Until this past week’s elections, the history of Taiwan and the history of the Nationalist Party were mostly identical. But the passage of time, the emergence of democracy and the political infighting that divided Nationalist support made possible the victory of the Democratic Progressive Party and its standard-bearer, Chen Shui-bian.
The winning candidate, now Taiwan’s president-elect, is long associated with favoring independence. Yet during the campaign this stance was not articulated. This suggests that Taiwan’s new leader will follow a careful course once he assumes office in May.
Still, the mainland Chinese are uneasy. It is difficult to exaggerate the seriousness of this issue, except to say it dwarfs all others for China. Taiwan’s fate is the national issue.
For nearly three decades, the United States has sought to navigate the complex and intense relationship between China and Taiwan by closely adhering to a policy premised on multiple realities: a legal reality of one China, represented by the government in Beijing; a foreign policy reality, where the United States is open to reunification, but only on a peaceful, voluntary basis; and a political reality, in which U.S. officials maintain a relationship with Taiwan that is arms-length but involves the United States providing limited arms and limited assurances.
Successive American presidents have tried to ensure that any unification would be peaceful through what might be described as “strategic ambiguity:” Taiwan is discouraged from declaring its independence, something that would trigger a Chinese attack, because it cannot be entirely sure the United States would rush to its defense. China, meanwhile, is discouraged from attacking Taiwan (regardless of whether it declares independence) because it cannot rule out the possibility of U.S. resistance.
This approach is under mounting pressure. In late 1996, Chinese missile firings near Taiwan (stimulated by signs that Taiwan was flirting with independence) led the United States to position warships in the vicinity. And just several weeks ago, a Chinese government white paper suggested that China might resort to force simply because Taiwan was dragging its feet on talks designed to bring about a unified country.
At the same time, the fact that Taiwan just elected a man who for years espoused independence suggests that it could be a matter of time before he or a successor actually takes that step.
Despite these developments, the United States could stick with its current policy. There are, however, a number of options. One, recently espoused by House Majority Whip Tom Delay (R-TX), argues that Washington should jettison its “one China” policy and accept, in his words, that “there are, in fact, two Chinese states.”
But adopting a “two China” policy could trigger the conflict over Taiwan we seek to avoid. Even if not, it would require extensive military undertakings and lead to a major falling out with China that would end Sino-American cooperation regarding the Korean peninsula, preventing both the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and of trade.
Another approach would have us move from strategic ambiguity to a posture of greater clarity. We could, for example, inform both China and Taiwan that only if Taiwan declared independence would there be any question of American willingness to come to its defense.
The problem with this idea is that it might prompt Taiwan to take every step short of independence—steps that still might provoke a Chinese attack that in turn would require a U.S. response. Still, China would have to calculate that most any and possibly all uses of force on its part against Taiwan would be resisted with American help.
Taiwan, however, likely would be dissuaded from declaring its independence or otherwise acting recklessly. It still would be left with some uncertainty as to the U.S. response, and even if the United States came to Taiwan’s aid, Taiwan’s leaders know their economy and society would suffer profoundly in the conflict.
The goal: a Taiwanese China
On balance, moving in the direction of greater clarity about what the United States is prepared to do appears more likely to succeed in keeping the situation between China and Taiwan calm than simply trying to sustain current levels of ambiguity. In the end, the United States maintains a vital interest in not allowing China to determine Taiwan’s fate with force.
Were China to succeed, it would not only teach its leaders a dangerous lesson but also would prompt countries in the region to lose faith in the United States, leading some to accommodate China and others to develop nuclear weapons and chart an increasingly independent course.
The critical point not to be lost is that it is in the interests of everyone to play for time, to encourage China to eschew any use of military force and to encourage Taiwan to avoid taking symbolic steps. The best hope for a peaceful outcome lies in China gradually becoming more like Taiwan—that is, more democratic.
As the difference between the two societies narrows, the chance for voluntary unification grows. In this scenario, the China that would emerge would be called China but would resemble Taiwan.
On April 11, Jamie Horsley spoke on a panel about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Asian development during a session of the American Bar Association’s Section of International Law 2019 Annual Conference, held in Washington, D.C.