Tensions in the Taiwan Strait are spiraling and have been since before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Communication channels for managing tensions have collapsed. Each of the main players — China, Taiwan, and the United States — believe it is acting prudently to protect its interests in the face of escalatory actions from the other side of the Strait. Officials and analysts increasingly are competing to forecast when conflict could break out, not whether it will occur.
Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for East Asia Policy Studies, John L. Thornton China Center
The Michael H. Armacost Chair
Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies
Nonresident Fellow, Paul Tsai China Center, Yale Law School
Taiwan is one of a small number of issues that has the potential to spark conflict between the United States and China. Given the stakes, it is essential for American policymakers to return to first principles for evaluating events, understanding America’s vital interests, and identifying the center of gravity for developments in the Taiwan Strait.
One should expect Beijing to remain bloody-minded in its determination to unify Taiwan with the mainland. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has sought to achieve unification since its establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. There are no signs that Beijing will waver from this goal in the foreseeable future. Cross-Strait tensions likely will intensify in the coming years. This will reduce the margin of error for U.S. policy actions on Taiwan.
This paper argues that the future of Taiwan will turn on whether the people of Taiwan can maintain confidence in their future. Confidence is the essential ingredient to gird the Taiwan people to resist fatalistic conclusions that resistance is futile and instead protect their autonomy and democratic way of life until such time as peaceful, uncoerced solutions emerge to resolve cross-Strait differences. Since 2016, the PRC has intensified its campaign of coercion to undermine the Taiwan people’s confidence in Taiwan’s future autonomy and democratic way of life. For the United States to preserve its abiding interest in upholding peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, it will need to visibly support efforts to enable Taiwan to enjoy dignity, security, and prosperity, even as it also maintains a credible military presence around Taiwan.
U.S. policymakers also will need to restore coherence to policy decisions and public messaging relating to Taiwan. It will be important for American policy to be guided by consistent precepts, including the principle that the United States supports Taiwan for its own sake and not as a tool for harming China. Washington can play an important role in managing tensions, but ultimately it will be up to Taipei and Beijing to resolve cross-Strait differences.
The author wishes to thank the Security in Asia program at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies for research support for this paper.
The author also expresses appreciation to Adrien Chorn for assistant with research, Ted Reinert for editing the paper, and Rachel Slattery for providing layout.