Danger ahead? Taiwan’s politics, China’s ambitions, and US policy

Flags of Taiwan and U.S. are placed for a meeting between U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce speaks and with Su Chia-chyuan, President of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, Taiwan March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
Editor's note:

Richard Bush delivered this speech at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, Indiana University on April 15, 2019.

It is a great honor for me to speak today at the Hamilton Lugar School, not only because I worked for Congressman Lee Hamilton for two and a half years, but also because he and Senator Lugar have represented something very important about the politics of U.S. foreign policy. They were in their time two of the most prominent internationalist Members of Congress on foreign policy, and it seemed anomalous that they were both Hoosiers. But they were actually representing public opinion in their state. The people of Indiana understood that it was important for them that the United States play an active role in world affairs.

To set the stage for my talk, let me offer a few comparisons between Taiwan and Indiana and show you a few pictures:

  • Taiwan’s land area is 38 percent of that of Indiana.
  • Taiwan’s population is 3.4 times that of the Hoosier State.
  • Because two-thirds of Taiwan is mountainous, its population density is on the order of eight to ten times that of Indiana.
  • Depending on whose statistics you use, Taiwan is Indiana’s 23rd largest export market; China is 3rd or 4th.

Four Fortieth Anniversaries

Over the last five months, we have marked the fortieth anniversaries of four milestones in U.S.-China-Taiwan relations. These are those milestones, which occurred in late 1978 and early 1979:

First, in November 1978, China’s leaders, led by Deng Xiaoping, adopted a policy of reform and opening up: liberalizing the economy and becoming more integrated with the global economy. Reform and opening up was designed to repair the disaster that Mao Zedong had inflicted on China during his rule and bring a better life for the Chinese people. By the way, one of the places that Deng hoped would contribute to China’s economic growth was Taiwan.

Second, in December 1978, President Jimmy Carter and Chinese leader Hua Guofeng announced that the United States and China would establish diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979. As part of that agreement, President Carter said that Washington would conduct relations with Taiwan on an unofficial basis and end the mutual defense treaty with the island.

Third, on January 1, 1979, the leaders of China’s legislature sent a message to Taiwan people calling for an end to the hostile relations between the People’s Republic of China on the Mainland and the Republic of China on Taiwan, and for movement to the ultimate unification of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

And fourth, on April 10, 1979, President Carter signed the Taiwan Relations Act, which Congress had passed to create the American Institute in Taiwan, a nominally private organization that would conduct substantive relations with Taiwan. The Taiwan Relations Act also provided assurances to the island’s leaders about U.S. support for its security.

Note that these four events are related. If reform and opening up was to stimulate China’s economic growth, China needed a normal relationship with the United States, with better access to American markets, capital, technology, management know-how, and universities.

The United States wanted a normal relationship with China for both economic and strategic reasons. But the People’s Republic of China government in Beijing insisted that when it came to diplomatic and other relations with the two Chinas, Washington had to choose between it and the government on Taiwan, its rival. President Carter chose the People’s Republic of China.

China believed that once the United States abandoned Taiwan in this way, the leaders of the ruling Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) would feel so weak that they would give in to Beijing’s demand for unification on the PRC’s terms. Beijing was unhappy at that time that the United States would continue to sell arms to Taiwan, and remains unhappy to this day. China also believed that China’s reforming economy would be an attractive trade and investment site for Taiwan’s companies, which could have favorable political consequences.

Congress was very unhappy in establishing diplomatic relations with China. Almost all Members strongly supported Taiwan, even as many of them favored establishing diplomatic relations with China. All agreed with the Carter administration’s rhetorical insistence that China and Taiwan resolve their differences peacefully. But Congress amended the draft of the Taiwan Relations Act to toughen the administration’s draft, stressing that as a matter of policy that the United States would act to strengthen Taiwan’s defense through arms sales and by suggesting that America might come to Taiwan’s defense. China was very unhappy with the passage of the TRA. Taiwan has always found it reassuring.

At the time, no one knew whether these initiatives would work as people hoped. China didn’t know if it could both grow the Chinese economy and end Taiwan’s separation. The United States didn’t know whether it could benefit from a formal relationship with China and maintain its substantive ties with Taiwan. Taiwan didn’t know whether it could survive at all.

