Are we facing another crisis in the Taiwan Strait?

Foreign Affairs

John Culver, former national intelligence officer for East Asia and CIA analyst focusing on China, reflects on the last Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1995-96, following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent high-profile visit to Taiwan.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with John Culver.

Kaiser: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily newly designed China Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China from hundreds of different news sources, or check out all the original writing on our website at We’ve got reported stories, essays, and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and of course, a growing library of podcasts.

We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region, to Beijing’s ambitious plans to shift the Chinese economy onto a post-carbon footing. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor. I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you today from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Just a little over three hours ago, around 10:45 a.m. Eastern on Tuesday, August 2, a plane carrying a congressional delegation headed by Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, touched down in Taipei. In the weeks prior to this, from the time her plans were first leaked to the press, there’s been nonstop commentary on what this means, wisdom or folly, standing up to a bully or baiting a bear, enhancing Taiwan security or undermining it. And there’s been no shortage of speculation on what Beijing’s reaction to it might be. Already we’ve seen part of it. Xinhua has announced that the PLA will conduct a three-day military exercise in the Taiwan Strait and in the waters around the island, something that looks suspiciously like a blockade. And there’s already been some sanctions imposed, bans on importation of certain vegetables and other agricultural products from Taiwan.

As we now enter what might be called the fourth Taiwan Strait’s crisis, I’m delighted to welcome John Culver to the show. John was a senior intelligence officer with the CIA for 35 years. He served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia during the second Obama administration and is currently a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub. If you aren’t already following him on Twitter, you really should. He is uniformly smart and deeply informed. He’s at @johnculver689. John Culver, welcome to Sinica.

John: Oh, it’s great to be here, Kaiser. A big fan of the show and hope I can measure up.

Kaiser: Oh.

John: I think that events of the past 24 hours will help me.

Kaiser: John, I’ve wanted to have you on the show actually for quite some time. We’ve talked about getting you on, but what prompted me to reach out was something that you actually tweeted just a couple of weeks ago, right, soon after the news broke that Nancy Pelosi had revived her earlier plan from April to visit Taiwan. You might remember that, in April, she’d said she was going to, and then got COVID and canceled. So, you wrote about the last Taiwan Strait’s crisis, the one touched off by Lee Teng-hui’s (李登辉 Lǐ Dēnghuī) decision to accept an invitation to speak at Cornell, his alma mater, in 1995, and that went all the way through the elections of 1996. What intrigued me was the angle that you took there, which was to try to channel Beijing’s view in a very nice display of the kind of security dilemma sensibility that I usually find just so lacking within the beltway.

Before we get into the crisis de jure, which we will, I promise you, let’s revisit the last go round and get a sense of what we should learn from that, what the major differences are now, 27 years later, and perhaps most importantly, what lessons Beijing absorbed from that episode that might be relevant today. Let’s start with just the facts, a 30,000 foot look at what transpired in the months before and after Lee Teng-hui’s visit through the elections of the following year.

John: Sure. Of course, prior to Lee Teng-hui’s visit, the U.S. had had a longstanding interpretation of its responsibilities under its foundational China and Taiwan agreements, the Three Communiqués with China, the Taiwan Relations Act with Taiwan, and something that wasn’t really spoken of publicly then, the so-called Six Assurances of Ronald Reagan. And under the self-imposed strictures, the U.S. had said that a leader-level visit, a presidential visit to the United States by the leader of Taiwan would not be consistent with that policy. And then suddenly it was. So, and if my memory serves, it was announced around April, and I believe the visit commenced in May to Cornell.

Immediately, the Chinese accused the U.S. of perfidy there, and the Clinton administration, because apparently the Chinese Foreign Ministry had been assured by the U.S. Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, that nothing had changed, and then, suddenly, President Clinton decided that he needed to change it. And here’s the similarities to what we’ve watched in the last week, this kind of rising level of warning coming out of Beijing, hoping, I think, to get the U.S. to change its mind. Or if Lee was going to be allowed to come, to keep the visit very low-key, and not allow it to become a major political event in the United States and in Taiwan. That’s, again, similar to today. The Chinese were, I think, relatively low-key up until today for the same kind of reasons. And now we’re going to see, so we’ve had the prelude, and now we’re going to hear the fugue and the culmination and climax of their operatic piece.

I don’t mean to diminish the seriousness of this, but a lot will depend on how the visit is portrayed as either very high level and official and gets a lot of attention, or whether it’s, like the last couple of CODELs, congressional delegations to Taiwan this year, relatively low-key outside of the specialist community.

Kaiser: Right. Before we get back into the current crisis, let’s go back and sort of finish out what happened after the visit. What was the Chinese response? What was the U.S. response then, back in ‘95?

