China’s latest victory — cutting El Salvador from Taiwan’s already short list of diplomatic allies — has taken the political struggle between Beijing and Taipei to a new phase. Not only did it provoke the unprecedented response from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan that China’s continuing diplomatic isolation of Taiwan “encroaches on our sovereignty,” but the move also prompted the White House to issue a statement that is reminiscent of the controversial Monroe Doctrine. Apart from the reiteration of its stance on cross-strait relations between China and Taiwan, the White House bluntly warned that El Salvador’s decision to sever diplomatic ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing “affects…the economic health and security of the entire Americas region” and is “of grave concern to the United States.”
It is no surprise that Washington’s strong messages, sent from both the White House and Capitol Hill, have gone down well with the Taiwan government and many of the supporters of this self-governing free democracy in East Asia. Political support from Washington is a real boost to the morale of the Taiwanese people in the face of their increasingly assertive giant neighbor. Yet it’s not clear whether the U.S. intervention on Taiwan’s side in its battle against China’s strategic move to pry away its remaining diplomatic allies in the Western Hemisphere will help Taiwan’s cause – functioning as an independent sovereign, albeit (virtually) unrecognized, state – or, simply backfire.
To answer this question, we need to have a deeper understanding of China’s recent assertive stance on Taiwan’s international presence. And, the status quo, or rather, the meaning of the status quo of Taiwan as a self-governing free democracy, holds the key to the required deeper understanding.
It’s All About the Status Quo
Maintaining the status quo has long been the U.S. policy toward the Taiwan Strait. The first Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government’s alleged attempt to change the status quo angered both Beijing and Washington in the early 2000s. With the China-friendly Nationalists (also known as Kuomintang or KMT) retaking the Taiwanese presidency in 2008 at the end of the independence-leaning Chen Shui-bian’s eight-year reign, maintaining the status quo was propagated by Taipei as the lynchpin of its new rapprochement with Beijing, calming down the once tumultuous Taiwan Strait.
Despite the disagreement between the KMT and the DPP on the future of the cross-strait relationship, to win the support of Washington, then-DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen changed tack before the historic 2016 election, publicly embracing the policy of maintaining the status quo. Since Tsai assumed office in May 2016 without subscribing to the so-called “1992 Consensus” — a disguised “One China” policy — despite Beijing’s pressure, the cross-strait relationship has reverted to a situation of tension while the “status quo” has become a talisman, so to speak, in the three-party game among China, Taiwan, and the United States. Charges of changing the status quo have been exchanged not only across the Taiwan Strait but also between Beijing and Washington. Even so, the precondition for making such charges stick has been deliberately left ambiguous. Without knowing what the status quo is, how can we see the status quo changing, not to mention who is to blame for the alleged change?
Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as the status quo. There is nothing left unmoved in the flowing river of time. Yet, when we zoom in on the state of Taiwan, there is no denying that Taiwan has been a self-governing political entity under the Taipei-seated central government since late 1949. Through the decades, Taiwan has seen changes in its political system, including Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s dictatorship, the KMT-led soft authoritarian rule, and the current full-fledged constitutional democracy, but with one fact unchanged: Taiwan has continued to stand as a self-governing entity without external sources of political authorization. Yet, it is the very fact of self-government that Taipei now claims is coming under threat in the face of Beijing’s pursuit of its remaining diplomatic allies. How can a switch in diplomatic recognition by, say, El Salvador, a distant foreign country with not much influence in the world stage, threaten the status of quo of Taiwan as a self-governing entity? There must be something at play there other than the actual status quo.
To begin with, Taiwan is no stranger to diplomatic isolation. After losing the Chinese seat in the UN to Beijing in 1971, Taipei suffered an avalanche of diplomatic defeats. Not only was Taipei excluded from all UN-affiliated international organizations, but most countries in the world switched government recognition from the Republic of China authorities based in Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China. In the 1990s, Taipei was left with less than 30 diplomatic allies and was completely isolated in international society. Yet, in the mid-1990s when political and constitutional reform was in full gear, Taiwan began to try to seek more international presence and diplomatic recognition. Reminiscent of the Hegelian struggle for recognition as the driving force of history, a free, democratic Taiwan was no longer content with its decades-long international isolation. As the Cold War gave way to globalization, Taiwan, as a self-governing free democracy, sought to re-engage officially with other states and international organizations. It is Taiwan’s newfound identity — a self-governing free democracy instead of a KMT-led warring faction representing “Free China” vying with the Communist forces for power in a long Chinese Civil War – that has alarmed Beijing in the face of Taiwan’s new offensive on the diplomatic front since the 1990s.
