2022 is about to end. Looking back on U.S. diplomacy this year, we can characterize it as the culmination of a confrontational stance toward China. Enhanced controls over exports of semiconductors introduced in October are emblematic. In the United States, which has long been said to be polarized over many issues, the advocacy of good relations with China was once heard from some bureaucrats and businesspeople. This has faded, however, and now all voices are anti-China. Taiwan's significance has increased, which could put Japan in a difficult position.
In early October, more than a thousand people from government, business and media circles flocked to the official residence of Taiwan's representative to the United States in a residential area of Washington. It was the annual National Day event held by Taiwan, or the Republic of China. But because it came just after U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to the island prompted Chinese military exercises, I felt a sense of crisis in conversations among the participants. "I must admit that my mood is unfortunately clouded," Hsiao Bi-khim, representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office who was born in Japan's Kobe, said in a speech given in the residence's large garden.
The relationship between the United States, China and Taiwan is complicated. Washington had regarded the Republic of China led by Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to Taiwan, as the legitimate Chinese state but in the 1970s, President Richard Nixon's administration switched recognition to the mainland. Henry Kissinger, who was involved in the bilateral negotiations as U.S. national security advisor at that time, said in a memoir that it seemed reasonable that China and the United States had found a way to reconcile given the inevitability of the process. The policy change by Washington made Taiwan's desire to counter Beijing, initially led by Chiang, less and less viable.
The United States needed China as a counterweight to the Soviet Union during the Cold War and business circles in America were supportive. Washington and Beijing maintained give-and-take relations.
When did the U.S. view of China change? Susan Shirk, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, versed in U.S.-China relations, explains in her new book that 2008 was a "watershed year." Barack Obama won the presidential election in the aftermath of the so-called Lehman shock and his administration launched the following year was slow to respond to the ensuing financial crises in the United States. In contrast, China quickly recovered through the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and expanded its military power. Xi Jinping, who became the leader of the Communist Party in 2012, made his authoritarian stance clear, which decisively tilted bilateral ties toward confrontation.
It is true that the United States is concerned that it could be replaced by China as the world's leader, but the issue does not end there. Rather, the question is what kind of country China will become, an official of the administration of former President Donald Trump said to me. "Personally, I don't think it matters whether China succeeds in surpassing the United States economically or technologically. I think what matters to us, from a national security perspective, is what type of country China becomes," the official said, adding, "Can you imagine North Korea with the resources that China has?"
On China, U.S. politicians, both Democrat and Republican, can be in step with each other. President Joe Biden's administration tightened restrictions on exports of advanced semiconductors and manufacturing machinery to China. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House minority leader who is set to be speaker of the chamber next month, revealed a plan to launch a special committee to investigate China-related allegations such as violations of intellectual property rights.
During the Trump administration, which triggered the U.S.-China trade war, there was some incoherence in policies toward China due to the president's whims, but we see a clear determination in the Biden administration. On China, the U.S. National Security Strategy released in October describes China as "the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it."
There is no end in sight to the confrontation but we should not make prejudgments in international relations. The Nixon administration's sudden reconciliation with Beijing was a huge surprise in Japan. Japan should be ready to act appropriately in any situation, even one in which Washington decides to diplomatically distance itself from Japan.
(Toyohiro Horikoshi is chief of Kyodo News's Washington Bureau)