John: When Lee Teng-hui arrived in the United States, and I haven’t checked a timeline, so this is all from memory, the Chinese recalled their ambassador to Washington, a gentleman named Lǐ Dàoyù 李道豫. And that was the first signal of deepening displeasure. The fact is when Lee arrived in the United States, arriving on the West Coast and then moving eastward to go to Cornell, he arrived with a full plane of press. So, it was clear this was going to be a very high-profile visit. And then, internally, in China, as we would see in the coming weeks, they started the largest cross straits military exercises that we had seen, I’m going to say ever, and certainly the only military exercises on the Taiwan Strait since normalization. Those consisted of ground force amphibious drills, some air activity, all of it over Chinese territory, none of it out in the Strait. The activities in the Strait or near Taiwan, though, were the announcement of these missile target areas in the ocean.

And in that summer of ‘95, I think the single missile closure area was north of Taiwan. And they fired four bombs, short-range ballistic missiles, a weapon that the PLA had only recently acquired as a demonstration of the seriousness of their feelings over the Lee Teng-hui visit. And then stopped and then started to reload, reengage with the United States a bit, to try and see if the U.S. was going to be willing to limit the damage, and apparently received no signal that that was going to happen. The U.S. stood by the President’s decision to allow Lee Teng-hui’s visit. And they started to prepare for the coming year when Taiwan, in March of ’96, would hold its first direct presidential elections. And the Taiwan calendar back then was kind of broken up in an election cycle.

The legislative elections were in January and the presidential elections were in March. And so, we saw them prepare to do that. Again, it was going to ramp up to be even larger than what we had just witnessed that summer. That took place. I think one constraint on the Chinese in March of 1996 was that they suddenly had some very severe weather over the training area. Once again, they fired missiles, this time into closure areas, directly off of Taiwan’s two main commercial ports, but curtailed that after four launches. And there was also, in the middle of that, very senior diplomacy with the state council representative in the U.S. meeting with National Security Advisor Tony Lake and a whole coterie of senior Clinton officials. And when that culminated, it showed that there was an end point too, on China’s display of its anger, which was that election, which Lee Teng-hui won pretty handily.

And then what I think the main lesson that Chinese learned, though, was what happened in the ensuing 18 months when President Clinton met with Chinese President Jiāng Zémín 江泽民three times, culminating in the next year in Shanghai with Clinton enunciating the Three-No’s, which again, from memory, so this may be a little shaky, or that the U.S. would not recognize Taiwan independence, would not recognize a separate state of one China, one Taiwan, and would not become involved and embroiled in cross-strait matters. And so, the Chinese took the lesson that their instruction to the United States and Taiwan at least had been learned, and that there were no repetitions of high-profile, senior level Taiwan visits to the United States.

Now, Taiwan presidents, since ’96, have visited the U.S., but it’s been done in a fairly low-key manner. They’re transit visits. In many cases, they don’t even come to Washington. Usually, they’re enroute to visit one of Taipei’s few remaining diplomatic allies in Latin America, and that’s sort of the rationale for a U.S. stop.

Kaiser: And what about the U.S. response to it? I mean, in fact, they moved to carrier groups from the seventh fleet, did they not? To the mouth of the Taiwan Strait.

John: Well, the U.S. has one carrier or home base, still today as it was then, home based in Japan. So, when it became clear that the Chinese were going to stage an even larger set of exercises coincident with Taiwan’s presidential elections, Secretary Perry determined that he would display U.S. show of force and fortitude, and so, directed that both the USS Independence — a carrier, home ported in Yokosuka, Japan — and then the USS Nimitz, which at that time was underway in the Indian Ocean, would be dispatched toward Taiwan.

At the time, he knew and had been advised that China had no means to threaten U.S. carriers unless we literally sailed down the middle of the Taiwan Strait. So, he knew that it was a fairly low-risk, high-gain decision that the president would support. And that it was really more about the demonstration than the effects. So, the Independence arrived on station a few days before Taiwan’s election in March and sailed in circles, and never saw the PLA because the PLA was all directly on their coast, not over Taiwan. The Nimitz actually never got through the Strait of Malacca before the election was over and the whole fracas had kind of died down. But it was more the image of the thing that the U.S. would send carriers. And the Chinese, of course, took a deep lesson from that. And in the aftermath of 1996, and then especially the Belgrade Embassy Bombing in 1999 began to pursue very capable counter carrier forces, including the ability to track U.S. aircraft carriers around the world.

Kaiser: Before we get into China’s response and the lessons that it learned, let’s talk a little bit about how you would characterize the way that American policy elites understood how that crisis played out, the ‘95, ‘96 crisis. What’s the American narrative on how that went?