Success and Failure, Forty Years On

Forty years on, we see a mixed picture in these four areas. Here is my scorecard:

First of all, China’s policy of reform and opening up was a huge success. Depending on how you count, China has the largest or second largest economy in the world. With its surplus of well-educated workers, a large number of private entrepreneurs, and good business environment, it became a key link in many global supply chains. Per capita GDP on a PPP basis grew from US$229 in 1978 to almost $17,000 in 2017. A large middle class emerged. And the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party improved. China is reviving – not rising – as a great power.

One beneficiary of China’s economic take-off was Taiwan. Taiwan’s companies were also links in global supply chains. Indeed, they managed many of them. So Taiwan grew economically and avoided a middle-income trap. This collaboration across the Taiwan Strait gave strength to the hope of Chinese leaders that political reconciliation would follow joint economic progress.

China’s economic success comes with a “but.” The current Chinese leadership is de-emphasizing the private sector, which was the engine of growth for decades, and re-emphasizing the state sector. The business environment for external firms has seriously deteriorated, which is what the U.S.-China trade war is all about.

Second, U.S.-PRC ties improved overall after 1979. Economic relations became strong and Washington played a key role in bringing China into the World Trade Organization. The PRC became a constructive member of many international organizations and multilateral regimes cooperated during the Obama administration on climate change and the Iran nuclear program. Progressively, Beijing worked with the United States to address the problems posed by North Korea. At least until around 2010, China did not threaten its neighbors in East Asia. The Tiananmen tragedy of 1989 set back this progress until about 1996, but then the positive trend continued.

Here again, there is a “but.” We have to recognize that U.S.-China relations have deteriorated in the last five to ten years. Around 2009, China began to project its military power into the East China Sea and South China Sea. I personally believe it had a plausible reason for doing so – it wanted to enhance its own security. But China’s actions made its neighbors and the United States anxious about their own security. The Obama administration sought to manage and reduce these frictions. The Trump administration has declared that China is a revisionist power that has begun a strategic competition with the United States. If the United States believes that China is an existential rival, cooperation is impossible.

Third, when it came to the United States and Taiwan, the relationship was limited at the beginning but broadened and deepened starting in the early 1990s with the end of the Cold War. The relationship today is far better than it was twenty or thirty years ago. The diplomatic and security realms are robust. The trade and investment numbers are good but the economic policy framework could be better.

But there was a period of some danger. Two of Taiwan’s presidents, Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian, saw a domestic political value in playing up Taiwan nationalism at election time. From 1995 to 2008, China became very afraid that their purpose was not just to win votes but to lay the groundwork for an independent Taiwan, which would have challenged China’s fundamental interests. The United States worried that China might go to war in response to Lee and Chen’s provocations and that the United States would get drawn into an unnecessary conflict. For reasons I will explain in a minute, we may be heading into a period of new danger.

Of the four big changes from forty years ago, the one that has been least successful, at least from Beijing’s point of view, is its Taiwan policy and its quest for unification. The formula Beijing proposed was “one country, two systems.” This was the approach that was used for Hong Kong. If Taipei accepted it, the Republic of China government would cease to exist. Taiwan would become a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. Formally, it would be administered by Taiwan people who would, Beijing said, have a “high degree of autonomy.” The army would not be disbanded.

At the time, Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo and his colleagues rejected this formula because they believe that the Republic of China was the legitimate government of China and the People’s Republic was not. Also, they knew they had the defense backing of the United States.

But the real and enduring reason that one country, two systems was never accepted was that Taiwan changed. It became a democratic system by 1996 and this had several major consequences:

  • First, the Taiwan public, through their elected leaders, gained a seat at the negotiating table with the PRC.
  • Second, a long-suppressed Taiwanese identity flowered to the point that consistently less than 10 percent of Taiwan people say they are Chinese. Those who say they are Taiwanese only or those that they are both Taiwanese and Chinese together make up 90 percent. NOTE: These terms are not defined, so we don’t know how the people being polled define them.
  • Third, this strong identification with Taiwan, which is a serious obstacle to the unification that Beijing wants, does not mean that the Taiwan public wants to create a Republic of Taiwan, totally separate from China. Around 80 percent of Taiwan people, who are generally very pragmatic, want the status quo to persist for the foreseeable future. This attitude is also an obstacle to unification.
  • Fourth, the implementation of one country, two systems in Hong Kong, particularly in the last ten years, has reduced the incentives of people in Taiwan to voluntarily accept Beijing’s formula. To do so would mean giving up aspects of the democratic system to which Taiwan people have been long accustomed.
  • Fifth, as I noted, some Taiwan politicians sought to exploit Taiwanese identity and Taiwanese nationalism as a resource in domestic political competition. This deepened China’s concern about what it feared – Taiwan independence. But my point here is that overall, Taiwan’s democratization reduced the possibility that China can achieve what it seeks – unification.

