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Taiwan Flag, Taipei, Taiwan. (Photo by Jose Lopes Amaral/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: Fareed Zakaria is the host of Fareed Zakaria GPS, airing at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET Sundays on CNN. Follow Fareed on X, and read news, analysis, and insights from Fareed and his team in the daily CNN newsletter Fareed’s Global Briefing. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more CNN Opinion.

At 8 p.m. ET and PT tonight on CNN, Fareed’s latest special report, “Taiwan: Unfinished Business,” will examine the complicated history and present dangers surrounding Taiwan. 

CNN  — 

A couple of years ago, the Economist declared on its cover that Taiwan — a tiny island, home to 24 million people — was “the most dangerous place on Earth.”

The reasons it came to that conclusion remain sound. In fact, they have only grown stronger recently.

The backdrop to the tensions over Taiwan is, of course, the expanding geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States. Ever since the rise first of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and then of former US President Donald Trump, both nations have fundamentally shifted their attitudes towards the other — from benign, to wary, to hostile.

Perhaps the extraordinary and rapid growth of China and the reality of America’s dominant status made this inevitable. A rising power faces an established one, creating a situation that may be, in the words of author and Harvard international security scholar Graham Allison, “destined for war.”

But are we destined for war? The US and China are unusual in that while they are increasingly geopolitical rivals, they are also deeply intertwined economically.

One example: During the Cold War, at the peak of US-Soviet trade, the two countries exchanged $5 billion dollars of goods with each other in one year. China and the US do $5 billion in trade every few days. And that number has not dropped that much even as tariffs, bans and restrictions on trade have grown in recent years.

In addition, China does not seem to be a revolutionary state, seeking to overthrow the international system and present the world with an alternative ideology to America. That ideological rivalry, at the heart of the Cold War, is largely absent today.

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US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping walk together after a meeting during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' week in Woodside, Calif., on November 15, 2023.

One thing that is present, however, is nuclear deterrence. China and the US both have large arsenals, which should have the effect they have had elsewhere — from the US and Soviet Union to Pakistan and India — in deterring all-out war.

And yet … and yet: There is the problem of Taiwan that sits at the heart of US-China relations.

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China has never accepted that Taiwan can be an independent country. This is not a Xi Jinping innovation. It is in the constitution of the People’s Republic of China. Every Chinese leader beginning with Mao Zedong has affirmed the goal of reunifying the two, but in the past, Communist China believed that it could wait because time was on its side. Eventually, the mainland with its massive economy and billion-plus population would draw the tiny island of 24 million into its orbit.

That was the thinking. But that premise is proving untrue.

Taiwan has developed into a feisty democracy with a political culture defined by its political system in stark contrast to China. Over the past few decades, Taiwan has gotten more determined not to reunify with China. So, Xi must be looking at this situation and feeling that time is not on his side. That perhaps it would be better to act sooner than later.

For America and its many allies in Asia, Chinese aggression to retake Taiwan would be unacceptable. Washington has been willing to accept China’s claims on Taiwan as long as it did not use coercion to achieve them.

Taiwan policy, for all sides, has been about tolerating fantasies about the future as long as there are no practical changes in the present. Most people in Taiwan simply want to maintain the status quo and keep things going as they are. While the recent elections on the island brought to power for a third term a party that is closely associated with the idea of an independent Taiwan, it’s worth noting that it got only 40% of the vote, with the other 60% going to two candidates with less independence-minded positions.

What does all this mean? That this issue will need to be managed rather than solved — and managed very carefully by both Beijing and Washington. This is one place on Earth where there should be little room for macho rhetoric and provocative actions. All three sides should keep talking to ensure there are no misperceptions or miscalculations.

None of this is morally satisfying. But the stakes are high enough that one thing is clear: Were these tensions to be mismanaged, were this conflict to turn into war, it would be lose-lose-lose for all three parties; indeed, the whole world would suffer cataclysmic consequences. Better to kick this can down the road as long as possible — and hope it does not explode.