John: Well, it’s kind of an interesting crisis because every side involved — the U.S., China, and Taiwan — could all declare victory. Because there was never a real threat that China was going to use military force. Unlike today, the threat of imminent hostilities or major loss of life or destruction really wasn’t present. For China’s part, it could claim that it had taught a lesson, something they loved to do as they have militarily in Vietnam, and India, and North Korea, or in Korea. The U.S. could claim that it stood up for its partner and in fulfillment, somewhat of the vague Taiwan Relations Act commitment to view any use of military force as a matter of grave concern. And then, for Taiwan, they successfully conducted their first direct democratic elections of the legislature in January, and then the presidency in March, and were not intimidated. And arguably, Lee Teng-hui’s turn out and vote totals were higher because of what the Chinese were doing than he otherwise might have been.

Everyone was a winner. Today, it’s hard for me to find winners. It looks like it might be more of a lose, lose situation.

Kaiser: Or a lose, lose, lose, in fact.

John: Yes.

Kaiser: Yeah. Obviously, China in 1995 was a very, very different country in terms of its capabilities, both in absolute terms and relative to the U.S., and of course, to Taiwan. That alone, one would certainly match the impact, the way that China responds this time. In the ‘95 to ‘96 crisis, to what extent was China’s sense of its own weakness, a factor that delimited its actions? And to what extent are we likely to see China’s sense of its own relative power now, 27 years on, affect its decision-making as we enter this next crisis?

John: Yeah. I think, first of all, that you can tell from the nature of the exercises that China had no real capability to threaten the United States, or even to threaten Taiwan and use military force in a way that would’ve produced any outcome that would’ve been favorable to Beijing. They could blow a lot of things up. They had a certain number of missiles, a large outmoded air force, equally somewhat relatively small but also outmoded Navy. So, they could have broken China, no pun intended. But they really couldn’t have advanced their issue. They certainly couldn’t have achieved independence by force. And the U.S., at the time, was the global hegemon that had just won the Cold War, and yet had still managed to retain the main structures of a stable, productive relationship with China. So, they had some, they had something to lose.

There was a strong incentive by Beijing not to overplay their hand. To make their point, teach a lesson, and then move on. And so, when you saw these exercises again, they hadn’t done an amphibious drill, a large one on the Taiwan Strait for decades. So, they had to invent it. There was some interesting footage, if you’re watching closely, of Chinese coverage of the troops storming ashore in the 1995 exercise. You see troops swimming ashore, and then disappearing behind a sand dune, and then troops run over the sand dune except these guys are all dry. None of them had been in the water. So, it was quite literally like a made for TV event. And they were broadcasting coverage of it, including the missile launches nightly on CCTV.

Kaiser: There was a Dyson Airblade in the dunes, they all ran over it and dried off. You described, like I said, the ’95, ‘96 crisis as almost perfect, all three parties could, in a sense, declare victory. Clearly not the case this time. You’ve also said that the ’95, ‘96 crisis would be, sort of on the optimistic end of the spectrum for what we expect now. You hastened to add that you don’t necessarily mean this means war, but what do you think we might be in for here? What’s the range of potential responses we’ll see from China? And I want to make sure that I understand that this will play out over time. This is not sort of, we will know the outcome tomorrow or anything.

John: Right. There’s an old saying, or there should be that you don’t really tremble with fear when a Chihuahua is barking at you as loudly as it can, but when a tiger clears its throat, you tend to pay attention. Without overdrawing the metaphor, in the mid ‘90, the PLA was really kind of a Chihuahua. It had a large outmoded military. Unless you were stupid enough to invade China, though, it was hard for it to project any kind of power. So, its land-based neighbors like Vietnam, and India, and others had to perhaps have concerns, but for those separated by a body of water and a large swath of air, you were relatively secure from the PLA. That hasn’t been true for a very long time. And so, consequently, when the Chinese want to show the importance of a security interest on a border dispute or a maritime dispute, it’s no longer about displays.

It’s notable that the last really significant cross strait display was in the mid- ‘90s, that it didn’t mean that China was comfortable heading into every Taiwan election cycle since. It was just, they had other means to show it. And so, they didn’t bang trash can lids to disguise the feeble state of their military. They prepared for the possibility of lethal operations. And I think you see this clearly too, that this is no longer a demonstration military, with the islands they built in the South China Sea after 2014 and the installation of fairly significant military capacity on those. And then what it’s been doing on the Indian border since about 2019, which is major expansion of forces, facilities, and willingness to patrol aggressively in disputed areas, and even come to blows with the Indian military. So, you had the first deaths in the Himalayas between China and India in decades.

Kaiser: Yeah.

