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Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s possible visit to Taiwan is increasing U.S.-China tensions and could lead to the next Taiwan Strait crisis. Should a crisis occur, responsibly managing the Sino-American relationship will be essential to prevent an escalatory spiral and conflict. So far, Washington has failed to establish guardrails to do this. Since fall 2021, U.S. officials at the highest levels have unsuccessfully discussed guardrails with their Chinese counterparts. During their most recent call, President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping continued to sidestep establishing effective guardrails. At the next meeting, Biden should negotiate with Xi to agree to interest-based guardrails to mitigate the risk of war.

First, Biden should declare that the United States does not and will not seek regime change in China. This is both easy and a net gain for U.S. foreign policy. Beijing’s primary aim is to keep the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party in power. In response to Biden’s “battle between democracy and autocracy” rhetoric, China changed the ordering of its vital interests by placing its regime type at the top of the list. The United States can recognize the status quo, commit to not change it, and lose nothing. In fact, America would benefit from dropping ideological and regime change rhetoric. Governments from Latin America to the Indo-Pacific may be more open to U.S. diplomacy — allowing Washington to more effectively secure and advance American interests. Moreover, a non-regime change foreign policy is in line with the Founding Fathers’ foreign policy principles.

In return, Xi should promise that China will never work to interfere in U.S. elections or change America’s constitutional form of government. America is not America without its founding documents and form of government. Since Beijing isn’t actually making a concession — but pledging to uphold present reality — China should find this agreeable.

Second, Biden should discard his past remarks and clarify the “One China policy.” Biden can reassure China and repeat his secretary of state’s words that longstanding U.S. policy does not support Taiwan’s independence and will consider a declaration of independence as a “unilateral change to the status quo.” Of all China’s territorial integrity issues, Taiwan is considered “at the core.” To Beijing, reunification is about finally ending a civil war and resolving a historical question that goes to the heart of the CCP’s legitimacy. This would be true for any regime in Beijing, no matter the style of government. China and the Chinese people simply care more about Taiwan than America ever could. Washington can reconfirm existing policy without giving up anything to reduce conflict with China.

Similarly, Biden should also reaffirm U.S. recognition of China’s sovereignty over Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong and commit to not support separatist activities in China. Like Taiwan, China’s territorial integrity is a core interest. This means it will go to war or use military force to defend its sovereignty. Naturally, sovereign states want to defend their territorial integrity. Moreover, Biden’s statement of existing U.S. policy costs America nothing and could lead to gains. It would undercut Chinese propaganda and boost America’s image abroad, particularly with governments facing separatist movements.

In reciprocal fashion Xi would be obligated to promise to recognize America’s territorial integrity – including its territories in the Pacific Ocean – and never promote separatism or division in the United States. Biden would be wise to point out China and the CCP are constitutionally bound to upholding “mutual respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity” in foreign affairs. Thus, China would merely be enacting its preexisting foreign policy. However, Biden should warn Xi that Washington will resolutely protect and defend U.S. territorial integrity and national unity.

Finally, both Biden and Xi should commit to establish a new, high-level dialogue mechanism focusing solely on managing U.S.-China competition. This would not be engagement for engagement’s sake or for creating photo opportunities. Rather, the new diplomacy track should focus on identifying and explaining national interests, relaying and interpreting intentions, and crisis communications. Officials with authority on both sides of the Pacific — even if they are not exactly counterparts — will need to lead it and be able to reach one another at any moment. During especially tense times, rigorous interests-based diplomacy is necessary to avoid miscommunication, misinterpretation and miscalculation that could lead to a nuclear exchange and serious loss of life.

The United States can use its vital national interests to create mutually acceptable, no-cost guardrails with China. If Washington drops its democracy versus autocracy rhetoric, reaffirms and recommits to existing U.S. policy on Taiwan and China’s territorial integrity, works toward establishing real diplomacy with Beijing, and gets China to reciprocate, U.S.-China competition can be managed responsibly. Will leaders in the White House and Congress defer to prudence and use restraint, or will they lead the American people into a shooting war over words? They need only muster political courage to defend American interests.

Quinn Marschik is a contributing fellow at Defense Priorities. He was the policy adviser to the deputy undersecretary for international affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor during former President Donald Trump’s administration.

The United States flag and Chinese flag are displayed at a meeting between officials in Beijing, China,  on Feb. 21, 2014.

The United States flag and Chinese flag are displayed at a meeting between officials in Beijing, China, on Feb. 21, 2014. (Mikki L. Sprenkle/U.S. Army)

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