American Ambiguity on Taiwan’s Sovereignty Increases the Island’s Safety

Q: Does America have a strategic interest in defending Taiwan’s national sovereignty?

NO: American ambiguity on Taiwan’s sovereignty increases the island’s safety.

Sovereignty is the key stumbling block in the Taiwan Strait issue. The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) unification formula of one country, two systems (the one used for Hong Kong and Macao) would leave Taiwan with home rule only, and Beijing would be the exclusive sovereign. Taipei rejects one country, two systems for the very reason that the formula contradicts its long-standing claim that its government does possess sovereignty. Taiwan says that if there is to be a formal association between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait— unification, integration, etc.—it must treat Taiwan as a sovereign unit. To exacerbate the disagreement, the PRC sometimes suggests that Taiwan’s claim of sovereignty is equivalent to “Taiwan independence,” which Beijing vigorously opposes.

True, Taiwan can make a good substantive case that it possesses sovereignty, even though most countries in the world don’t agree and most international organizations refuse to consider Taiwan’s desire for membership. It also may be argued that Taiwan would make an important contribution to all the international organizations that admit sovereign states only, and is right to resent its exclusion. There are models of unification whose constituent units possess sovereignty. Any changes in cross-strait arrangements should be acceptable to the people of Taiwan.

Beijing has undertaken its military buildup to give it the capability to coerce Taiwan into negotiating on PRC terms—and to do so quickly before the United States has a reason to intervene. Beijing is trying unfairly to exert pressure both within Taiwan and internationally to get Taiwan’s government to abandon its reasonable principles. Both militarization and this leverage game reflect a Chinese inability or unwillingness to take seriously Taiwan’s claim that it possesses sovereignty. The growing chance of military conflict may challenge the fundamental U.S. interest in preserving peace and security in East Asia and our democratic values. How the Taiwan Strait issue is handled will be a litmus test of what kind of great power China will be.

All that is true, but would Taiwan be more secure if the government of the United States endorsed Taipei’s claim that it is a sovereign state? The apparent argument for doing so is that it would induce restraint on Beijing’s part and therefore make Taiwan secure. But I think just the reverse: that American ambiguity on this point increases Taiwan’s safety.

Greater clarity has been necessary on whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China mounted an unprovoked attack on the island. President George W. Bush provided that clarity in April 2001. Chinese uncertainty or illusions about a U.S. military response creates the greatest chance of miscalculation. But based on writings of Chinese security experts, it appears that Bush’s message has gotten through. This does not absolutely guarantee PRC restraint, but it is significant.

Our arms sales also deter Beijing. The United States has offered Taiwan a variety of systems that meet the island’s real needs, and as its armed forces acquire and master those systems, it will make a PRC attack harder and enhance the will of Taiwan’s public to resist coercion.

Why would greater American clarity on the core political issue of sovereignty undermine Taiwan’s security? For a very simple reason: Beijing shows restraint concerning Taiwan primarily because it wants and needs a good relationship with the United States. That relationship is based on the United States’ silence on the legal status of the Taiwanese government (whether it possesses sovereignty) and Washington’s acceptance of the PRC as the rightful holder of China’s seat in organizations such as the United Nations.

Some will say that Beijing needs the United States so badly that it would tolerate an explicit U.S. endorsement of Taiwan’s sovereignty. That is a risky assumption. Beijing is willing to tolerate much about the United States’ ties with Taiwan, but it cannot accept a public U.S. rejection of its claims on this issue. Instead, it likely would conclude that Washington had reneged on key commitments made at the time of normalization in 1978, which is the basis of the whole U.S.-China relationship. China would feel it had no choice but to adopt a more hostile policy toward both Washington and Taipei. Taiwan would be less secure, not more.

Such a deterioration in U.S.-China relations has an added cost. Washington’s public endorsement of Taiwan’s claim of sovereignty likely would lead Beijing to end cooperation with the United States on a variety of foreign-policy issues, including Korea, counterterrorism, South Asia and the Middle East. China has its own interests in those arenas, to be sure, but it would pursue them independently of the United States. In the post-9/11 world, the Bush administration happens to appreciate China’s cooperation. It would not wish to jeopardize that collaboration (and Taiwan’s safety) unnecessarily.