John: And I think that’s the lesson you should take from maybe what’s going on now in the Taiwan Strait. If you think it’s going to be a replay of ‘95, ‘96, you’re mistaken because everything is different. Not only is the PLA very different, with major power projection and long-range precision strike capabilities in nuclear and space, but the whole relationship with the United States is different. The two sides have basically declared each other mutually to be primary adversaries since 2017. The U.S. has taken action in almost every domain, in economics with tariffs, sanctions, arm sales to Taiwan, arm sales in especially the urging of China’s neighbors to increase their military spending. So, the context is rivalry, not this fundamentally stable relationship despite problems.

And then the other real thing that’s different and it’s no longer stabilizing is that Taiwan is a full-fledged democracy with a growing percentage of their population disinterested in China’s version of the civil war or any attractiveness to the idea of unification, especially under a Chinese government that’s led by the Communist Party.

Kaiser: Yeah. Entirely different context there. Let’s talk a little bit about Nancy Pelosi’s decision to go, first of all, what do we know? I think we should start here, what do we know, or what can we assume of the position of the Taiwan government? Was Nancy Pelosi invited? Was that the first move, or did she ask for an invitation, did one come, and what has been its position about this official visit in the run up to, not once it’s a fait accompli, but in the weeks prior? Do we know anything about that?

John: I don’t know. I could speculate, which probably wouldn’t be that useful. She kind of has her entire career has included strong criticism of Chinese human rights violations. She first came to public attention when she was still in her first term as a congresswoman from California when she visited Beijing and then staged a memorial service in Tiananmen Square. That got people’s attention. It certainly got Beijing’s attention. So, I don’t know if it’s a personal motivation. I mean, the Chinese probably suspect because they understood what happened in the mid-‘90s with Lee Teng-hui was that Taiwan spent a good deal of money lobbying to enable that visit, including to ultimately convince President Clinton. I don’t know if that worked or if the U.S. would’ve done it anyway. And I don’t know exactly what Mrs. Pelosi’s motivations might have been for the visit other than to stand up to an increasingly autocratic and brutal Chinese regime, even compared to the rest of the post-Tiananmen era.

But to show her constituents, which include a pretty strong contingent of Chinese-Americans and Taiwanese-Americans that she was still that same person, that she was being very consistent in her willingness to stand up to China.

Kaiser: But Nancy Pelosi, first term Congresswoman in 1991, is not the same as the Nancy Pelosi of today who, of course, is Speaker of the House. Second in line, just behind Kamala Harris to become President to the United States. How much of Beijing’s reaction do you judge to be because of her and her record, her position in line of succession, and the fact that she’s of the same political party as the President? And how much of this is just Beijing’s sense that however thick the next slice of salami? Whether it’s a nobody, a freshman Congress person, or Nancy Pelosi, it’s gone. I mean, there’s not enough to make a sandwich anymore. I mean, we’ve got the Biden “gaffs,” the State Department fact sheet, the proposed name change of the T and the acronym TECRO, that’s a lot of salami slice stuff.

John: I think little of it has to do with a personal view of the Speaker. I think a lot of it has to do with some of the other factors you mentioned. I mean, in their mind, if she’s from the same party as the President, then he ought to be able to have veto power over her ability to do this trip. So, as much as they may accept Biden’s explanations about separation of powers and her independent authority as Speaker to conduct travel, it’s convenient to them, and perhaps they believe it, but it’s convenient for them not to believe it. And they much prefer to hold a unitary actor responsible — the United States — and sort of pretend that the President has the kind of authority that his counterpart in China would have. Because otherwise, they think they’re giving us too many loopholes in the relationship.

Kaiser: So, for you, it’s much more about the hollowing out of the One China policy as Beijing understands it, right?

John: Well, and then again, from China’s perspective, so you have the Speaker’s visit, which has now been realized as a reality and they’re reacting to that, but then they look at what’s coming, which is hundreds of bills on the hill. That name China or Taiwan, including bills, as you said, would change the name of the T in TECRO, would establish a mechanism to direct U.S. taxpayer funding for stockpiling weapons, material, ammunitions in Taiwan, which is the kind of agreement we only have with allies. It’s the slices of the salami, to use the vernacular, keep taking Taiwan from being a non-state, that’s dealt with carefully by the United States, to being treated as a major non-NATO ally, which sometimes it is called in U.S. political rhetoric. And so, they have to always decide where to draw the line. So, if they’re looking at how to react to a Speaker visit today, they can look at a tweet by Representative McCarthy who said that if the Republicans get control of the House this fall, then he will certainly go to Taiwan. So, there’s no prospect of this getting better by showing restraint on the part of China.

Kaiser: The NSC’s coordinator for Strategic Communications, John Kirby, said that nothing has changed in American policy toward China, and he defended Pelosi’s right to visit Taiwan. I imagine it would be pretty tough to convince anyone in China, or for that matter, in Taiwan, or really even in the U.S., that nothing has changed when it’s pretty obvious that much has changed. What is behind this assertion? I mean, what does the Biden administration gain from clinging to the idea that, oh, no, no, everything is the same?