I remember hearing about a speech that Deng Xiaoping gave in the early 1980s. I don’t remember the topic of the speech. It was probably about the virtues of reform and opening up.

At the end of Deng’s talk, a brave member of the audience spoke up and said, “Taiwan zen me yang?” What’s happening regarding Taiwan? In effect, he was saying, why didn’t China’s normalization with the United States lead to Taiwan’s capitulation?

Almost forty years on, I suspect that a lot more Chinese are at least thinking “Taiwan zen me yang?” and Chinese leaders are still struggling to come up with a satisfactory answer.

Taiwan’s Last Two Presidents: Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ing-wen

During the past eleven years, there has been a shift in how democratic Taiwan has approached China. Taiwan’s two most recent presidents – Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ing-wen – have, each in their own way, shown greater moderation and balance in dealing with both China and the United States. Neither politicized Taiwanese nationalism in the way Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian did.

The level of danger was lowest during Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency, from 2008 to 2016. He believed that the best way to preserve Taiwan’s freedom, security, and dignity was to engage China economically and give it no reason to do Taiwan harm. At the same time, he maintained good relations with Washington.

But Ma ran into a couple of major problems. First of all, Beijing began pressuring Ma to enter into political talks, which he was unprepared to do for both domestic political and conceptual reasons. Second, the Taiwan public came to believe that Taiwan under his policies was becoming too dependent economically on China, creating political dangers. These and other factors led to the KMT’s stunning electoral loss in 2016 and Tsai Ing-wen’s stunning victory.

To win the presidency, Tsai Ing-wen had to deal with the perception that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) favored independence. She did that by pledging to preserve the cross-Strait status quo, which after all was what the Taiwan public said it preferred. She sought through various ways to reassure Beijing that her intentions were benign, that she would not seek Taiwan independence. She sought a modus vivendi with China.

But Beijing wanted more than her expressions of good will. It believed that her intention was independence, whatever she said about the status quo. I happen to believe that Beijing is wrong in that assessment of Tsai but my views don’t really count. Anyway, it demanded that she state certain principles about Taiwan’s relationship with China, such as the 1992 Consensus, and that she do so in the explicit way on which Beijing insisted. For those of you who understand Chinese and Chinese politics, Beijing wanted Tsai to biaotai, to make an overt accommodation to Beijing’s wishes. Anyone with a knowledge of the Democratic Progressive Party could have told China’s leaders that for her to bend to Beijing’s demands would have been political suicide. In Tsai’s inaugural address in May 2016, she did address Beijing’s key issues in an ambiguous way, but that was not enough.

By the way, one might ask what gave China the right to set conditions on good relations (Taiwan set no such conditions). One might also note that if Beijing’s demands reflected mistrust of Tsai, which I think they do, Taiwan had ample reason to mistrust China. If the mistrust was mutual, then reassurance should be mutual as well, not just one way.

In any event, Beijing proceeded to impose a series of economic, diplomatic, political, and military punishments on the Tsai administration. It:

  • Suspended interaction between the organizations on each side responsible for the conduct of cross-Strait relations;
  • Unevenly implemented existing cross-Strait agreements;
  • Created difficulties for Taiwanese companies whose leaders express sympathies for the DPP;
  • Snatched away Taiwan’s diplomatic allies;
  • Marginalized Taiwan in the international system;
  • Pressured third-country companies and governments to employ nomenclature about Taiwan that favors the PRC;
  • Conducted military exercises in the Taiwan area;
  • Restricted PRC students studying in Taiwan;
  • Restricted Chinese tourists traveling to Taiwan;
  • Limited interaction between PRC scholars and pro-DPP scholars; and so on.

It also offered incentives: the purchase of Taiwanese products, with preferences given for jurisdictions with KMT leaders; special treatment for Taiwanese businessmen, entrepreneurs, and students (the so-called 31 Measures).

