Skip to main content
On the Record

The United States, China, Taiwan, and the Future of East Asia

It is a great honor and a pleasure to be your keynote speaker this evening:

  • An honor because I am a relatively small potato in this city and Brookings is one of its premier think-tanks, an able competitor in the Washington marketplace of ideas and a reservoir of talent for the U.S. government.

  • A pleasure because I see so many good friends and some former colleagues in the audience.

I thank Mike Armacost for inviting me to share a few thoughts with you this evening. But I also wish to thank those of you who serve on Advisory Council for the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies. Bates Gill has done an outstanding job as the Center’s director, but he did so in part because of the important contributions that you have made to the Center’s work. It and Brookings would surely be poorer without your insights and guidance.

Mike asked me to talk about the current dynamic in cross-Strait relations and its impact on future U.S.-China relations. That’s a tall order but I will do my best, offering a mix of truly personal observations and my understanding of U.S. policy.

Points of Reference

To begin, I would like to review a little history.

I became interested a few years ago in just how it happened that the allies in World War II decided through the Cairo Declaration that the island of Taiwan should be returned to China. I thus embarked in my spare time on a modest research project to find the answer.

Author

I discovered, first of all, that the U.S. Department of State created a rather ambitious planning process to generate ideas on territorial and other issues that would face the United States at the end of the war. Taiwan figured only slightly in this exercise, since it was at best a tertiary issue in the third front of the war. But by the middle of 1943, the relevant committee had prepared an options paper on the disposition of the island. And the options were what you might expect: independence, continued Japanese sovereignty, international trusteeship similar to that envisioned for other dependent territories, and restoration to Chinese sovereignty on either an unconditional or conditional basis.

I also discovered that, as sometimes happens to State Department planning exercises, the White House had already made up its mind. In this case, President Roosevelt decided three months before this options paper was completed to return Taiwan to China. And his reason for doing so was very interesting. He had the rather novel idea that the best way to preserve post-war international peace and security was to disarm all countries except for four great powers: the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China (note the glaring omission of France). These “four policemen,” as FDR called them, would be responsible for enforcing disarmament in their spheres of influence. Thus China and the United States would take the lead in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia. If necessary, the relevant “policeman” would take military action against countries that tried to re-arm. Naval and air bases would be the staging grounds for such military action, and Taiwan, he felt, would be an ideal site for a base. So FDR concluded that since China was going to be one of the policemen, it made perfect sense to return Taiwan to China.

The other reason, I believe, that Roosevelt made this decision in February 1943 was that Madame Chiang Kai-shek was staying in the White House at just precisely that time and raised territorial issues with FDR, including Taiwan.

What is the significance of this episode for today? First of all, Taiwan, even at that early date, was allocated an important role in the global strategic order as Roosevelt defined it. Second, FDR chose to ignore the views of the people who lived on the island. He did understand that plebiscites were an effective mechanism for facilitating popular choice for colonial peoples, including in Korea and Vietnam, but chose not to use that mechanism on Taiwan.

Let us move forward to late 1949. The People’s Liberation Army has won control of the Mainland. Taiwan looms as the next target. The Truman Administration wrestles with whether and how to respond. Officials agree that the fall of Taiwan to the PRC would hurt U.S. interests. They explore ways to avoid that, such as a U.N. trusteeship, but soon abandon them as unworkable. And every time the White House asked the Joint Chiefs if Taiwan was important enough to commit scarce military resources, the answer came back “no.” So Truman decided that it was better to let Taiwan fall. And one reason, or rationalization, for doing so was the belief that Chinese nationalism was a more powerful force than communist ideology, and that a Sino-Soviet split would come sooner if the United States did not try to deny Taiwan to China. Again, Taiwan was a factor in a strategic equation as U.S. policy makers defined it, and the views of the people of the island were not considered. (Of course, with the North Korean invasion of the South five months later, the strategic picture in East Asia changed and Taiwan gradually became a link in the chain of regional containment.)

Move forward two decades to the opening to China. President Nixon and Henry Kissinger regarded rapprochement with Beijing as essential to preserving the American strategic position with the Soviet Union and in getting out of Vietnam on decent terms. We know that they were willing to make concessions on Taiwan up front in order to induce PRC cooperation. And again, the views of the people of Taiwan were ignored.

