Tensions are rising again on the Taiwan Strait.
Beijing, having apparently decided to increase the pressure on Taipei to surrender to “unification with the motherland,” has ramped up military maneuvers aimed at intimidating the island and is warning in the Chinese media that it means business It has also issued ultimatums for Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen to come to the negotiating table on Beijing’s terms and renewed its efforts to lure third countries away from diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. These actions have been generally attributed to China’s prevailing trend toward belligerence and expansionism, and especially Chinese Communist Party chief Xi Jinping’s aggressive streak and desire to make Taiwan a legacy issue for himself.
Washington has responded by reaffirming and taking steps to bolster its “unofficial” relationship with Taiwan and its support for Taiwan’s security and involvement in international organizations. In recent weeks, Secretary of Health and Human Service Alex Azar and Undersecretary of State Keith Krach have visited Taiwan, the Trump administration has announced new arms sales to the island, and Members of Congress have tabled multiple bills that would strengthen American material and moral support for Taiwan’s self-determination. In addition, calls have arisen for Washington to abandon its longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” on potential U.S. intervention to protect Taiwan from a Chinese attack, in favor of “strategic clarity”: by making an explicit public commitment to defend Taiwan in such a contingency. According to Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass and CFR Research Fellow David Sacks, this “should strengthen U.S.-Chinese relations in the long term by improving deterrence and reducing the chances of war in the Taiwan Strait.”
This prevailing narrative of Chinese aggression and the requisite U.S. response may sound compelling, but it is dangerous because it is based on specious premises, highly selective perceptions, probable miscalculation, and inattention to (or ignorance of) history.
First, the notion that U.S. “strategic clarity” would enhance Taiwan’s security by reinforcing deterrence of Beijing is almost certainly wrong because Chinese leaders—like their Taiwan counterparts—have long presumed and planned that the United States would intervene militarily in response to a Chinese use of force against the island. (A former U.S. diplomat with long experience on the Taiwan issue once observed that Washington itself was probably the only one of the three parties that was unsure what the United States would do in such a scenario.) Perhaps more importantly, Washington’s ability to intervene credibly and effectively has eroded considerably over the past several decades because of the relative trends in Chinese, Taiwan, and U.S. military capabilities in what would be the theater of any such conflict. It is unclear if the United States could have ever assumed a quick and easy victory. Regardless, those days of potential triumph are gone—and this is central to Beijing’s own calculus of deterrence. Indeed, a U.S. declaration of “strategic clarity” might even inspire or accelerate a Chinese decision to use force.
Second, the idea that Beijing’s increasing pressure on Taiwan is attributable solely to a unilateral Chinese decision to accelerate its end game toward unification, and/or Xi Jinping’s personal ambitions, overlooks or ignores the extent to which Beijing itself is reacting to steps by Taipei and Washington. Focusing on Beijing’s culpability is important, but it obscures the interactive dynamic that is fueling the escalation of cross-strait tensions. Tsai and the Trump administration are key variables in this equation.
It is true that Tsai, although she represents the historically pro-independence Democratic People’s Progressive Party (DPP), is much less provocative than the volatile Chen Shui-bian, the first DPP president of Taiwan (2000–2008) who fueled tensions with his openly separatist agenda. Tsai nonetheless represents a serious challenge to Beijing because she has adopted rhetorical policy positions—especially with regard to the notion of “one China”—that raise fundamental questions about whether Taiwan still considers itself to be within the “one China” framework that has helped promote stability in China-Taiwan-U.S. relations for nearly fifty years. The diplomatic and legal history of these rhetorical positions is arcane and subject to perennial debate, including charges of “salami-slicing” on all sides. What is currently most important is that Beijing suspects Taipei as having withdrawn from the “one China” framework, and suspects Washington of implicitly endorsing or acquiescing in this withdrawal. Indeed, Beijing views all the recent U.S. actions aimed at strengthening U.S.-Taiwan relations as essentially underwriting the shift in Taipei’s position on “one China.”