It might be argued that the intimidation measures work contrary to Beijing’s supposed goal of “winning the hearts and minds of Taiwan people.” The PRC answer to that objection is that there are different ways to secure compliance, to win hearts and minds. Providing benefits is certainly one, and that was Beijing’s mode during the Ma administration. Yet, they say, displaying and exercising power is an alternative way to get people to do what you want, and the PRC is now the one with the power. It may not be pleasant with those on the receiving end of the intimidation, but in the PRC view, sooner or later they will have no choice but to submit.

New Danger Over the Horizon?

So is there a new round of danger ahead? In less than nine months, on January 11th, Taiwan will have presidential and legislative elections. As in the past, the results might change the current state of cross-Strait relations in a way that Beijing finds threatening. But the outcome might also work to its advantage.

At this point, the situation is very dynamic and confusing. I have to confess that I have no idea what will happen in the 2020 Taiwan presidential election. In each major party, there are rivals for the nomination: Chu Liluan and Wang Jin-pyng are declared candidates in the KMT and Han Kuo-yu may become one. Lai Ching-te has challenged Tsai Ing-wen in the DPP. And Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je may run as an independent. The KMT hasn’t yet decided on how to pick their candidate.

It’s worth noting that not only do the various candidates differ on their basic policy positions but they are also different in terms of political style. Wang Jin-pyng and Chu Liluan are rather conventional politicians. Tsai Ing-wen is an official who learned how to be a politician. Lai Ching-te, Ko Wen-je, and Han Kuo-yu are more charismatic and populist.

Until we know who the contestants in the election are, it is very hard to make a prediction. The outcome will depend on the candidates themselves, on the policy proposals they put forward, and on the organization they can rely on to mobilize voters. There is one interesting data point, however. That is the aggregate vote that the KMT and DPP received in the 2018 local elections.

The  KMT’s total vote in 2018 was 6,102,876 and the DPP’s total vote was 4,697,730, That is, the KMT got 55.48 percent of the entire vote and the DPP got 44.52 percent. Specialists believed prior to the 2016 election that the basic balance of sentiment between the Blue and Green Camps was 55 percent for the Blues and 45 percent for the Greens. The implication here is that the 2016 election was the anomaly and that Taiwan politics is returning to its previous balance of power between the Blue and Green Camps. But it’s too early to say.

Obviously, if Ko Wen-je runs a strong independent campaign, that will mess up the 55-to-45 ratio. My guess, though is that he will take more votes from the Green Camp than he will from the Blue.

From Beijing’s point of view, it would prefer a Taiwan leader whose policies would be in line with Ma Ying-jeou’s. These would be Wang Jin-pyng, Chu Liluan, and perhaps Han Kuo-yu. Beijing clearly hopes that the DPP candidate, whether it is Tsai or Lai, will lose, but it has more to fear from Lai than Tsai. He is Deep Green while she is more moderate Light Green. In my view at least, she really is committed to maintaining the status quo, in part because that’s what the United States prefers.

I suspect that Beijing would also prefer a Taiwan president who does not understand the history of cross-Strait relations very well and so would not be so alert for the negotiating traps that China might set. Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ing-wen each had that deep understanding, even though they disagreed on some points. Although it is early days, each of the declared and potential candidates for 2020 have a lot to learn.

Even if the DPP candidate wins, that does not meant that the danger of war goes up. After all, China survived eight years of Chen Shui-bian and three of Tsai Ing-wen so far. It depends in part on the policies that a DPP leader will pursue and what the United States does. More important, Beijing has an option that is in between appeasement and war, and that is intimidation and pressure. Indeed, what we have seen for the past three years is a low-grade version of that. The risks are less and the chance of success over the long term isn’t bad. We certainly haven’t seen the maximum of what Beijing might do to bend Taiwan to its will.

We cannot emphasize too much the challenge facing Taiwan’s next president. The island faces a number of policy challenges:

  • How to sustain economic competitiveness;
  • How to spread the benefits of growth relatively equally;
  • What’s the right energy mix; and so on.

But the most important task for Taiwan’s next leader is forging a consensus on the nature of the challenge that China poses, and what to do about it. This includes answers to the following questions:

  • How should Taiwan balance its unavoidable reliance on China for economic growth with its economic relations with other countries?
  • What is the appropriate defense strategy to cope with China’s growing military threat, given that the Taiwan military doesn’t have limited resources?
  • How should Taiwan respond to Beijing’s ultimate goal of unification, its one country, two systems formula, and its likely demand for political talks?
  • If Taiwan finds it cannot accommodate to Beijing’s demands, how should it respond to what is likely to be a continuation or even intensification of the current campaign of coercion and intimidation?
  • What is the role of the United States in Taiwan’s grand strategy – politically, economically, and militarily?
  • How should Taiwan mobilize the social and financial resources to do all of the above?
  • And, finally, is it possible to build political support for whatever substantive consensus is formulated?