The same calculus was at work when President Carter engineered the normalization of relations with the PRC in 1978.

Obviously, there was a lot more going on in each of these episodes. Most important, perhaps, was the consistent support that Taiwan enjoyed in the United States, particularly in the Congress. This stemmed primarily from the anti-Communist ideology of the time, and found expression in things like the Taiwan Relations Act. But my basic point still stands, that Taiwan was very much caught up in the geopolitical forces that drove American foreign policy in the Cold War.

Today’s Strategic Chessboard

Today things are very different. First of all, there may be a new geopolitical structure emerging, but in our muddled, post-Cold War world, what that structure is and how Taiwan might be a part of it is not immediately obvious.

Second, I would hazard a guess that in East Asia at least, the new strategic order will be shaped by the rise of China. The fundamental question facing us all in the region is what kind of great power China is becoming, that is, what sort of role it will play in the region and what kind of relationship it will have with the United States.

Third, whereas the Taiwan people were not consulted when decisions were made about their future in 1943 and 1950 and 1972 and 1978, they now have a voice. The most important effect of the democratization on Taiwan that occurred under the leadership of Chiang Ching-kuo and Lee Teng-hui was to give the people of the island, in effect, a seat at the table of cross-Strait relations.

Coming back to the rise of China, there are contending views in the United States. One the one hand, successive Administrations have hoped sincerely that through economic interdependence and political engagement, the PRC will become a great power whose international impact, on balance, is positive. Its economic growth would complement that of its neighbors rather than compete with them. It would participate actively in a variety of international regimes that seek to constrain deviant behavior. Most importantly, the PRC would become a great power that accumulates national power not for its own sake but to use it, as the United States does, to preserve international peace and security and to promote global prosperity. Chinese national power would be actively harnessed to internationalist goals, such as combating terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. That is the vision that has animated U.S. policy for over two decades. That vision is still valid, I believe. It implies coexistence between China and other powers in East Asia, including the United States.

On the other hand, there is a growing concern in the United States that China is accumulating power, including military power, not to serve an internationalist agenda but in order to make China the dominant power of East Asia. This is not a concern that China would seek to engage in territorial expansion, except perhaps for Taiwan and the South China Sea, but that it would strive to secure an economic and political dominance whereby Beijing’s neighbors would not take a major initiative without consulting it and would tie their economic growth to China’s. This sort of future China causes concern not only because it probably leads to regional instability but also because it implies the displacement of the United States and changes in our traditional alliances.

Of course, there are conflicting Chinese views of the United States. The dominant view for the past twenty-some years has been that China requires access to Western and particularly American markets, technology, capital, and universities to foster the kind of economic development that will bring prosperity to most of the Chinese people and to facilitate China’s return to greatness. China must therefore take U.S. and Western concerns into account, at least in the short and medium term.

On the other hand, for over a decade we have seen a more skeptical Chinese view of the United States. Since the Tiananmen Incident, some Chinese have argued that the fundamental purpose of American policy towards China is to block China’s rise to power. Washington, according to these people, is trying to “Westernize” and divide China through a variety of actions. Moreover, it is said, we are trying to frustrate its benign military modernization by promoting the idea that China is a threat.

Because elements in both the United States and China have some doubts about the good intentions of the other, moreover, we have the possibility of what scholars call a security dilemma, where one side reads the worst into the security actions of the other and consequently enhances its military power, which in turn stimulates the first side to do the same, and so on and so on. American advocates of engagement have warned repeatedly of the self-fulfilling process of the security dilemma: if the United States treats China as our enemy, it will become our enemy. Conversely, if we act as if coexistence and great power cooperation are real possibilities, then they may occur.

The Taiwan Factor in the East Asia Equation

Where does Taiwan fit in here? As in the United States, there are opposing views on Taiwan of the PRC. On the one hand, economic interchange and social contact have increased rapidly since the mid-1980s. Taiwan companies have come to regard the Mainland as their key, lower-cost production platform and a market of great potential. For the PRC, Taiwan companies bring capital and management experience and create a lot of jobs. The liberalization that World Trade Organization membership requires of both Taiwan and China will only stimulate more cooperation. Although economic interdependence does not in any way guarantee political reconciliation, it does foster mutual understanding and shared interests in promoting cooperation and minimizing conflict.