John: Well, it’s become one of the touchstones that whatever we do, and we still act with a lot of constraint, but not as much as we did 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. And the Chinese are aware of that, even if we aren’t because of changes in administration or experts leaving government service. And so, they’re getting tired of hearing that the bucket of what represents constraint of U.S.-Taiwan policy is endlessly elastic, or is an infinite string of salami. So, they have to decide on their own when to draw the lines, because as far as they can tell, the U.S. isn’t drawing them clearly enough, and there’s a prospect, because of congressional action in the… to growing American antipathy toward China, that it’s only going to get worse.

The real hard decision for them was whether they make a big demonstration now, is this worth it in order to try and get the U.S. to recalibrate, or is this the beginning of a new and much darker phase of a relationship? Because again, one of the problems I have with what’s maybe unfolding on the Taiwan Strait today is, unlike past crises. I don’t know how this ends. There’s no demarcation line, like even the election that Taiwan’s scheduled to have in 2024. And there’s likely to just be sort of a cycle now of escalation and retaliation, mostly in the verbal sphere. But in the economic sphere, China’s already announced they’re imposing new sanctions of hundreds of Taiwan firms involved in produce exports to China. And I think they’re going to do more DPP targeting of economic actors in Taiwan in order to put the pain on the party in Taiwan that they believe is most responsible for moves toward independence.

Kaiser: So, some of the maybe more dovish think tankers in the Chinese policy world are urging restraint by Xí Jìnpíng 习近平, urging him to embrace dàzhìhuì (大珠慧) , great wisdom, big wisdom. And one of the things that they’re asking is to consider this from the point of view of American domestic politics, and to just sort of write this off as a performative step that the House Speaker does… That Beijing can afford to ignore if it just understands it for what it is, which is just about domestic politics. I mean, Beijing might not openly accept this explanation of Biden’s, that there is a separation of powers in the United States, despite this being like a pretty excellent demonstration of just that. But they certainly understand that this is about shoring up congressional Democrats against this charge of being soft on China. There’s got to be people in Beijing who get this, no? Isn’t this a possible way for them to not “overreact”?

John: There used to be. And I think there were some very strong America watchers in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and even in the Party Research Office. But because of the kind of trajectory of U.S.-China relations and inner bureaucratic competition within the MFA, those people haven’t been promoted, and a lot of them have left the system. So, you have fewer senior and adroit observers of the United States. And then to try and get China’s leaders to accept that they need to demonstrate some level of strategic empathy, which we know in the past they have. I think you had an example of that with President Jiang Zemin after the EP-3 collision, where a Chinese fighter ran into our reconnaissance aircraft in 2001. There seem to be a lot of understanding both by the U.S. and China, and a focus on by each side on how to resolve this quickly.

But a lot of the whole underlying imperative, how each viewed the relationship, how they view the other is just so radically different now that I… If there was a similar incident today, I don’t think it would be wrapped up in 11 days. I think we’d have something closer to a Pueblo crisis. You’d have a long-drawn-out set of negotiations and recriminations over who was at fault. And because the willingness of either side to show something that might be perceived as weakness rather than reasonableness just seems very lacking.

Kaiser: Just as you urge strategic empathy, or I certainly do, on China, and wish they could understand the domestic political context in which all of this stuff takes place, if you had the chance to talk to your American colleagues and explain to them Chinese domestic considerations, domestic political considerations, how would you go about explaining to them what Xi’s up against right now? Because it seems to me, he’s had a pretty tough year and he’s about to start his first bonus term, I suppose. He’s about to start his third term in October or November this year. How would you explain this?

John: Well, I usually start by saying that, of the top 10 things that keeps Xi Jinping awake at night, Taiwan probably isn’t one of them, unless it’s a situation like we’re in now, that China, as you know, faces a wealth of pressing problems to deal with. Despite all the success, despite rapid economic growth and building a powerful military, they’re still struggling to come up with a new economic model that can generate high growth that isn’t as dependent on exports, which the U.S. has now shown, we can credibly threaten. And, in the meantime, he’s also looking at looming demographic challenges. And then, China is also dealing with what’s facing the rest of the world due to the post-COVID economic conditions and the war in Ukraine, which is food shortages, energy, and security problems. He has a lot on his plate and he didn’t need a crisis on the Taiwan Strait, but since we’ve decided to give him one, then he’s going to use it to his best advantage. And for most Chinese leaders, that means a complete inability to appear weak.

Kaiser: Right.