The US Factor

To sum up so far, I think the danger of serious conflict is fairly low. Beijing has reasons to exercise strategic patience, believing that time is on its side and its power will only grow. Taiwan’s situation is serious but nor dire. As long as its leaders act cautiously and don’t challenge China’s fundamental interests, it encourages China’s strategic patience. The two sides of the Strait have learned a lot over the last twenty-five years. In addition, the United States has been a force for stability. It has maintained a long-standing interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan area. It has stated its opposition to either side of the Strait unilaterally changing the status quo. When Washington has believed that one side or the other is threatening such a change, it weighs in to stop it. In effect, several U.S. administrations have followed an approach of dual deterrence.

So the idea that the United States, objectively speaking, would be a source of danger has been implausible. With the Trump administration, however, what used to be implausible may be becoming possible.

More than its predecessors, the Trump administration has had a couple of Taiwan policies at a time.

On the one hand, national security officials, based on their judgment that China is a revisionist power that wishes to diminish U.S. influence in East Asia, wish to broaden and deepen the security relationship with Taiwan. They take these steps at least to enhance Taiwan’s deterrent against China, and possibly to make it a link in a chain of containment against the PRC.

By the way, Beijing does not regard these changes in a benign way. It believes that the more Washington does to help the Tsai administration, the more President Tsai is likely to challenge China’s interests. I don’t believe that. If Taiwan’s policy towards China is growing more hostile, China has given it plenty of reasons to do so. But from Beijing’s perspective, Washington and Taipei are making the situation more dangerous.

When it comes to U.S.-Taiwan economic relations, the situation is not so positive. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of Commerce are unwilling to begin discussions on topics of interest to Taiwan, such as a bilateral investment agreement or a bilateral free trade agreement, initiatives that would strengthen Taiwan. These two agencies say that Taiwan reneged on certain commitments regarding market access for American beef and pork and that those must be resolved first.

Taiwan’s own interdependence with the China market creates another vulnerability. As I said, Taiwan has sustained economic growth and prosperity by becoming a key link in supply and value chains that run from the United States, through Taiwan, and into China, where final production and assembly takes place and from which many finished goods are exported to the United States. For purposes of U.S. customs, these products are treated as Chinese goods, even though most of the value-added may have occurred in Taiwan and the United States. So a U.S. government decision to increase tariffs on those goods would hurt the Taiwan companies and perhaps wipe out the narrow profit margins on which they operate. Given its dependence on the China market, Taiwan might become a victim of “friendly fire” in a U.S.-China trade war.

In my view, the divergence between U.S. security and economic agencies creates a fundamental contradiction in the administration’s Taiwan policy. If Taiwan is the strategic asset that the Pentagon appears to believe, then it makes no sense to hold it back economically. Even if Taiwan did renege on its commitments on beef and pork, those could be resolved in the course of negotiations on larger issues, in recognition of Taiwan’s supposed strategic significance.

There is the perception in China that Congress is actively contributing to the pro-Taiwan side of administration policy. It is indeed true that Taiwan has a lot of support in the Congress. That is mainly a function of the anti-China mood on Capitol Hill. It also reflects the connections between Taiwanese-American communities in the United States and individual Members of Congress. What is worth noting, however, is that the pieces of legislation that Congress has passed so far to encourage enhanced diplomatic and military interaction with Taiwan has no binding effect. They express sentiments and make suggestions but do not require the president to do anything he may prefer not to do. If these pieces of legislation were cast in the form of orders, moreover, they would arguably encroach on the president’s constitutional powers as commander in chief and head diplomat.

Then there is President Trump, who has affected Taiwan policy in a unique and vacillating way. As president-elect, he seemed to tilt in a favorable direction by taking a phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen on December 2, 2016. Nine days later, however, he talked as if he wanted to use Taiwan merely as leverage against China on trade and North Korea. Thereafter, it seems that Trump has been willing to defer to China’s President Xi Jinping on matters concerning Taiwan. In a September 6, 2018 column in the Washington Post, Josh Rogin reported this statement from a “senior administration official”: “This administration, from a personnel perspective, has the most hawkish Taiwan team ever…But if Xi calls [Donald Trump] and complains, the president’s instinct is to defer to that because there is always some pending issue in which we want something from the Chinese.”

