The Buzz

China's Taiwan Reality Check

Beijing has long needed a reality check on its Taiwan policy. Recently, that is what it got from both Taipei and Washington.

Massive Taiwanese protests against closer economic ties with China make it clear that peaceful unification under Beijing’s present rule will never be acceptable to the Taiwanese people. Having discarded an anti-Communist dictatorship, they have no intention of welcoming the Communist Party variety.

At the same time, the U.S. Congress celebrated the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). It reaffirmed America’s commitment to Taiwan’s security and continued existence as a free, democratic country. While the resolution does not have the force of law the iconic TRA does, it reflected Americans’ deep emotional and strategic connection to Taiwan. No U.S. Congress, with the power to authorize war, will ever tolerate a Chinese attack on Taiwan without mandating an overwhelming American response. Even a reluctant U.S. administration would be under enormous pressure to react with decisive military action—which, despite current budget constraints, it has the full capability to execute.

Strategic thinkers in Beijing—who are known for looking back centuries while planning decades ahead—need to return to the drawing board on China’s long-term relationship with Taiwan. The bottom line: China cannot be both “reunified” and authoritarian. It can choose to retain its current style of government and write off Taiwan as anything but a limited economic partner. Yes, that would be contrary to sixty-five years of Chinese dogma about Taiwan as an integral part of the People’s Republic.

Alternatively, Beijing can finally emulate Taiwan, South Korea, and other modernized Asian societies and embark on the path to democratization. Only then will Taiwan’s population take a serious look at possible political union. By then, an elected Chinese government might not even care as much about the issue. Unlike present rulers, it would not need to rely on nationalist passions to earn popular legitimacy.

Either policy course will be monumentally difficult for China’s leaders. Renouncing the use of force against Taiwan would alienate hard-liners and jeopardize their one-party rule; democratizing, by definition, would end it. But, as Taiwan’s experience shows, a reformed, once-authoritarian party can return to power democratically.

In any event, both changes can be accomplished in a measured, protracted way over, say, the next decade, to minimize political disruption and trauma.

No less an authority on the Chinese-Taiwanese issue than Richard Nixon imparted wise counsel to Beijing and Washington twenty years ago. The ultimate political realist, who created the original opening to China in 1972, wrote in 1994, even before Taiwan’s democratization process was complete: “The situation has changed dramatically since the Shanghai Communique. Realistic reappraisals of U.S. relations with Taiwan...and between Beijing and Taipei are overdue...The separation is permanent politically, but they are in bed together economically.” With the emergence of subsequent democratic Taiwanese generations, and China’s rigid adherence to authoritarian governance, the political divergence is even wider today.

In Beyond Peace, Nixon urged U.S. policy makers to strongly support Taiwan’s membership in international economic organizations—today that would be the Trans-Pacific Partnership—and to “extend to Taiwan’s Government officials the diplomatic courtesies that the leaders of one of the world’s major economic powers deserve.”

He also expressed confidence that Beijing would ultimately not resort to force over Taiwan: “The Chinese will not launch a military attack against Taiwan as long as Beijing knows such an action would jeopardize their relationship with the United States.”

Unfortunately, despite Nixon’s optimism, Chinese leaders have found reason to harbor new doubts about executive branch commitment to Taiwan. Within two years of his book, Washington introduced the concept of “strategic ambiguity,” saying a U.S. response to Chinese aggression against Taiwan “would depend on the circumstances.”

That policy vagueness has encouraged China to build an arsenal of attack submarines and antiship ballistic missiles to deter a future U.S. intervention on Taiwan’s behalf. And it invites the kind of strategic miscalculation that resulted in the Korean War. If and when an attack on Taiwan occurs, Congress will not allow this or a future administration to equivocate. It is better for China to understand that now rather than later by heeding the message Congress sent recently.

The administration can reinforce that message, and eliminate dangerous ambiguity, by finally moving ahead on a stalled submarine program for Taiwan and by selling it the advanced F-16s it needs for self-defense. Those actions would meet the letter and spirit of the venerable Taiwan Relations Act and help ensure the regional peace and stability it was intended to serve.

Joseph A. Bosco is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served as China country desk officer in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and taught a graduate seminar on US-China-Taiwan relations at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service.