While Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping was in Washington last week, U.S. President Barack Obama and the leader-in-waiting had much to talk about. Top diplomats on both sides had prepared a wish list for the meeting, but issues like Iran, Syria and North Korea will likely remain irresolvable for the foreseeable future – at least until after the 18th Party Congress, when Xi will be anointed the next leader of the People’s Republic. The meeting, however, wasn’t simply much ado about nothing. At the very least, Xi’s visit may have provided a preface for the next chapter in the Sino-U.S. relationship, replete with mutual expectations.
One issue that was certainly on Xi’s mind is Taiwan. With Taiwan’s elections wrapped up and the incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou in office for another four-year term, Xi had an opportunity to persuade Washington to stop prolonging the “inevitable” and allow the “Chinese people” across the Taiwan Strait to resolve their political differences. So why was there scant mention of Taiwan between Xi and Obama? One reason could be because Xi felt that time is on Beijing’s side.
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In light of the thaw in relations between Taipei and Beijing over the past four years, Washington’s inclination could conceivably be to keep doing more of the same. To be sure, U.S. policy toward Taiwan over the past four years could be characterized as a form of “strategic ambiguity” (a policy which has been in the U.S. playbook for the past two decades), an approach that has been useful to the extent that it has helped to minimize the probability of conflict across the Taiwan Strait and afforded the United States flexibility to deal with a host of other volatile issues throughout the world. Yet the outcome that may be “inevitable” on the current trajectory is that conflict will ensue as long as Taiwan’s sovereignty remains at risk.
At the core of the issue is the interpretation of the “status quo” in Washington. While there appears to be an emerging societal consensus about the status quo in Taiwan, there needs to be a more accurate corresponding representation of it in Washington. Refusal to address the widening sovereignty gap in the Taiwan Strait is a potential source of instability. Creeping abandonment of U.S. support for Taiwan's de-facto 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.
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 the U.S. policy and values. Gradual adjustments in U.S. policy to reflect a more accurate representation of the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait would offset Beijing’s attempts to marginalize Taiwan. In other words, ambiguity may have finally outlived its utility.
The military balance in the Taiwan Strait isn’t what it was in 1995-1996. And the Taiwanese electorate isn’t the same as it was more than a decade ago. Moreover, Xi is no Hu. The Obama administration (or the next administration for that matter) should learn from the lessons of past U.S. administrations and adopt a policy based on increasing clarity about the objective reality in the Taiwan Strait.
Russell Hsiao is a senior research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute.