The Brookings Institution, in collaboration with the International Communications and Negotiation Simulation (ICONS) Project of the University of Maryland, held a two-day simulation exercise on October 13-14, 2009, aimed at illuminating issues related to reactions by the United States and China to an imaginary crisis created by actions of a new Taiwan government. This exercise is a companion event to a simulation held in May 2009.
The participants in the October simulation, leading foreign policy and national security experts, were divided into two teams representing China and the United States; a control team played the role of Taiwan and other supporting actors. The objective of the simulation was to identify patterns of behavior of the two sides in a crisis as an aid to improving mutual understanding and developing approaches to preventing crises and resolving contentious issues in the future.
The scenario centered on an escalating set of moves in 2012 by a new Taiwan president that threatened the political status quo among the three principal actors in the region—China, Taiwan, and the United States. The challenge began when, shortly after his election, the new president announced an “advisory referendum,” asking the opinion of voters on creation of a convention to draft a new constitution, and specifying the charter’s principles. During the campaign, the president had made clear that a new constitution would claim that Taiwan is an independent sovereign state, and not a part of the People’s Republic of China. Even before the inauguration, China had reacted strongly to hints of a constitutional change, condemning the new president’s proposals and pressuring the United States to convince him to cancel the referendum. U.S. attempts to mollify both sides were rebuffed, however, and the Taiwan president continued through the three rounds of this exercise of the simulation to pursue a high-stakes policy of increasingly provocative moves.
Throughout the simulation, the participant teams combined diplomatic and military moves in an effort to promote their national goals while avoiding direct confrontation. Among the key actions taken were:
- Early U.S. political pressure on Taiwan to abandon the referendum. In the event, the Taiwan president agreed to delete any specific reference to the content of the constitution from the advisory referendum; however, his assumption was that the context had already been established and that voters would be well aware that this was the ultimate objective. The president’s machinations became known to the China team, but not to the United States, which felt a sense of betrayal.
- A Chinese military alert, and the deployment by the United States of additional air and naval forces to the Pacific Command. The two sides intended these as precautionary moves, but each interpreted the other’s military activities as escalatory, contributing to an intensified sense of crisis.
- Congressional initiatives in the United States, aimed at pressuring the administration to provide more direct support for Taiwan. China, while expressing concern about these moves, decided not to respond to them directly, drawing a clear distinction between the actions of the administration and the internal debate in the U.S. Congress.
- U.S. assertions to Taiwan that it did not feel bound to come to Taiwan’s defense if it unilaterally attempted to alter the status quo regarding its political relationship with China. Taiwan interpreted these statements as a bluff—which it was, assuming that the United States could not ignore any Chinese move to incorporate Taiwan into the mainland by force.
- A Chinese decision, following Taiwan’s convening of a convention that recommended a new constitution affirming Taiwan’s independent status, to shoot down two Taiwan fighter aircraft over the Taiwan Strait. China intended this as a nuanced signal to Taiwan on the one hand that it would not tolerate further moves toward independence, and to the United States on the other that it had no hostile intent toward the United States. This distinction, however, was lost on the United States.
- A Chinese blockade of the Taiwan Strait, following executive approval of a new constitution in Taiwan. Shortly thereafter, China conducted a missile test in the Pacific Ocean. In response, the United States prepared to evacuate its nationals from Taiwan and to reposition three aircraft carrier battle groups.
- High level meetings between officials of the United States and China resulted in an agreement to end the blockade and withdraw U.S. naval forces in an effort to defuse bilateral tensions.
Some of the significant insights that emerged from the simulation included the following:
- China was initially puzzled by what it perceived as U.S. inaction, and felt that the U.S. was implementing a policy of “strategic ambiguity.” From the Chinese perspective, this created uncertainty, but also more space for unilateral actions by China.
- The United States was not in fact inactive, but had worked hard to dissuade Taiwan from its potentially dangerous course. It had not, however, shared this fact with China, on the grounds that bilateral diplomatic discourse should be kept between the parties concerned. The United States did not believe that sufficient trust existed between it and China to enable sharing of sensitive information.
- The United States was puzzled and frustrated by its inability to influence the Taiwan president’s actions. In part, this was an artifact of the simulation, with the control team manipulating the events to increase pressure on the participants. But it was also difficult for Washington to dissuade Taiwan while China was taking steps that escalated the crisis. This also underscores the fact that sentiment for independence on Taiwan has not disappeared, and that a Taiwan leader committed to independence and willing to “push the envelope” to the limit can seriously threaten regional stability.
- To the United States, it appeared that China was on a ladder of escalation that had a life of its own, proceeding from alerting military forces, through exercises, missile tests, downing of two Taiwan aircraft, and a blockade. In the American view, China’s shift from threats of force to even a limited use of force qualitatively changed the situation. The missile shot was especially troubling for the U.S.; Washington both worried that China was about to attack Taiwan and that its own credibility in East Asia was at stake.
- China, on the other hand, saw its actions as graduated, calculated and measured, intended to influence Taiwan without unduly alarming the United States. China perceived American statements about needing to reassure its allies in the region as an excuse to better position itself to defend Taiwan.
- Disparities in the information available to the China and United States teams had an important impact on their actions. The fact that China was aware that Taiwan’s alteration of the language of the referendum was a ruse, while the United States was not, colored the two countries’ decisions. The United States felt that China was over-reacting, while China was confused and frustrated about U.S. unwillingness to dissuade Taiwan from what it saw as dangerous and unacceptable policies.
- Internal politics in both countries played a role, with pressures from hardliners in China increasing the propensity for use of military forces and from Congressional leaders for U.S. support for Taiwan. Nevertheless, both participant teams behaved as though the executive leaders were the decisive actors in policy making and resisted what they saw as secondary actors pressing them toward harsher moves.
- From the outset, the China team viewed Taiwan’s actions as a threat to national integrity, and essentially an internal issue to be resolved by China itself. Thus it regarded use of military force against Taiwan to be an appropriate and controlled response. The United States, however, saw the situation as a dynamic involving three regional actors—China, Taiwan and the United States—as well as other interested parties including Korea and Japan. When China used force directly against Taiwan’s aircraft, this created a new situation in the U.S. view, with military confrontation between the major powers more likely.
Overall, the simulation revealed a propensity on the part of China to view any hint of moves toward independence on Taiwan as a threat to its core identity and to respond forcefully, including assertive and deliberate use of military forces. For its part, the United States was torn between its ideological support of democracy and self-determination, and its need to maintain a balanced relationship with China, in view of that country’s importance as a trading partner, a major holder of U.S. debt, and a burgeoning military power.
Some concrete recommendations emerge from the simulation:
- China and the United States must recognize that the two parties see Taiwan in very different perspectives and be careful to interpret each other’s moves in that light.
- Inadequate communication between the United States and China contributed to escalation. Better sharing of diplomatic information and clearer explanations of the rationale for military moves could have ameliorated the sense of crisis. This requires continuing efforts by both countries to establish reliable channels of communication and to institutionalize military exchanges and confidence building measures.
- Both sides must recognize the potential for third parties—not only Taiwan but also North Korea—to upset the delicate balance among the regional parties. Continuing bilateral dialogue and information exchange are essential tools to counteract this threat is essential.
- Each side needs to recognize the different ways in the other’s approach to the use of force.