Apart from the respite between 2008-16 under the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou, international recognition of its new identity has been viewed by Taipei as a strategy to consolidate the reality of Taiwan’s existence as a distinct entity from China. Along this line of thought, it is argued that Taiwan’s decades of political self-government can be placed on firmer ground through membership in international organizations or other ways of “meaningful participation” in international society. This explains why Taipei has since suggested its entitlement to statehood based on the actual status quo of independence. Embedding Taiwan in the international system, diplomatic recognition, and full membership in international organizations are further regarded as evidence of Taiwan’s statehood, by which Taiwan’s de facto independence is legally protected from China’s interference. In the eyes of Taipei, international presence and diplomatic recognition simply consolidates the status quo of Taiwan as a self-governing free democracy, continuing the decades-long political self-government without external authorization.
Two Versions of Self-Government: Independence vs. Autonomy
To no one’s surprise, the fact of Taiwan as a self-governing free democracy looks totally different in the eyes of Beijing. To Beijing, it is one thing to say that Taiwan is a self-governing entity; it is another to say that its political self-government stands independently from authorization. Notably, authorization does not have to take the form of explicit approval. Acquiescence, toleration, or abstaining from expressing objection can be seen as expressions of implicit authorization under certain circumstances. In other words, to Beijing, the political self-government Taiwan has exercised since 1949 is not so much (de facto) political independence as authorized or tolerated autonomy. Until Taiwan found itself its new identity as a self-governing free democracy, Taipei’s hard-fought diplomatic campaign had been viewed as part of the struggle for political representation set out by the Chinese Civil War. In the eyes of Beijing, the remaining diplomatic recognition Taipei managed to maintain during that period was nothing more than a result of Beijing’s unfinished job, adding nothing to the political autonomy left to the losing side to a long civil war.
Yet, once Taiwan has reached out to the international society with its newfound political identity, there was no more comfort zone left for Beijing. Diplomatic recognition from other countries, membership in international organizations, or any other forms of Taiwan’s presence in the international stage only strengthen the impression that Taiwan has actually functioned as a self-governing free democracy without external authorization. In other words, to Beijing, conceding Taipei space in the international system would suggest rendering the status quo of self-government in Taiwan in terms of independence rather than autonomy. This explains why Beijing was willing to grant Taipei some international presence between 2008 and 2016 when the KMT government adopted the 1992 Consensus. Through the prism of the disguised One China policy, Taipei’s limited engagement in international relations was seen as an expression of authorized autonomy. Without the 1992 Consensus, Taiwan’s international presence once again turns into evidence of its political independence, a political taboo to Beijing.
In contrast, Taiwan has every reason to prove the status quo means full independence instead of mere autonomy in the face of a rising China. To demonstrate the “capacity to enter into relations with other states” as evidence of its independence in terms of international law, Taiwan needs to continue its diplomatic conducts, including keeping its diplomatic allies. Further stripped of diplomatic recognition and international presence, Taiwan would become increasingly indistinct from other subnational units with high autonomy governed by a functional government based in a defined territory with a permanent population, opening itself to China’s sovereign claims. Concerns over the perception as to the status quo of self-government in Taiwan – independence or autonomy – explain why Taipei has accused Beijing of attempts to change the status quo when China wooed away its diplomatic allies one by one. For the same reason, Taiwan has tried hard to win the hearts of its remaining friends who still maintain diplomatic relations with it, despite its close, albeit unofficial, relations with Japan, the United States, and other countries. Even though Taipei abstains from bidding for full membership or other functional roles in the UN, the foremost evidence of independence, it works hard to prevent the scenario of zero diplomatic allies.
The World Beyond Washington
Seen in this light, the recent strong political support from Washington may not help Taiwan pursue its political goal or battle for its diplomatic survival very much. It is a confidence boost to the Taiwanese people for sure. With the United States’ strong support, the status quo of political self-government in Taiwan will be better secured against the emerging Chinese interventionism. Yet, such support has resulted from Washington’s unilateral acts, falling far short of an indication of Taiwan’s “capacity to enter into relations with other states.”
Moreover, as the White House statement on El Salvador indicates, the United States has acted out of its national interest in a way reminiscent of its hegemonic past in its pushback against China’s escalated diplomatic offensives. As a result, the U.S. intervention on Taiwan’s side may well end up alienating its neighbours in the Americas region from itself — and Taiwan as well. While Taiwan receives more assertive support from Washington, it may find itself left with a more limited capacity to conduct diplomatic relations with other countries in the Western Hemisphere.
In this way, the United States strengthens the status quo of political self-government in Taiwan without doing Taiwan much service in consolidating its independence. To effectively counter China’s grand strategy to “delegalize” the independent status of Taiwan by undercutting the latter’s “capacity to enter into relations with other states,” Taipei needs a more engaging, less confrontational foreign policy from Washington, not a holy alliance under U.S. domination.
Dr. Ming-Sung Kuo is an associate professor of law at University of Warwick in the UK.