On the other hand, Taiwan people watch with increasing concern as the PLA accumulates military capabilities that might be used against Taiwan (and in some cases for which Taiwan has no defense). Moreover, they worry about Beijing’s statements about its intentions for the use of force. And they resent Beijing’s blockade of Taiwan in the international community. In a democracy, such concerns affect government policy.

Now it seems to me that there will likely be some measure of correlation between the big picture—what happens between the United States and China over the long term—and the smaller picture: what happens between the two sides of the Strait. If our optimism is justified and interdependence fosters regional coexistence, then Taiwan will have been a partner in the engagement of China and so made a modest role in shaping a new strategic structure in East Asia. Also, there will emerge an environment that favors a creative and mutually satisfactory resolution of the Taiwan Strait issue.

If, on the other hand, the more negative scenario takes hold and there is a tendency for the United States and China to contend for supremacy in Asia, then the Taiwan Strait issue likely becomes the main arena for that contest.

Taiwan has always been the main criterion by which people in China judge whether the United State is fundamentally hostile and bent on blocking its assumption of great power status. For the PRC already, if the United States does not support reunification as it defines it, and if Washington acts toward Taiwan in ways that, in its view, frustrate unification, then the United States is obstructing China from fulfilling its national mission.

For the United States, in this scenario, Taiwan would increasingly become the criterion by which we judge what kind of great power China is going to be (for some Americans it already is). If Beijing relies its growing military capabilities and a strategy of intimidation to get its way, then that is a China with which it will be harder to co-exist in East Asia. It is a China towards which, I suspect, we would feel a stronger need to demonstrate credibility and resolve and to assert the priority of the Taiwan people’s views.

Conclusion

I don’t want to leave you with a totally pessimistic picture. There is some reason for optimism. We can have some hope that the power of shared economic interests and cultural ties across the Strait will facilitate a political reconciliation that is genuinely acceptable to both sides. This is not, I believe, a situation that is so conflicted that creative minds cannot find a way out of the stalemate. The policy of the United States concerning Taiwan has not changed. Taiwan’s fundamental political aspirations vis-à-vis the PRC haven’t really changed over the last decade. It continues to seek an arrangement that is much better than one country, two systems; a role in the international system; and a freedom from fear of intimidation.

Even though there is reason for hope, I do think it is necessary to work through the not-so-positive scenarios that are latent in the current Taiwan Strait situation. The more you do, the more you realize how high the stakes are for all of us.

All the countries represented in this room have a fundamental interest in preserving the peace and stability that prevails in East Asia. That has been a primary goal of the United States for over half a century, and it will continue to be one. The rise of China is a new regional phenomenon. How to address the growth of China’s economic power, its military power, and its political aspirations is not just an American problem, it is an East Asian problem. Nor should it have just an American solution, it should have an East Asian solution.

By extension, how the Taiwan Strait issue plays out could well define what kind of region East Asia is going to be. If all sides can remain comfortable with the status quo, reap the benefits of economic cooperation, and if Beijing and Taipei could find a way to talk to each other, that will help consolidate the foundation for a East Asia marked by peace and coexistence.

Yet we have at play here the contending forces of China’s desire for national unification and Taiwan’s democratization, China’s growing power and the United States’ traditional role of external balancer. And there is the tendency on all sides to misperceive the intentions of the other. If these forces get out of hand and, God forbid, lead to conflict, then we are looking at a very different East Asia. To avoid that outcome, Taipei needs to avoid taking provocative steps and Beijing should resist the idea that resolving this issue will require the accumulation of greater military power and perhaps its use, and find a way to talk to the Taiwan government. The rest of us should work actively to preserve our shared interest in regional peace and stability and encourage the positive impact of economic cooperation. And this all needs to begin right away, because the steps we take in the next few years will likely define the shape of the East Asian region for decades to come.

Get daily updates from Brookings