America Needs a Taiwan Strategy
Image Credit: Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)

America Needs a Taiwan Strategy


The rapid expansion of ties between Taiwan (Republic of China) and China (People’s Republic of China) over the last decade is altering the trajectory of cross-Strait peace. While conditions for peace are increasing for the near term, the challenges in the mid-to-long term continue to grow and will require a readjustment in the way Washington approaches cross-Strait relations. To be sure, all sides agree on the need to maintain the current “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait – but there is a caveat: each side has their own interpretation of what that “status quo” means.

Indeed, Washington, Taipei and Beijing define the “status quo” differently. But Washington seems to be the only one without a clear definition or a clear strategy of how to maintain this “status quo.” Its absence in Washington, however, is belied by U.S. policymakers’ pursuit of “strategic ambiguity” (a policy which has been in the U.S. playbook for the past three decades) in managing cross-Strait relations. Washington’s conflict management approach has been useful to the extent that it has militated against the probability of conflict across the Taiwan Strait by deterring China from invading Taiwan and deterring Taipei from declaring de jure independence during a volatile and highly transitional time period – but such a strategy is limited in the effect it has on securing long term peace in the region.

A statement by a former high-level U.S. official back in 2004 captures Washington’s ambiguous position on the “status quo”:

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“In the House International Relations Committee on April 21 of 2004, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, James A. Kelly, was asked by Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) whether America’s commitment to Taiwan’s democracy conflicted with the so-called One-China Policy. He admitted the difficulty of defining the U.S. position: ‘I didn’t really define it, and I’m not sure I very easily could define it.’ He added, ‘I can tell you what it is not. It is not [emphasis added] the One-China principle that Beijing suggests.’”

While such official statements reflect the different interpretations of the “status quo” between Washington and Beijing, such ambiguity does not necessarily serve U.S. interests in the long term since it is based on a flawed premise guiding Washington’s views of cross-Strait relations. These scales are preventing policymakers in Washington from shaping a course of action in the Taiwan Strait which could be more conducive to its values and interests in the region. To be sure, there is a bureaucratic tendency in Washington to observe events in the Taiwan Strait in binary terms: independence or unification, ergo war or peace respectively. The line of argument goes: If Taiwan asserts de jure independence, then Beijing – under its anti-secession law of 2005 – would invade Taiwan. Alternatively, if the two sides of the Taiwan Strait were to unify, then there would be peace. This is a false choice – and one that plays into Beijing’s hand.

Furthermore, this view does not hold water since Taiwan is neither moving toward so-called independence nor unification, and the belief that it is in Washington only hamstrings the latter’s ability to exploit the opportunities that exist in the current situation. In other words, U.S. policy has become shackled to the mirage of inevitability. Moreover, the strategy is inherently reactionary and prohibits Washington from taking action that could secure its interest by forfeiting its decision-making to Beijing. And based on the increasing power disparity in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing defines what it means to be independent and what unification means. In other words, Beijing defines the terms for peace and war. This kind of “status quo” is unsustainable.

To be sure, over the last decade, there appears to have been a fundamental shift in the Taiwanese electorates’ attitude that all political parties vying for power would have to accept. Specially, Taiwanese voters’ have moved away from supporting either “unification” or “independence” as immediate political goals. In fact, according to a September 2011 public opinion poll conducted by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, that asked respondents their positions on cross-Strait relations, 87.2 percent stated they support maintaining the “status quo,” while only a combined 7 percent of respondents indicated they want unification or independence “as soon as possible.” According to a more recent August 2012 poll, the Taiwan Mood Barometer Survey (TMBS) by Taiwan Indicators Survey Research (TISR) — a new polling agency– only 18.6 percent of Taiwanese say the two sides of the Taiwan Strait should “eventually” unify, while 66.6 percent disapprove of the path toward unification. Taiwan is a status quo power, China is not.

In light of these polls, it is perhaps explicable that the People’s Republic of China – a one party authoritarian regime that has been consistent in its ultimate goal of unifying Taiwan with the “motherland” by force if necessary – would see Taiwan in only black and white terms. After all, Taiwan, under its current ROC constitutional framework, exists as an independent and sovereign state. This is an objective reality. As defined by the 1933 Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States, "state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states." Taiwan possesses all four of these attributes. America’s lack of formal relations with Taiwan doesn’t change this fact. Indeed, the Convention stipulates that "the political existence of the state is independent of recognition by the other states." Furthermore, "the recognition of a state may be express or tacit. The latter results from any act which implies the intention of recognizing the new state."

In other words, the very existence of the ROC presents an existential threat to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since it provides a legitimate alternative model for China’s future besides the one offered by the Chinese Communist Party. As the song during the Cultural  Revolution-era musical “The East is Red” constantly reminded its people: "Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China." By virtue of the fact that the PRC is a Party-State, then by extension, the existence of the ROC and democracy in Taiwan would be delegitimizing for the CCP, since Taiwan provides an alternative model for the Chinese political system.

In light of the widening sovereignty gap in the Taiwan Strait, however, these changes require a careful rethink in Washington over how it has traditionally viewed the expectations, probability and consequences of events in the Taiwan Strait. At the core of the issue is the interpretation of the “status quo” in Washington. Beijing’s strategy is clear, and there appears to be an emerging societal consensus about the “status quo” in Taiwan, therefore there needs to be a more accurate corresponding representation of it in Washington. Refusal to address the widening “sovereignty gap” in the Taiwan Strait will become a real source of instability in the mid-to-long term. Creeping abandonment of U.S. support for Taiwan's sovereignty, defined in terms of the Republic of China (Taiwan), has the potential to create growing resentment on both sides of the political spectrum in Taiwan – and thus greater uncertainty in the Taiwan Strait. It could lead to Taipei to take dramatic measures to ensure its survival.

The U.S. pivot toward Asia necessitates a rebalancing in the Taiwan Strait. Although all sides may agree on the necessity of engagement, the expectations attached to these interactions diverge. Ever since Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou won a second term in Jan. 2012, Beijing has begun to push for a peace treaty. However, in light of the seeming “improvement” in stability in the Taiwan Strait over the past four years, Washington’s inclination could conceivably be to keep doing more of the same. Yet, Washington’s absent strategy for effecting a desirable outcome is leading to a widening “sovereignty gap” in the Taiwan Strait. While Beijing continues to reserve the right to use force, and subjugate the ROC (Taiwan) under the PRC, this could create a fait accompli leading to the absorption of Taiwan under the People’s Republic of China. If left unaddressed, the breakdown of the modus vivendi between Taiwan and China would lead to outright of hostility between Beijing and Taipei over the sovereignty of the two republics. 

In the final analysis, then, the solution for enduring peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait should be the active promotion of trust, equality, and dignity in a manner consistent with U.S. policy and values. Gradual adjustments in U.S. policy to reflect a more accurate representation of the “status quo” that recognizes the objective reality in the Taiwan Strait would address the widening “sovereignty gap,” rebalance the power disparity and secure long-term peace in the Taiwan Strait.

L.C. Russell Hsiao is a Senior Research Fellow at Project 2049 Institute in Washington, D.C. H.H. Michael Hsiao is Distinguished Research Fellow and Director of the Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica in Taiwan.

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