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Why Does the United States Oppose Taiwanese Independence?

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Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | East Asia

Why Does the United States Oppose Taiwanese Independence?

The U.S. – along with Taiwanese people – draws the important distinction between de jure Taiwanese independence and the existing status quo of Taiwanese autonomy and self-governance. 

Why Does the United States Oppose Taiwanese Independence?
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

At the conclusion of his June 2023 trip to Beijing, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s official remarks emphasized a long-standing tenet of American cross-strait policy: that the United States “[does not] support Taiwan’s independence.” Perhaps owing to the many observers who have only turned their attention to cross-strait affairs following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, or perhaps due to the rhetorical missteps that have shakily implied a new era of strategic clarity on Taiwan, Blinken’s disavowal of Taiwanese independence took some by surprise. 

Congressman Jim Banks described the statement as “weakness,” and one tweet from a popular account, viewed nearly 10 million times as of September 2023, erroneously framed Blinken’s remarks as “giving China the green light to invade Taiwan.” Former NBA player and activist Enes Freedom wondered aloud on Twitter (now known as X): “Did Blinken just tell #China that it’s okay to invade Taiwan?”

In short: no. As evidenced by the reaction to Blinken’s statement, commentators with significant political influence and large followings are making the critical error of conflating Taiwanese independence (a term that refers to the de jure establishment of a new “Republic of Taiwan” in place of the island’s current constitution) with the idea of plain Taiwanese autonomy and self-governance, a “lower case” independence. Understanding the difference between the two is critical for understanding the United States’ approach to cross-strait politics, and how US policy can continue to prevent conflict over Taiwan.

The concept of de jure Taiwanese independence – what Blinken disavowed in Beijing – was most famously proposed in the original 1991 party charter of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The DPP’s original “Taiwan Independence Clause” (台獨黨綱) naturally rejected the claims to Taiwan made by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Chinese Communist Party. However, it also challenged the authority of Taiwan’s long-ruling Kuomintang, as well as Taiwan’s official name, the Republic of China (ROC). The clause further proposed the legal establishment of a new “Republic of Taiwan” constitution and statehood in place of the ROC’s, making the movement intensely polarizing.

There are three key reasons why the United States has always been able to maintain a strong friendship with Taiwan despite opposing de jure independence.

Immediate De Jure Independence Has Never Been Popular in Taiwanese Politics.

The DPP, the party that penned and popularized the idea of de jure independence, has long since replaced their party platform’s emphasis on a “Republic of Taiwan” with a more moderate vision. In the 1990s, the party found little legislative success with an explicitly pro-independence agenda, failing to crack 30 percent of seats in the National Assembly in 1991 and 1996. This, combined with low support in Taiwan’s 1996 presidential election for Peng Ming-min, the late “godfather of Taiwan independence,” made it clear to DPP strategists that de jure independence was “electoral poison.”  In 1999, in anticipation of the party’s best shot at a first presidential election victory, the DPP issued a pragmatic “Resolution on Taiwan’s Future,” (台灣前途決議文) which superseded the “Taiwan Independence Clause” and embraced the statehood of the ROC, popularizing the idea that Taiwan is already legally and functionally independent in its current state.

This DPP platform was more palatable to Taiwan’s moderate voters, leading to a dramatic DPP triumph in the 2000 election. A more moderate posture has helped deliver the DPP three more presidential victories since, with a fourth likely on the horizon. Indeed, current Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and her vice president, 2024 presidential frontrunner William Lai, both now insist that Taiwan has no need to declare independence, because it is functionally independent already. Today, the pan-Green (center-left, DPP-aligned) camp prefers to compartmentalize its strongest pro-independence views within smaller parties like the Taiwan Statebuilding Party and New Power Party to keep DPP candidates electable.

Notably, while Taiwanese national identification has grown steadily since the early 1990s and a Taiwanese (as opposed to ROC Chinese) national consciousness has risen to the fore, these evolutions in Taiwanese society have not corresponded with an increased appetite for expedited de jure independence. Public opinion polls on the favorability of independence and unification from National Chengchi University reveal that support for “independence as soon as possible” among Taiwanese has remained around the same low levels for almost 30 years, peaking at 7.8 percent in 2007, with only 4.6 percent of respondents favoring expedited independence in 2023.