It also is worth asking whether an endorsement of Taiwan’s sovereignty would be more than a rhetorical gesture. On the one hand, would the United States take the practical steps some might argue would flow from such a declaration? Would we, for example, consider re-establishing diplomatic relations with Taipei? Would we support its membership in international organizations? Those steps surely would destroy U.S.-China relations for they also would violate the fundamental normalization commitments. We would lose China’s international cooperation and guarantee its hostility. Taiwan’s security would suffer as a result.

On the other hand, Beijing no doubt has observed that the substantive American approach to Taiwan already appears as if we see it as a sovereign state. Our officials meet regularly with Taiwan’s officials. We sell arms to Taiwan. Our militaries interact. We support Taiwan’s observership (not membership) in international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO). Beijing tolerates this interaction because it occurs in a low-profile manner. If we made a high-profile declaration on Taiwan’s status, China would feel it had to react. Taiwan would bear some of the brunt of that reaction.

Note that Washington is in no way pushing Taipei to accept Beijing’s position on its sovereignty. We leave it up to the two sides to find a solution, while insisting that the solution occur peacefully and be acceptable to the Taiwanese people. We are placing the burden of resolving this issue on Beijing, and thus subtly siding with Taipei.

Taiwan does face a challenge internationally. It has diplomatic relations with less than 30 countries, and Beijing sometimes tries to get some of those countries to switch. But the United States has no impact whatsoever on those decisions. If we endorsed Taiwan’s sovereignty, it would in no way alter the calculus in those capitals concerning whether they had an embassy in Beijing or Taipei.

Taiwan is excluded from international organizations where statehood is the prerequisite for membership, and that is a handicap. But for the last few years Taipei has been playing offense, and forcing Beijing to play defense. Unfortunately for Taiwan, the PRC has strong defensive positions in that it already is a member in all of these organizations and uses the leverage of its presence to exclude Taiwan. There is precious little the United States can do to change that situation. Where we do make a difference—and send a strong signal to Beijing about our view of Taiwan—is by ensuring that Taiwan becomes a member on favorable terms in new organizations such as the World Trade Organization and by supporting Taiwan as an observer in state-based entities such as the WHO. It is other countries’ views of Taiwan—not that of the United States—that denies Taiwan observer status.

Within this debate is a disagreement over fundamental assumptions. If one believes that China is certain to be our adversary, then perhaps it makes sense to warn Beijing by every means available not to attack Taiwan. But that is not the mainstream view in the United States.

The mainstream view is that China’s course is not fixed. China could seek to become the dominant power of East Asia at the expense of the United States, and it would be foolish to assume otherwise. But China just as easily could conclude that its national goals are best achieved through peaceful coexistence with its neighbors. The United States can and should hope for the best even as it prepares for something worse. If, on the other hand, we decide now that China will become our enemy and act on that basis, it will become our enemy in response. If our statements about Taiwan in such a context were excessively to provoke China, then they would help make China the enemy.

Taiwan is ambivalent about China, as well. There is, to be sure, a significant element of the population that fears China—militarily, politically and economically. But there are others in Taiwan who see China as an opportunity. For the last 15 years, the mainland has become the place into which Taiwanese companies move production facilities in search of lower wages and cheaper land prices. China is replacing the United States as Taiwan’s leading export market. These contending views of China manifest themselves in Taiwan’s contentious and evenly divided political system, and the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty is reflected in that debate. Indeed, how Taiwan defines its political status vis-à-vis the PRC through its political system is far more important for the island’s future and its security than how the United States does.

In the China of the sixth century B.C., there was a philosophical debate between Confucians and Taoists. Confucians believed in clarity, in calling things by their correct names. Taoists saw the virtue of ambiguity (“The Way that can be named is not the true Way”). At the dawn of the 21st century, the United States serves the cause of peace by being Confucian and Taoist at the same time. We best protect Taiwan by being clear about our military intentions but ambiguous on sensitive political issues. Too much straight talk on political matters undermines Taiwan’s security and other U.S. interests as well.