Moreover, “the status quo” on the Taiwan Strait obviously has a variable and selective meaning depending on who is characterizing it. It is certainly true that the nature of the cross-strait situation has been altered over time by Chinese military and diplomatic pressure “and other activities.” At the same time, the circumstances have also been altered by actions taken by both Taipei and Washington. For example, five years ago the cross-strait “status quo” was one in which Taipei’s adherence to a “one China” framework appeared more substantive than it does today. And if Washington itself has not changed its “one-China policy,” it has nonetheless repeatedly expanded the interpretation of what kinds of activities are consistent with that policy. This is inherent in Stilwell’s acknowledgment that Washington recently made “adjustments” and “updates” to “better reflect” existing policies and to “respond to changing circumstances” and the “growing and deepening ties of friendship, trade, and productivity between the United States and Taiwan.” In more recent congressional testimony, Stilwell emphasized that “the United States will continue to advance our engagement with Taiwan.” So the status quo has never been static. All three parties have taken steps that have altered its nature and its appearance.
This evolution highlights what may now be the greatest vulnerability of the U.S. position: the possibility that its “one China policy” is no longer consistent or compatible with Taipei’s—especially if Taipei is not prepared or willing to assert that it still has a “one China” policy. This is highly problematic because Beijing, given the historical agreements outlined above, will hold Washington accountable for upholding the “one China” framework. Instead, Beijing sees Washington bolstering and expanding its support for a Taiwan that has retreated from that framework—which can only encourage and even empower actors on Taiwan to take U.S. support for granted and continue pushing the envelope.
This is why Washington’s perennial reaffirmation of its commitment to “our one-China policy” is increasingly less persuasive to Beijing, which finds the substance of that policy increasingly elusive. Beijing can also hear the voices in the United States that are now openly advocating abandonment of that policy. And the reason the stakes are so high is that—ever since 1972—“Taiwan was the crucial issue obstructing the normalization of relations between China and the United States.” If the mutual understanding between Washington and Beijing that made normalization possible no longer exists, then the U.S.-China diplomatic relations will be at risk.
History can be “an inconvenient truth.” But the last serious crisis in cross-strait relations appears to have been long enough ago (1996? 2008?) for some in Washington to have forgotten—or maybe never to have known—how serious it can get. In the meantime, U.S.-China relations have deteriorated to a point where Beijing’s perspective on almost any bilateral issue is now deemed invalid or unreasonable. Indeed, its views on many issues are invalid and unreasonable. But we should be extremely cautious about dismissing Beijing’s perspective on Taiwan, or underestimating how deadly serious the issue is to Chinese leaders. It represents the unfinished business of the Chinese Civil War and thus involves the legitimacy and the survival of the Chinese Communist Party. Despite American distaste for the Chinese Communist Party, the inconvenient truth is that Washington explicitly committed several decades ago to not “pursuing a policy of ‘two Chinas’ or ‘one China, one Taiwan’” as a strategic prerequisite to establishing a relationship with Beijing. China has since become both the United States’ primary global strategic competitor and a necessary strategic partner on a wide range of global issues. That will be hard enough to manage without endangering the relationship’s foundation of mutual understandings regarding Taiwan.
The good news is that, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, Beijing is not in fact looking for excuses or an opportunity to attack Taiwan: it is looking for reasons not to do so. The danger is that Chinese leaders currently do not perceive Washington and Taipei to be providing those reasons.
Paul Heer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2007 to 2015. He is the author of Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2018).