A Majority of Taiwanese Do Not Favor Any Changes to the Political Status Quo

The growth of the independence movement has mostly manifested itself in support for eventual – not immediate – independence. In polls, the option to “maintain the status quo, and move toward independence” has more than doubled in popularity since 2000, peaking at 25.5 percent following China’s 2020 crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong. This indicates that while support for the concept of independence has indeed grown, Taiwan’s voters are in no hurry to declare it legally. Despite Taiwan’s younger generations being dubbed “natural independents” (天然獨) by Tsai, most Taiwanese are still content to defer the issue of changing Taiwan’s status quo to future generations. 

Taiwanese people as a whole have always been highly practical on the issue of independence, remaining unwilling to risk the gains in their democracy, economic development, and quality of life for the sake of a new legal statehood. As ever, over 60 percent of Taiwanese today are content to maintain Taiwan’s current status quo for the foreseeable future with no inclination toward either formal independence from or unification with China.

The United States’ opposition to Taiwanese independence is far from a contradiction of Taiwan’s popular will. In fact, it is a highly acceptable arrangement for most Taiwanese, who are content to push the issue into the future until conditions are more favorable. Ultimately, however, Washington’s most critical motivation for opposing Taiwanese independence is to deter Beijing’s use of force against Taiwan, and to provide a floor for China-U.S. relations in the process. 

Opposing Taiwanese Independence Is the Most Critical Political Assurance the U.S. Can Make To China

As Thomas Schelling’s “Arms and Influence” advises, deterrence is equal parts credible threats and credible assurances. Simply put, the United States’ continued opposition to Taiwanese independence is the most indispensable political assurance Washington can make to China. A conflict over Taiwan has been deterred not only by the threat of the United States’ military might in Asia, but also by the promise that the U.S. will not seek to “divide Chinese territory” by encouraging Taiwan’s pro-independence elements. A notable example of this commitment emerged in 2004, when then-U.S. President George W. Bush firmly rebuked incumbent Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s talk of a popular independence referendum, to the “high appreciation” of Chinese leader Hu Jintao. 

China’s leadership dreads Taiwanese independence above all else, to the point of passing a national Anti-Secession Law to create a domestic legal pretense to use force against Taiwan if “independence forces” ever made unification impossible. Conveniently for both the United States and Taiwan, China places a far higher value on stopping Taiwanese independence than Taiwan places on pursuing independence itself. As a result, the U.S. finds itself in a strong diplomatic position where its opposition to Taiwanese independence can be both a comforting baseline assurance in the fraying China-U.S. relationship and an acceptable arrangement for Taiwan, whose pragmatic leaders have understood the risks associated with independence for generations.

Understanding the Independence Variable

As William Lai looks likely to secure the presidency in January of 2024 amid infighting among Taiwanese opposition parties, it will only become more critical for observers to understand what de jure Taiwanese independence is, and how it differs from Taiwan’s status quo. The CCP is no doubt already prepared to demonize Lai as a radical independence “separatist” should he emerge victorious, just as they have done to Tsai Ing-wen, and the Biden administration may be called on again soon to publicly oppose independence as a balm for poor relations. Should this happen, observers must not make the mistake of conflating U.S. opposition to de jure independence with a denunciation of Taiwan’s autonomy and way of life.

The Taiwanese people are, as they have been for generations, content to live in the liminal space of nebulous yet functional self-governance. While the United States’ opposition to Taiwanese independence is painful for the movement’s fiercest proponents, the general Taiwanese populace’s willingness to abstain on the issue for the foreseeable future enables the U.S. to continue making a vital assurance to China at comparatively little cost to Taiwan. Ultimately, U.S. opposition to Taiwanese independence is not an act of undue interference nor abandonment, but a shrewd and critical piece of policy, largely agreeable to all parties, which has been fortunately preserved amid the freefall of China-U.S. relations, and which must be kept intact for a peaceful status quo to endure.