This is crucially important because the notion of “one China” is vital to the stability and even the existence of U.S.-China diplomatic relations. And this is where a quick review of the history is important. In the “Shanghai Communique” of February 27, 1972, issued at the end of President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China, Washington “reaffirm[ed] its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.” But the Chinese side also “reaffirmed its position: The Taiwan question is the crucial question obstructing the normalization of relations between China and the United States” and “the liberation of Taiwan is China’s internal affair in which no other country has the right to interfere.” When the two sides announced the establishment of diplomatic relations on December 15, 1978—nearly seven years later—Washington reiterated that it “continues to have an interest in the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue and expects that the Taiwan issue will be settled peacefully by the Chinese themselves.” Beijing, for its part, emphasized:
-“The question of Taiwan was the crucial issue obstructing the normalization of relations between China and the United States. It has now been resolved between the two countries in the spirit of the Shanghai Communique and through their joint efforts, thus enabling the normalization of relations so ardently desired by the people of the two countries. As for the way of bringing Taiwan back to the embrace of the motherland and reunifying the country, it is entirely China’s internal affair.”
Stop to consider the importance of this statement: “the Taiwan question was the crucial issue obstructing the normalization of relations” between Washington and Beijing for the better part of a decade. Only after they reached an understanding on how Taiwan would be dealt with under a “one China” framework could they agree to establish diplomatic relations.
That, of course, was not the end of the issue. Subsequent disagreements over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan necessitated a third communique on August 17, 1982, in which Washington stated that “it intends gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan, leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution.” It also affirmed:
-“The United States Government attaches great importance to its relations with China, and reiterates that it has no intention of infringing on Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity, or interfering in China’s internal affairs, or pursuing a policy of ‘two Chinas’ or ‘one China, one Taiwan.’ The United States government understands and appreciates the Chinese policy of striving for a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question.”
The Chinese side again supplemented this by reiterating “that the question of Taiwan is China’s internal affair,” and invoking earlier public overtures to Taiwan that reflected Beijing’s “fundamental policy to strive for a peaceful solution to the Taiwan question.”
In recent decades, both Beijing and Washington have claimed that the other has violated its respective commitments in the “Three Communiques,” with the U.S. side often citing, in particular, an implicit linkage between U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and Beijing’s continued pursuit of peaceful resolution. This was reflected in recent public appearances by Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell, as part of Washington’s rollout of its plan to upgrade ties with Taiwan. In a speech on August 31 at the Heritage Foundation, Stilwell highlighted several of the recent steps by Washington to enhance its interactions with Taiwan. He also announced the formal declassification of the “Six Assurances” that Washington delivered privately to Taipei in 1982, to counterbalance the U.S.-China communique on arms sales to Taiwan: Washington assured Taipei that it had set no date for ending arms sales; would not consult with Beijing on such arms sales, offer to mediate between Beijing and Taipei, pressure Taipei to negotiate with Beijing, or take an official position on Taiwan’s sovereignty; and was making no revisions to the Taiwan Relations Act (the 1979 Congressional legislation that outlined the unofficial U.S. relationship with Taiwan).
Stilwell asserted that all of these “important updates to our engagement with Taiwan” are “entirely consistent with our longstanding policy”—particularly “our one-China policy”—and with U.S. obligations under the Three Communiques. He said it was important to review the relevant history because “Beijing has a habit of distorting it.” Washington, he added, supports “the longtime status quo across the Taiwan Strait,” but “Beijing has unilaterally altered it, through flipping of diplomatic partners, pushing Taiwan out of international organizations, stepped up military maneuvers, and other activities.”
But Stilwell was distorting history, and arguably also unilaterally altering the status quo on the Taiwan Strait. For example, he reaffirmed Washington’s desire “that the Taiwan question be resolved peacefully . . . as Beijing promised,” and referred separately to Beijing’s “commitment to peacefully resolve its differences with Taipei.” But Beijing has never “promised” to resolve the Taiwan issue peacefully. On the contrary, the language quoted above from the Three Communiques clearly reflects a deliberate and calculated Chinese avoidance of just such a promise. Beijing instead said only that it would “strive for a peaceful solution”—and that the Taiwan issue, in any event, was “entirely China’s internal affair.”