Dual Deterrence: A New Taiwan Strategy

After an extremely narrow reelection victory, Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian has revealed his true colors, indicating he will continue to advance the cause of Taiwan's independence.

 After an extremely narrow reelection victory, Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian has revealed his true colors, indicating he will continue to advance the cause of Taiwan's independence.  The United States needs to change its approach toward Taiwan to keep Chen's agenda in check and avoid a cross-Strait military conflict. 

During the period immediately before the March 20 election, debates raged over whether Chen was stoking Taiwanese nationalism solely to help his electoral chances or out of genuine conviction to lead Taiwan toward independence.  After his election victory by less than 30,000 votes, and now that he is free of any future electoral constraints, Chen's intentions are clear.  He told the Washington Post in Taipei on Monday, "The fundamental reason I won this presidential election . . . is because there is a rising Taiwan identity and it has been solidified.  I think the Beijing authorities should take heed of this fact and accept the reality."  Chen added, "I think we have reached an internal consensus that insists upon Taiwan being an independent, sovereign country."

Chen's statements reveal that he has misread his electoral mandate, misread the meaning of sovereignty, and misread attitudes in Beijing and Washington.  The United States has a strongly compelling interest in changing its approach toward Taiwan to keep Chen from entangling the United States in a military conflict with China.  Because the United States has become less ambiguous in its commitment to Taiwan's defense, any use of Chinese military force will probably provoke an American naval response.  Because China will undoubtedly be the first mover in this action-reaction cycle, the United States will not be able to decide upon the timing of the conflict.  At stake are thousands of American lives, the economic prosperity of perhaps the entire Asia-Pacific region, the enormous volume of American trade with China and investment in China, and U.S. strategic cooperation with China on North Korea, terrorism, and nonproliferation.  These stakes are momentous, but without influence over both Taiwan and China the United States will have little control over events. 

The "one China" policy, which acknowledges that Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait believe there is "one China, and that Taiwan is a part of China," has remained the foundation of U.S.-China relations since it was negotiated by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in 1972.  After normalization of relations with China in 1979, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act to reaffirm Washington's commitment to Taiwanese security.   Since 1979, Taiwan has become a fully democratic polity, and has witnessed a historic handover of power to Chen's Democratic Progressive Party.  Despite tensions, the "one China" formula has produced a relatively stable cross-Strait environment over the past thirty years. 

China's resolve to reunite Taiwan with the mainland, through military force if necessary, should not be understated.  The concept of the indivisibility of the Chinese nation has deep historical roots and contemporary political implications.  Chinese leaders not only fear the domino effect that the loss of Taiwan could create in Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Hong Kong, but also the loss of legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  Few observers of China believe the CCP could survive an independent Taiwan.  For the Chinese leadership, compared to the possibility of losing power, military action to prevent the loss of Taiwan is not only possible but probable.  Conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan is not inevitable.  Perceptions of stability are critical to maintain stability.  Beijing is not aiming to reclaim Taiwan immediately, but to maintain reunification as a political option.  If Beijing perceives that Taiwan's leadership will never permit reunification, the Chinese leadership could conclude that military force is the only acceptable option.