The Taiwan Problem: If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It
Taiwan's envoy to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum Vincent Siew (L) shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping during a welcoming ceremony at the International Convention Center at Yanqi Lake, in Beijing, November 11, 2014.
Image Credit: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The Taiwan Problem: If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It


The recent debate surrounding Taiwan’s role in a possible U.S.-China “grand bargain” reveals that the controversy surrounding Taiwan’s status as a nation is alive and well in 2015. Led by George Washington University professor Charles L. Glaser and his recent article in International Security, a cadre of political scientists, policy analysts, and pundits have amplified their calls for a groundbreaking deal in which the United States would abandon Taiwan to China in exchange for weighty Chinese concessions. Specifically, Glaser envisions a deal in which China vows greater docility in dealing with territorial disputes and accepts U.S. regional hegemony in exchange for the United States’ release of Taiwan.

Glaser’s argument rests upon three key assumptions: First, he assumes that Taiwan acts as an impediment to U.S.-China relations. Second, he assumes that Taiwan can serve as a “bargaining chip” in a high-stakes U.S. gamble. Lastly, Glaser makes the assumption that the successful negotiation of a grand bargain would induce steadfast Chinese cooperation on key regional security issues. Unfortunately, these assumptions are patently false. By debunking the myth of the “grand bargain,” it becomes clear that Washington’s abandonment of Taiwan would not only spell the end of a delicate China-Taiwan equilibrium, it would also threaten the stability of the entire East Asian security environment.

Myth #1: Taiwan Is an Obstacle to Better U.S.-China Relations

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Glaser and others who espouse the benefits of a U.S.-China grand bargain allege that the unresolved question of Taiwanese independence has impeded healthy U.S.-China relations. To test this assertion, it is important to consider the reality of recent China-Taiwan interactions.

The issues of Taiwan’s disputed status and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan remain perhaps the most outstanding problems between the United States and China. Still, even these issues no longer impede U.S.-China relations. The question of Taiwanese independence emerged in the 1990s with the nation’s transition to democracy. As the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) gained control over Taiwan in subsequent elections, then-President Chen Shui-bian amplified Taiwan’s calls for independence. The 2005 passage of the Anti-Secession Law* in China served as a sharp response to Taiwan’s ambitions for independence. Meanwhile, former President George W. Bush clarified the U.S. position of “strategic ambiguity” over the Taiwan issue with a powerful proclamation: The United States would not want to see Taiwan provoke China, but the United States would help defend Taiwan if China were to lose its patience with Taiwan and use force to achieve unification with the island. This statement made it clear that the United States did not support either formal Taiwanese independence or forceful unification. This policy position effectively stabilized the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. Since then, no further attempts have been made to upend the balance between China and Taiwan.

Nor should U.S. arms sales to Taiwan be regarded as a serious barrier to U.S.-China relations. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 stipulates that the United States will provide Taiwan with arms of a defense nature. Although China often uses the United States’ periodic decision to sell arms to Taiwan as a political ploy to suspend the Chinese military’s contact with the United States and stir up nationalistic sentiments, the issue needs to be put into perspective. While all arms are technically offensive in nature, the quantity and quality of the weapons Taiwan receives from the United States do little Taiwan’s offensive capabilities. For example, Taiwan purchases short-range fighter jets, air defense systems, and older-generation weapons.

In addition, U.S. authorization to sell arms to Taiwan differs from the actual delivery of weapon systems. The United States has declined to provide the quality of weapons that Taiwan has requested from time to time. Moreover, Taiwan’s legislature has often failed to appropriate the funds necessary to purchase the quantity of weapons requested.

Finally, China’s periodic suspensions of its military contacts with the United States have failed to inflict significant damage on U.S.-China relations and relations are regularly quietly restored once the political storm subsides. Beijing understands that Taiwan’s weaponry does not pose a serious threat to mainland China’s military. Bearing this in mind, it seems evident that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan act as mere political pretense for China’s antagonistic behavior and are not serious obstacles.

In fact, the past several decades have produced a relatively stable economic and political equilibrium between China and Taiwan. Most recently, the 2008 election of President Ma Ying-jeou has ushered in an era of unprecedented China-Taiwan cooperation. Economic integration, highlighted by a 2010 bilateral trade agreement, has inextricably linked Beijing and Taipei. In fact, the health of Taiwan’s economy relies on revenue from Chinese trade. According to 2014 Chinese statistics, trade volume between the two nations totaled more than 200 billion dollars. Taiwan also exports most of its goods to China and enjoys a huge trade surplus. Yearly trends indicate that the economic bonds between the two nations are getting even stronger: From 2014 to 2015, trade between the two nations increased 16.7 per cent.

Myth #2: Taiwan Can Serve as a Bargaining Chip

The effectiveness of a bargaining chip is predicated on whether or not the other party fears losing control of that bargaining chip. From China’s point of view, its claim over Taiwan is indisputable. So why would China make concessions over a bargaining chip it believes it already owns? China already has a powerful economic hold over Taiwan. In addition to economic interdependence, the past several years have also witnessed an increase in direct flights and sea transportation between the two nations. Businesspeople commonly make one-day trips across the Taiwan Strait. An effective unification is already well underway in the economic realm.