John: So, it ups the ante for him to demonstrate resolve, even if no one dies, even if China stages large impressive and potentially risky exercises, but doesn’t escalate from there to actual kinetic attack. He has to deal with public opinion, not the same way a U.S. president does, because the Communist Party has significant means, as you know, to censor or to control what’s printed or appears on websites, or in chat, or social media. But they’re always sensitive to this idea of appearing weak, especially to outside pressure to foreign pressure. There’s literally no downside and not much upside right now to demonstrating a very much strategic empathy for the United States.

Kaiser: John, you’ve drawn parallels to another international crisis that happened just on the eve of the 18th Party Congress, back in 2012, when Japan, when the Japanese government announced the nationalization of the Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands, can you draw those parallels out a little more explicitly and talk maybe more broadly about what lessons we might learn from the 2012 Diaoyu Dao episode?

John: Sure. I think that actually, that’s a lot more apt comparison than ‘95, ’96, or any of the other cross-Strait stuff, because one, it involves Xi Jinping. So, it was on the eve of his elevation to the post of Premier Party General Secretary and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, the three top jobs in the party state system. And Japan has always been a visceral issue because of their troubled history with China, dating from World War II. And so, when the Japanese government stepped in to prevent a rightist group from using private funds to “nationalize,” which is a term the Chinese use, these four islands in the Senkakus or Diaoyu Dao, the Chinese reacted very strongly. They immediately charged Japan with violating an agreement since 1998 that left the decision on the Senkaku unresolved, rather than trying to assert that it was either sides’ sovereign territory.

And then sent large coast guard flotillas into the Senkakus or Diaoyu Dao to jointly patrol, to show that China could exercise administrative powers over these islands, just as the Japanese Coast Guard and occasionally Japanese Navy had. The most interesting sort of takeaway was there were protests, major protests in China in the wake of Japanese action on the Senkakus that China then struggled to control. And that Chinese dual administration and Coast Guard operations in the Senkakus continues to this very day that episodically, about at least once a month, or perhaps more often or less, depending on weather and political situation, you’ll see Chinese Coast Guard vessels go into those islands and sail within inside, what’s called contiguous zone, which is 24 nautical miles, and even inside the territorial waters of each of those rocks.

And so, it shows that China didn’t just bluster or threaten Japan. It took action. It took steps that it continues to this very day to demonstrate its point. And I think that’s one way to think about what’s likely to come out of even the non-kinetic relatively peaceful, at least interregnum over Taiwan in the current looming fourth Taiwan Strait crisis, which is, it’s not over in a single act. It’s probably going to have multiple stages and iterations. And China will ramp things up or down depending on how they need to, at least through Taiwan’s presidential elections in 2024, and perhaps our own.

Kaiser: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the potential actions that China might take. There are already reports of cyberattacks on Taiwan government websites. It’s not clear whether those are freelancers or state directed at this point, but I suppose that was to be expected. What are some contingencies that you’ve already seen people talking about? And more importantly, what are some that you haven’t seen people talking about? Like, one that I kind of imagine and sort of horrified by the prospect of is it wouldn’t take much, for example, for them to declare or to demand demilitarization of the near offshore islands of Quemoy or Kinmen and Matsu. Quemoy, especially, it’s just the stone stove from Xiamen. Would we have an effective way to prevent China from doing something like that to demand demilitarization under the threat of artillery fire?

John: Yeah, it’s a good question. I’m cautious because I keep telling you that I don’t think that past precedent is a really good predictor of where we are now or where this is likely to go. So then, of course, my experience all rests on things that I lived through and witnessed. I’d note that China has shown an amazingly broad palate when it comes to bringing the full power of its party state regime to bear to pursue national goals, especially those involving sovereignty or territorial integrity. And you can see it in Xinjiang, where they seem willing to imprison, for determined periods, millions of people, and what they did in Hong Kong in 2019. They do it in a full-spectrum way that includes the invocation or passage of new laws that undergird China’s then courses of actions that they will pursue, and a series of other things in the economic sphere.

In the military, in the U.S. military, there’s a term called DIMEFIL, which I’m now going to be unable to repeat for you, but it’s defense, or it’s diplomacy, information, military, economic, and then something, something law fair, and the Chinese have really copied that. They pursue sort of full-spectrum policies that are then organized and arrayed by the Communist Party. You can almost have no end of things they would do in order to punish the bad actors they see on Taiwan or in the U.S., like I could easily see them slap personal sanctions on Mrs. Pelosi and other congressional members of her delegation that arrived in Taiwan. It might be meaningless depending on how much business they, or their husbands, or investments do in either China or Taiwan.

