Last December, the Obama Administration notified the United States Congress of its intent to make available to Taiwan an arms package valued at $1.83 billion. It was the first notification to Congress of a planned U.S. arms sale to Taiwan since 2011, ending the longest gap between such notifications since the United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan (the Republic of China) to the People’s Republic of China on the mainland in 1979.
Many observers were surprised that the announced package wasn’t larger, given the length of time it had been since the United States had last announced such a sale. The smaller-than-expected scale of the package, coupled with the timing of the announcement—a decent interval after the state visit of President Xi Jinping to Washington, a month before presidential elections in Taiwan in which the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) was clearly sputtering, and, perhaps most importantly, in the relatively quiet news week before Christmas—suggested to some that the United States was making an effort to limit the negative impact of the announcement on U.S.-China relations. And in fact, China’s reaction to the news was unusually subdued. The episode blew over quickly, with the U.S.-China relationship evidently no worse for the wear.
At face value, the fairly quiet way in which the matter was handled suggests that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, long an irritant in the U.S.-China relationship and a major bilateral trust-drainer from the Chinese point of view, is now a thoroughly manageable issue. But the low-key tone around this latest announcement masks a more fundamental, if perhaps less immediately perceptible, truth about the overall cross-Strait equation: namely, that the status quo is, for different reasons, sub-optimal from the standpoint of Taiwan, mainland China and the United States. To put it another way: current policies, taken as a whole, are actually failing all three stakeholders.
This is easiest to see when looking at the matter from the perspective of Taiwan. In 1979, Taiwan was widely viewed as having the capacity to defend itself effectively, and over a long period of time, in the event of a conventional attack from the Chinese mainland. The general assessment was that Taiwan possessed a military capability sufficiently robust to repel an amphibious assault, defeat China or at least fight it to a draw in the air, and ensure Taiwan’s continued survival and way of life for a protracted and perhaps indefinite period of time. But today, after some 37 years—and after about as many billions of dollars’ worth of Taiwan arms purchases from the United States during that period—the virtually unanimous assessment is very different: the cross-Strait balance of power has shifted so dramatically in favor of the mainland that, for the first time in its history, Taiwan is now vulnerable to existential military defeat at the hands of the mainland.
Making this point more emphatically than perhaps any other expert on record, cross-Strait military analyst Mark Stokes told a key U.S. Congressional commission in 2010, “every citizen on Taiwan lives within seven minutes of destruction” (principally via China’s massive and growing arsenal of ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan), something that indisputably was not true in 1979 (when China lacked a ballistic missile capability altogether). So much for the idea that U.S. arms sales are helping Taiwan maintain its self-defense capacity; and so much for the idea that status quo policies are benefiting Taiwan.
Given the sharp deterioration in Taiwan’s net security position relative to the mainland, one might conclude that things are at least going well for the mainland. But in fact, that is not the case, either. Mainland China’s ultimate objective regarding Taiwan is reunification—essentially, by any means necessary, but with a stated preference for a political solution rather than a military one. With this ultimate objective in mind, China has deployed a massive ballistic missile arsenal in southeastern China, the primary purpose of which would appear to be to coerce Taiwan. Judging the cross-Strait picture against the mainland’s goal of reunification, it is fair to say that China is further from the attainment of that goal today than at any time since 1949. That may sound counter-intuitive to those who view the closer economic and cultural integration of the mainland and Taiwan in recent years as evidence of an inexorable trend toward convergence and ultimately unification, presumably on terms defined by the more powerful mainland. But the reality is that pro-(re)unification sentiment is close to an all-time low, as evidenced by any number of recent public opinion polls.
Meanwhile, the independence-sympathetic Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is just coming off its most decisive electoral victory in history—a landslide triumph by Tsai Ing-wen in the presidential balloting and an equally monumental win in the Legislative Yuan, where the DPP now commands a majority for the first time ever. Indeed, based on the results of Taiwan’s last six presidential elections, the trend line is unmistakable: the DPP is generally gaining voter share, moving from relative marginality (just 21 percent of the popular vote) in 1996 to electoral dominance (over 56 percent of the popular vote) just twenty years later. And the hard demographic reality is that those in Taiwan with the strongest personal, familial and historical links to the mainland are dying off with each passing year and decade; and a very vibrant and distinct sense of uniquely Taiwanese identity has concomitantly blossomed in place of those disintegrating links. When it comes to the issue of reunification, time is clearly not on the mainland’s side. And thus, it is evident that the status quo isn’t any more advantageous to mainland China than it is to Taiwan.
Nor is the status quo serving the United States well. The stated purpose of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which are mandated by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, is “to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability”; though it is not articulated explicitly, that envisaged self-defense capability is clearly understood to be relative to the mainland, which has always been seen in the United States (and Taiwan) as constituting the only credible military threat to Taiwan. A corollary of this basic policy purpose is that the United States wants to minimize the likelihood that it will have to become involved in a cross-Strait conflict that would potentially pit the United States against China in a hot war an ocean away from the U.S. mainland. This is why the United States, for decades, has articulated an enduring interest in the cross-Strait issue being resolved peacefully and in accordance with the will of people on both sides of the Strait.
But what has happened in recent decades? The balance of power, as noted above, has shifted sharply in favor of the mainland, and Taiwan is less secure relative to the mainland than at any time in the island’s history. The costs to the mainland of a possible campaign against Taiwan have decreased, and, as a result, the likelihood of a cross-Strait conflict has actually increased on the aggregate. In 1979, China would not have felt a conventional war with Taiwan was necessary (given the high level of support for the “one-China” construct that existed in Taiwan at that time) or winnable; today, the available evidence suggests that China believes such a war might be more necessary—and more winnable. And thus, the likelihood of conflict is greater, even if marginally; and concomitantly, the likelihood of the United States becoming embroiled in a cross-Strait conflict has likewise increased, even if marginally. In short, the status quo around the cross-Strait issue is failing the United States, even as it is failing Taiwan and mainland China.
The issue of Taiwan is unlikely to devolve into a conflict in the immediate future. But the issue is also less settled and benign than commonly thought. Current assessments of the cross-Strait situation are predicated on the notion that the status quo, however delicate, is the optimal state of affairs—basically, the “least-worst” scenario that is actually practicable. But this is not the case. Though the situation could be worse, it could also be better; smarter policies are available, achievable and necessary. (See here for one set of concrete policy recommendations put forward by the EastWest Institute.) Looking for the potential hot spots in the world or in East Asia, Taiwan does not typically rise to the fore. Going a little deeper, however, and applying the criteria of one new theory of major international conflict, it is clear that the China-Taiwan dynamic includes all the key ingredients for conflagration: at least one state actor, at least one non-democracy, at least one non-nuclear power, the implication of at least one existential or identity-related national interest, and a healthy dose of exceptionalist thinking (in this case, on both sides). Reducing the threat of a cross-Strait flare-up will require vision, wisdom and skill. But above all, it will require the realization that, in fact, there can be a better status quo for all.
David J. Firestein is the Perot Fellow and Vice President for the Strategic Trust-Building Initiative and Track 2 Diplomacy at the EastWest Institute. This article has previously been published on the EastWest Institute Policy Innovation Blog.