Finally, there is some question about President Trump’s personal commitment to Taiwan’s security. Since the termination of the U.S.-ROC mutual defense treaty in 1980, Washington has no legal requirement to come to Taiwan’s defense. But that commitment is certainly implicit in U.S. policy statements, as long as Taiwan itself does not provoke a conflict. Yet in a meeting with his national security team Trump reportedly asked, “What do we get from protecting Taiwan, say?”

As an aside, it must be stressed that the process for formulating and implementing policy in the Trump administration is highly dysfunctional compared to its predecessors. The inter-agency process, which previously was inclusive and relied on expertise, is broken. Trump himself is untethered from whatever process remains.

Taiwan is obviously pleased with the support it receives from the United States, even as it understands the downsides and wild cards. But there is some danger that it gets caught in the middle of the strategic competition that is growing between the United States and China. If U.S.-China relations became a zero-sum struggle, Taiwan won’t necessarily and automatically be the beneficiary. Moreover, President Tsai understands the need to maintain a balance between China and America. If Taiwan elects a Blue president in 2020, that person will seek to improve relations with China, which might lead some in the Trump administration to think that Taiwan is getting too close to America’s supposed rival.

Summing Up

On March 31st, two PLA aircraft flew for about ten minutes on the Taiwan side of the so-called median line that runs up and down the Taiwan Strait. They penetrated as much as 43 nautical miles across the line. Taiwan air force planes scrambled to monitor the PLA planes. This was the first time in twenty years that there had been a provocation of this sort by China, and it caused many people to worry about heightened tensions or even conflict.

I actually believe that the purpose of this action was to send a political signal to the United States and Taiwan to express displeasure at a variety of recent developments between them that suggested closer cooperation. But this does raise the broader question of just how dangerous the interaction amongst Beijing, Taipei, and Washington is. Here, in conclusion, are my best estimates:

  • First, absent from a clear and strong provocation by Taiwan, such as a declaration of independence, China will not initiate a full scale military campaign against campaign to achieve unification. It has other ways of pursuing its goals, and it believes that over time it will become more powerful. Also, the two sides have been careful in managing their interactions over the Taiwan Strait.
    • But if Beijing were to continue to engage in provocative actions as it did two weeks ago, it raises the possibility of an accidental clash that could then escalate into a broader conflict.
  • Second, the chances that Taiwan will declare independence explicitly are close to zero. The population is opposed to that and is unlikely to elect a leader who might try it.
    • However, if a pro-independence president were elected, Beijing might interpret his or her actions as covert moves towards independence and feel it has to take some sort of action. Miscalculation could be a problem.
  • Third, one danger for Taiwan is that Beijing will decide to expand its intimidation campaign – militarily, politically, economically, and diplomatically – and then give Taiwan an ultimatum that it is time for Taiwan to capitulate.
    • A key variable here is the strength and unity of Taiwan’s society, and I worry about the polarization of Taiwan’s politics and the inability of the political system to even try to reach a consensus on key issues, particularly on the China issue.
  • For Taiwan, although the United States has provided strong support over the years, and although the implicit U.S. commitment to come to Taiwan’s defense has helped keep the peace, there are a couple of dangers that come with that support.
    • The first is that Taiwan will get entrapped in a larger strategic rivalry between China and the United States.
    • The second is that an American president who believes that protecting Taiwan is not in the national interest of the United States will signal abandonment of Taiwan, which would weaken deterrence.

In thinking about the China-Taiwan dispute, from which we cannot exclude the possibility of war, there is a question that should be asked but never is. That is, why does China continue to insist that its unification formula – one country, two systems – is the only one available for resolving its fundamental dispute? Moreover, why should Beijing be allowed to define the terms of the debate?

One country, two systems was formulated almost forty years ago in very different circumstances. It was a formula that may have been appropriate for those times. But a lot has changed since then. The world has changed. China has changed. And, most importantly, Taiwan has changed. It became a democracy in which the people have made it very clear that unification on China’s terms is totally unacceptable. Perhaps, in order to reduce the danger of the current situation, it’s time for China to change the terms on which to discuss a political solution to its Taiwan problem.