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Taiwan Strait Tensions: Don’t Blame the Victim

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Taiwan Strait Tensions: Don’t Blame the Victim

The rush to find a China-U.S. modus vivendi on Taiwan often involves intentionally overlooking the unequal nature of “provocations.” 

Taiwan Strait Tensions: Don’t Blame the Victim

This handout photo from Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense shows a PLA J-11 fighter jet, which the MND says encroached on Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on Aug. 4, 2022.

Credit: Ministry of National Defense, ROC (Taiwan)

There is a common saying in Taiwan, “flog both sides 50 times.” It refers to the act of trying to find two sides of a dispute equally at fault, so as to neutralize the conflict. 

But the phrase is not used to applaud someone for moving past finger-pointing to bring peace. Rather, it is used to describe a lazy magistrate who turns a blind eye to fairness, assigns blame where it is not deserved, and absolves the party at fault of responsibility, just to toss the hot potato in the air and avoid any real consequence. 

This is the phrase that often comes to mind when reading commentary about the United States’ approach to Taiwan. 

In the U.S. foreign policy narrative of late, there is a growing strain of argument that, while acknowledging the United States must compete with China on a range of issues, cautions against overly pressing China on Taiwan. These comments hope to be a voice of reason and judiciousness, as a response to the fervor on supporting Taiwan in the past several years, especially in regards to very high profile actions from the U.S. side, such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

The argument goes that, precisely because the United States is now in a rivalry with China, the U.S. needs to pick its battles and keep the lid on the one flashpoint that may turn into a shooting war: Taiwan. And to do that, Washington needs to shift away from emphasizing the potential negative consequences of Chinese aggression (i.e. stressing that the U.S. defense of Taiwan will make a Chinese invasion very costly) and emphasize the potential positive consequences of Chinese goodwill, (i.e. pledging that the U.S. will not support any further political actions from Taiwan to secure its sovereignty, and keep the path for peaceful annexation open for China). 

This position can be found in many recent foreign policy articles: Oriana Skylar Mastro’s “This Is What America Is Getting Wrong About China and Taiwan,” Ryan Hass’s “What America Wants From China,” and most recently, Bonnie Glaser, Jessica Chen Weiss, and Thomas Christensen’s “Taiwan and the True Sources of Deterrence.” Some select quotes are below:

“If a pathway remains for China to eventually convince Taiwan’s people – through inducements or pressure – that it is in their interest to peacefully unify, then that may be a China that we can live with.” (Mastro) 

“[Washington] should also disavow any suggestions that the United States views Taiwan as a critical node or part of the United States’ defense perimeter.” (Hass) 

“And as the United States works with Taiwan to strengthen its security, it must avoid giving the impression that it is moving toward restoring formal diplomatic relations or a defense alliance with the island.” (Glaser et. al) 

These comments are certainly well-intentioned, hoping to advise the people of Taiwan on how to avoid catastrophic war. However, they have drawn a wave of criticism from Taiwan. The latest article from Glaser, Weiss, and Christensen has especially incensed Taiwanese commentators. 

The crux of the anger from the Taiwanese side lies in the tendency to “flog both sides 50 times.” 

The article’s underlying assumption is that, while all three sides have stressed their position has not fundamentally changed and are all committed to peace, the United States, Taiwan, and China are all at fault for the tensions in their relationships with one another. 

However, delving into the specific so-called provocations reveals the problem with this positions. Taiwan’s revisions to its history curriculum to focus more on Taiwan is not quite the same thing as China’s scrambling fighter jets near Taiwan on an almost daily basis. The anxiety over Vice President William Lai’s supposed “pro-independence” leanings, despite his insistence during the campaign that he will continue President Tsai Ing-wen’s policies, is not quite the same thing as China’s decision to launch missiles and full scale military exercises as a response to a single visit by one sitting member of Congress. 

The article strains to establish a false equivalence between each parties’ actions that is borderline bizarre. The simple truth is that China is the one party that insists on military action as a legitimate means to its policy goals, and because of that, the United States and Taiwan have no choice but to prepare for such a scenario. 

The authors of the article surely understand that Xi Jinping is the real problem here. The real first step, then, is for China to ratchet down its threat and attacks on Taiwan as a signal of goodwill, then the United States can respond by returning to emphasizing assurances to China. Yet the authors also are aware that academic writing to appeal to Xi is a futile exercise, so they have focused their persuasive efforts – and assigned the blame – elsewhere.

However, Taiwanese people are deeply skeptical of the idea of taking unilateral action in hopes of inducing China to respond in kind. 

U.S. assurances of “not supporting Taiwanese independence” do not change China’s decision calculus. Regardless of U.S. intentions to support or discourage Taiwanese action, China will always seek to annex Taiwan because it is in their core national interest to do so. Chinese officials are extremely clear about this. 

As the U.S. foreign policy community moves from the rubric of engagement with China toward rivalry with China, a more nuanced position is needed. The community is in the process of finding this new nuanced position. During this process, there will be fluctuations and even turmoil, as thinkers calibrate more precisely what it means to compete with China while still maintaining control over the terms of that competition. It is reasonable to expect more equivocation and a struggle to find a narrow sweet spot of the spectrum between engagement and all-out conflict.  

This is something that the people of Taiwan understand and will fundamentally appreciate. Taiwanese understand that navigating U.S.-Taiwan-China relations requires wisdom, patience, and as a necessary evil, compromise. They understand that grandstanding and bravado are ultimately not helpful, and do more harm than good. 

But that is predicated on Taiwan’s counterparts in Washington also understanding that unilateral acts of assurances to China may very well not produce the intended result, that the U.S. equivocating on policy towards Taiwan and China is a recipe for mixed signals that produce more uncertainty and risk, and that every clear-headed thinker should acknowledge Taiwan is not at all equally at fault as China for the “rising tensions” in the Taiwan Strait.