I could see them start to really degrade what the status quo had been in the Taiwan Strait, where both sides represented kind of a central demarcation line. And the Chinese made a statement that was in the U.S. press a couple of weeks ago, or maybe a month ago, where it said that the Taiwan Strait is not international waters, and there is sovereignty on both sides. With these exercises, they’ve now announced live fire closure areas, ringing Taiwan, to sort of underscoring that point, that they’ve been nice in letting Taiwan pretend it has a 12-mile limit, but in fact, those are Chinese waters. Two of the closure areas that they’ve announced are actually inside Taiwan’s territorial waters if they actually draw them the way that they’ve announced in the press.

So, it’s almost no end of things they could do in many domains, and I usually find that we’re insufficiently imaginative when it comes to really understanding how they can bring that party state apparatus to bear in every dimension in order to challenge the status quo and to move public opinion or government policy.

Kaiser: So, you’ve said that a major crisis today, I mean, perhaps the one that we’re now seeing unfolding, will only produce losers, no winners. I obviously agree with you, and even in a relatively optimistic case, it’s hard for me to imagine that this isn’t going to have awful effects on the entirety of the global economy and on geopolitics. I mean, no matter which of the options, then, as you say, Beijing has a pretty extensive palate and lots of choices. No matter what Beijing does, my strong sense is there’s going to be more appetite in DC for export controls and calls for more decoupling. Beijing will also, by its token, it is going to seek to punish Taiwan economically in other ways. All of this means, I think, Chinese manufacturers are going to want to hoard chips, which is, almost certainly, going to prove really inflationary.

I think it was a contributing factor to the inflation we’re seeing now. It’s going to cause all sorts of supply chain problems, another chip shortage. It means arms racing, right? It means, in all likelihood, an inability to get China to cooperate on other transnational issues that we should regard is really important. China obviously is going to have less appetite now to sort of water down its support for Russia in Ukraine. I mean, it’s going to feel less inhibited in that regard. I mean, there’s all sorts of security issues that we would like China’s cooperation on that I think we’re not going to be able to see. I mean, what have I left out? I mean, what else happens here as a result of further deterioration of U.S.-China relations?

John: Well, I’d be careful, maybe I’m a closet optimist. None of the areas where China cooperated with us, where it’s generally been ascribed as they’ve been on our side, whether it’s climate change or global health initiatives or nuclear non-proliferation, participation in JCPOA to forestall Iran’s nuclear program, and cooperation, especially in intense cooperation over North Korea in 2017. None of those are favors they’re doing for us. Each is in pursuit of China’s own goals. They just happen to coincide and align with ours. So, I’m actually not that worried that they are going to, as an act of pique, suddenly adopt the opposite position, encourage Kim to do more nuclear underground testing or validate Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or burn more coal than they plan to in order to hasten climate change.

Kaiser: I don’t know. I mean, Beijing will cut off its nose to spite its face occasionally. I mean…

John: They could, but I’d expect them to do it more rhetorically than in reality. They can say a lot of things and do. They’ve threatened and indeed claimed they’ve imposed sanctions on U.S. companies involved in Taiwan arm sales, but then they, in the past, never followed through. I don’t want to make a cultural argument, but saying the intent and doing it are maybe two different things sometimes when it comes down to things that actually harm China’s interest and make their economic lot or foreign policy with other people more problematic. Because while the U.S. may be convinced that, like the United States who are in a strategic rivalry, China doesn’t want to simultaneously be in a strategic rivalry with western Europe, or with the more democratic leading countries in the global south or in ASEAN especially.

They have varied interests, and I don’t think that baring just unimpeded escalation in degradation of relations. We’re not yet. We may be rivals, but we’re not yet locked into a struggle with enmity, where we’re willing to do something if it hurts our opponent 1% more than it hurts ourselves.

Kaiser: But in the meantime, it seems to me still that we are failing to exercise that kind of strategic empathy. We’re not really able to see what this looks like out Beijing’s windows. I mean, I saw earlier today, Jake Sullivan was saying that given the precedent of Newt Gingrich’s trip over a quarter-century ago, this is the historical norm. And then what? It’s on China for reacting to that. I mean, that seems sort of odd to me to suggest that something that happened once, 25 years or 27 years ago, is an historical norm. I feel like there’s an awful lot of tone-deafness and a willful disregard for China’s sensibilities here.

John: Well, if I could wax philosophic for a moment.

Kaiser: Please.

John: We’re in the early stages of strategic rivalry and the only model we have for thinking about how this could play out is the Cold War. Our priors are probably setting us up for some mistakes. So, I think there are people in this administration, they previously won. They feel like we had fallen behind and were under prepared for the military, economic, political, diplomatic challenge that China presents. We’re sort of using inflated language sometimes in order to hasten our recognition of this future and to prepare for it adequately. And certainly, you could look in domains like defense spending and individual acquisition decisions of the services and conclude that we have a lot of catching up to do.