In addition, the Taiwanese prefer the status quo of de facto, but not de jure independence. Repeated opinion polls indicate that while more Taiwanese favor independence over unification, a majority of Taiwan’s people prefer to maintain the status quo.

Meanwhile, the threat of Chinese military force acts to dissuade Taiwan from attempting to break away from the mainland. As the Taiwanese gaze across the strait, they are greeted by a massive arsenal of 1,600 ground-to-ground missiles. Chinese anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities act as a potential deterrent to U.S. involvement in the event of an armed conflict between China and Taiwan. This military mismatch between the two sides serves as a potent deterrence to Taiwan attempting a hasty move for independence or even using the threat as a bargaining chip with the Chinese. China is also an increasing presence in Taiwan’s political system by mobilizing support for China-friendly politicians and making extensive donations to pro-China political actors. All in all, the notion of Taiwan as a “bargaining chip” fails to take into account China’s existing influence over Taiwan and complicates the possibility of a grand bargain.

Myth #3: A “Grand Bargain” Equals “Grand Concessions”

While a U.S.-China grand bargain is heralded as an ideal tactic to secure crucial U.S. interests, one must evaluate the feasibility of the United States’ demands. First, a grand bargain requires China to accept U.S. military bases and alliances in the Asia-Pacific. China’s recent move toward a more “assertive diplomacy” contrasts sharply with the United States’ ambitions to retain its regional power. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call for a “new type of great power relations” presaged China’s turn toward greater assertiveness on the world stage. The proposal, presented to U.S. President Barack Obama in June 2013, represents China’s first major attempt to set the agenda in U.S.-China relations, reversing China’s historical trend of bowing to U.S. interests and marking a key shift in U.S.-China relations.

Tensions between the United States and China over China’s artificial island construction in the South China Sea indicate that China is loath to accept U.S. interference in the region. Throughout the past several months, U.S. surveillance planes and warships have patrolled the hotly contested South China Sea in an effort to protect freedom of navigation. Verbal exchanges between the two nations have stoked the conflict’s flames. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter responded to China’s territorial claims by calling for an “immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by any claimant.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded by reasserting her nation’s rightful claim to disputed territories and condemning U.S. actions as “provocations and instigations.” Hua’s sharp rebuke of U.S. interference in the Asia-Pacific supports China’s commitment to more aggressive diplomacy. These types of interactions suggest that a U.S.-China “grand bargain” could falter on the basis of China’s distaste for U.S. hegemony.

Even if China is willing to accept (in its view) an “invasive” U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific in the present, there is no mechanism to ensure that China does not default on agreements in the future. China’s military power projection capabilities are growing, and Chinese leaders may see fit to act in a fashion commensurate with their nation’s growing abilities. Therefore, the U.S. cannot expect a credible Chinese commitment to accept U.S. regional hegemony in exchange for control of Taiwan.

The second condition of a U.S.-China “grand bargain” appears equally insurmountable. Charles Glaser asserts that China would promise to resolve regional land disputes through more peaceful means if the United States were to cede control of Taiwan. As is the case with acceptance of U.S. regional hegemony, this provision of the grand bargain would be difficult to enforce. China currently finds itself besieged by a litany of competing land claims from Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other Asian nations. Based on China’s recent aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and President Xi Jinping’s “assertive diplomacy” manifesto, one can hardly expect that China will capitulate to its smaller, weaker neighbors. Doing so would both undermine its growing reputation as a maritime power and undercut its goal to become an established world power.

As China looks to enhance its international prestige, it is hard to believe that its leaders would tolerate the land claims of competing Asian nations. Also, it takes two parties to come to an agreement, so it is not up to China alone to guarantee the peaceful resolution of land disputes. The other disputants involved would have to make the same pledge to avoid territorial conflicts. Moreover, China’s rising national power may induce its leaders to initiate unpredictable, aggressive strategies in the future. The United States cannot orchestrate a grand bargain based on promised concessions.

No Panacea

The concept of a U.S.-China grand bargain offers a creative attempt at a strategy to resolve some of the most intractable issues hindering improved cooperation between the two countries. Even if implemented, this proposed strategy would not serve as a panacea to all the issues facing the United States and China. Any bargain would face serious pitfalls that would cast doubt over the longevity of its provisions. In light of the contentious land disputes in the South China Sea and continuing tension over the unresolved question of Taiwan, an idealistic resolution might seem a productive step forward.

The Taiwan problem is deeply entrenched within China and Taiwan’s political culture and it cannot be solved in one fell swoop. A grand bargain is an encouraging, yet illusive notion. The framework of a grand bargain might serve as a useful blueprint for future cooperation, but the current status quo already acts as a positive foundation for future China-Taiwan relations and should remain in place.

As Taiwan’s March 2016 presidential election rapidly approaches, the concept of a grand bargain appears particularly ill-conceived. In all likelihood, neither party’s candidate will risk alienating public support by pushing a radical plan for unification or separation. Increased economic cooperation will continue to maintain the equilibrium between the two nations and could even mitigate the most contentious issues that bedevil U.S.-China and China-Taiwan relations. While it is possible that these issues may pose a future threat, the current Taiwan problem is not broken, and there is no need to fix it.

Noah Lingwall is a student at the Schreyer Honors College of the Pennsylvania State University and an intern at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

*Corrected spelling of law.

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