being "one China."

The consensus, Jia said, had provided for "healthy cross-strait relations."

If the U.S. helps Taiwan seek independence, then "the military conflict becomes inevitable," Jia warned. "There are three conditions for China not to use force: The first is that Taiwan will not declare independence. The second is that Taiwan should not be occupied by foreign forces. The third is that Taiwan should not develop weapons of mass destruction."

Medeiros also referred to the possibility of a conflict between the two powers over Taiwan, and cautioned that the risk becomes more realistic as Chinese President Xi Jinping looks to extend his rule beyond 2023.

"China's anxiety is growing, largely driven by shifts in American policies and perceptions and Taiwan's behavior," Medeiros said, noting that if there to be a war, it will be the first major conflict in this modern era. "Taiwan is no longer an issue of Asia strategy."

Additional reporting by Hinata Miura, Kana Watanabe and Arata Shigeno.

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