I guess if I were to be bold or dumb enough to offer advice to current administration, it would be try to use this crisis creatively. You may not like the outcome of the ‘95, ‘96 crisis, but I think the U.S. gained benefit from a creative approach in its aftermath. And if we are in a new Cold War, and if China’s been cast to play the part of the Soviet Union, then we ought to think about what gains we got out of something like the Cuban missile crisis, where both sides stared into the abyss of potential nuclear war. And China’s a very capable nuclear power and we should remember that. And we use the Cuban missile crisis as a reason to set up a whole host of confidence-building measures and strategic communication to avoid misunderstanding and escalation in any future such incident.

It doesn’t mean that the rest of the Cold War from 1962 played out in a beautiful panoply of détente. It certainly didn’t with proxy wars and other cases of nuclear potential threat. But there were rules and we didn’t cut off communication because we concluded that anything the Chinese say were going to be lies anyway, so why listen? So, I think it’s a good reason to reopen, selectively, and for U.S. purposes, the right communication channels, and try and both explain our positions with better clarity and regularity, and perhaps listen to theirs.

Kaiser: John Culver, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, for sharing your insights and philosophical waxings. Let’s move on now to recommendations. First, a very quick reminder that the Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina, soon to be renamed The China Project. And the best way to support the work that we do, whether as SupChina or as the China Project is to subscribe to our email newsletter, China Access. It’s more important than ever, I hope you’re all aware, to keep informed on what’s happening. So, please, if you like the work that we do, do subscribe. All right, John, let’s move on to recommendations. What do you have for us?

John: I’m retired and very boring. So, I’m going to play to a stereotype and I’m going to recommend something that was just recommended to me to reread by Evan Feigenbaum, I think he’s a mutual friend, which is a study and a paper that Alan Romberg did on the history of U.S.-China diplomatic relations, especially through these successive crises. It’s a really good primer on the history and how the U.S. thought and thinks, and perhaps should think about such events going forward. The other is a book written by another mutual friend, Ryan Hass, called Stronger, which is … There has been a wave of China books, usually with the word dragon, wall, or something in the cover. His is different. It actually proposes a path forward that doesn’t accept American weakness or China’s inevitable rise, or the need for some Manichean struggle. It’s about smart competition. It’s about arraying ourselves in a way that serves our interests and is more attractive to allies and partners and actually more capable in terms of discomforting our allies than simply pursuing competition for its own sake.

Kaiser: Yeah. I’ve had Ryan on the show talking about his book and I love it. I love his framing of competitive interdependence. I love this sort of focus on running faster, not trying to trip the other guy on American renewal. And it pairs nicely with this book that I just interviewed the author of, and that show was originally slated to go up this week, but I’m going to reverse the order of things because this is a little more timely, but I talked to Ali Wyne about his book called America’s Great Power Opportunity, which is, I think there’s very little daylight between the arguments of these two books. And I think that the author very much agrees with me, and Ryan, he describes as a mentor. And we spend a little time just sort of talking about what a great guy Ryan is too. So, he really is, truly is.

John, I think that’s an excellent recommendation. And so is, while we’re on the subject of Evan, Evan is a really good person to follow right now if you’re interested in sort of some good cutting wisdom on the present security crisis, because he knows his way around security crisis and has very, very smart things to say about what people are getting wrong. For example, by thinking of this as just sort of a simple binary between possible war and possible peace and reminds us that this is going to play out over some period of time. Anyway, I’ll go completely away from this crisis toward a happier place. I spent a week in Canada, mostly in Banff National Park, but I want to recommend not staying in Banff itself. As cute of a town as it is, I think it’s been sort of horribly overrun by tourists. It’s not so cute anymore. I think it’s kind of kitschy and slightly awful. Although the surroundings are just breathtakingly beautiful.

Stay instead in Canmore in Alberta, which is just south of Banff National Park. And it’s just a quick drive. This is 10 minutes and you’re in the national park. Canmore is… It’s a real place. Real people are there. It’s also a whole lot more affordable and it’s just as lovely. There are a lot of hikes right from the town itself, from the town center, so that’s my suggestion. And definitely get out and check out the Canadian Rockies. It’s just beautiful. Just absolutely stunning. John, thank you so much for joining me on the show and for dispensing so much wisdom.

John: It’s my pleasure. I wish I didn’t depress myself as much as your audience, but it’s been a real pleasure to be on today and have this conversation.

Kaiser: Well, we’ll be talking to you again very, very soon, I imagine, because I mean, given how many fantastic pearls of wisdom you’ve just dropped in the last 45 minutes, I think, it’s a sure thing that we’ll have you back on. So, thanks so much.

The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at or just give us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @supchinanews, and be sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week. Take care.