Taiwan's Balancing Act

February 11, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: TaiwanChinaDiplomacyWarXi Jinping

Taiwan's Balancing Act

Although Washington should not sacrifice Taiwan to placate Beijing, it must also refrain from using it as a stick for beating China.

The United States also has an interest in avoiding war with China, and while deterring an attack on Taiwan is a means to that end, so is minimizing Beijing’s motivation to take that step. The triangular relationship between the United States, China and Taiwan necessitates a policy of dual deterrence based on conditional assurances and strategic ambiguity. One part of this strategy involves discouraging Taiwanese actions that could pull the United States into conflict in the Taiwan Strait. The other requires using military and diplomatic means to prevent China from going to war to achieve unification.

The United States must also seek to maintain a functioning, and preferably multifarious and robust, relationship with China; and the reverse is also true, even if neither country consistently considers the other as an easy partner. Where interests coincide or overlap, cooperation can yield benefits to both sides, as it has recently on issues ranging from North Korea to removing highly enriched uranium from Nigeria and Ghana. Gains on these and other issues may recur on other important issues down the line, as international circumstances and national interests evolve. To be sure, the United States and China are often rivals in Asia, and Beijing has, not surprisingly, sought to shape the existing order in ways that better serve its interests—but it has not acted as a universal spoiler driven by a zero-sum mindset.

The United States may have to tailor the messages and capabilities that preserve deterrence, particularly as the balance of power continues to shift in China’s favor. But changes in American policy that depart from its “one China” policy risk triggering a chain of events that culminate in a crisis in the Taiwan Strait—even if none of the parties sought that outcome. Frustration over the inability to prevent the reelection of Taiwan’s pro-independence president Chen Shui-bian in 2004 led China to pass the 2005 Anti-Secession Law, which threatened the use of “non-peaceful means” if “separatist forces” pursued independence or if “the possibilities for a peaceful reunification...  [were to be] completely exhausted.” Further developments that suggest to Beijing that unification through diplomatic means has become a lost cause might impel it to up the ante. China’s increasing power has led its leaders and people to expect that others will acknowledge and respect its position and be mindful of its interests to a greater extent than before.

Domestic politics could also impel China’s top leaders to act more assertively for fear that failure during a crisis over Taiwan could erode their legitimacy at home or even encourage challenges to their power from within the ruling elite and even the People’s Liberation Army, which sees itself as the guardian of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Even if China does not resort to military force against Taiwan—the riskiest of its options—fundamental changes in U.S. Taiwan policy will almost certainly transform Beijing from a competitor that is also a partner into an outright adversary and spoiler. Yet, a bolder pro-Taiwan policy is precisely what some, notably within Congress, advocate.


Since the election of Donald Trump, Washington’s Taiwan policy has changed in style and substance, and influential members of Congress are pressing for even more pronounced shifts. Even before he entered the White House, President Trump sent some early signals, particularly through his decision to accept a telephone call from President Tsai in December 2016, that he might change American policy toward Taiwan. Although Trump has since pulled back significantly toward a more traditional Taiwan policy, the administration contains a number of influential Taiwan supporters and China hawks. This has encouraged pro-Taiwan individuals and organizations to double down and demand more fundamental changes in support of Taipei, the more so as the U.S.-PRC relationship has turned adversarial on several fronts.

Because of its role in overseeing American adherence to the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act, which mandates providing defensive weapons to Taiwan, Congress has long regarded itself as an important and legitimate player, even watchdog, when it comes to the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. And the emergence of the anti-establishment Tea Party, together with the mounting suspicion toward the “deep state” since Trump’s election, has further emboldened Congressional backers of Taiwan.

Consider, as an example, the 2017 Taiwan Travel Act (TTA), introduced by Representative Steve Chabot and Senator Marco Rubio, which was passed unanimously by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Trump in March 2018. The TTA permits American government officials at all levels to travel to Taiwan for mutual consultations. Though the legislation has not yet been used to enable precedent-breaking visits to Taipei by senior American officials, it represents a major departure in the way that the United States engages Taiwan. Chinese officials were quick to condemn it as a violation of the “one China” policy, and so did several prominent Chinese academics. One scholar, better known as an outspoken critic of various aspects of Xi Jinping’s rule, suggested that if the high-level visits occur, “Trump should not expect China to offer help on big international issues.”

Beijing’s suspicions have been stoked by other legislative moves, especially those that presage a change in American policy toward Taiwan on the security front. A case in point is the July 2017 Taiwan Security Act (TSA) introduced by Senators Tom Cotton and Cory Gardner. It mandated defense and diplomatic exchanges with Taiwan at the flag officer and assistant secretary levels, including Taiwanese forces in the RIMPAC naval maneuvers and the Red Flag air-to-air exercises, initiating U.S. Navy port visits to Taiwan, and inviting the Taiwanese navy to call at American ports. Nor was this a flash in the pan: two months later, Republican congressmen introduced a similar bill in the House of Representatives.

Ultimately, neither bill went forward to a vote, and Congress backed away from specific mandates. Still, the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) included language suggesting that the United States should (not must) take all of the steps proposed in the TSA. In addition, it mandated briefings on Taiwan’s defense needs plus reports on the Defense Department’s (DOD) evaluation of Letters of Request from Taipei for arms transfers. The 2019 NDAA likewise required that the DOD submit a plan for expanding senior military-to-military engagement and joint training with Taiwan, as well as for selling Taiwan weaponry to strengthen its asymmetric warfare capabilities.

Republicans have not been alone in seeking to strengthen American support for Taiwan. In September 2018, Republican and Democratic senators introduced legislation, the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act, that “requires a U.S. strategy to engage with governments around the world to support Taiwan’s diplomatic recognition or strengthen unofficial ties with Taiwan.” In addition, the bill, according to Senator Marco Rubio, one of its sponsors, “authorizes the State Department to downgrade U.S. relations with” and to “suspend or alter U.S. foreign assistance” to governments that switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing. The irony—or one might say hypocrisy—of a proposed law that seeks to punish small, poor countries for a change that the United States made almost forty years ago has surely not been lost on its potential targets.

The executive branch has resisted many of these changes or refrained from implementing them aggressively. Nevertheless, the TTA represents a major shift in American policy and pressure for additional change continues, particularly from within Congress, which is better known for its susceptibility to influence peddling by tribes of special interests than for balanced strategic thinking. Moreover, Taiwan proponents outside of Congress have pushed a range of additional departures from established policy, including scrapping the third communiqué with China, which was adopted under Ronald Reagan in 1982 and stipulated that the United States would gradually reduce arms supplies to Taiwan.

China has regarded the TTA, TSA and the NDAA as part of a trend and hit back by labeling them as “provocations” that “have crossed the ‘red line’ on the stability of the China-U.S. relationship.” But with a Sino-American trade war and possible sanctions on China over its arms purchases from Russia having added to existing tensions between Beijing and Washington, additional measures by Congress—or the fuller implementation by the executive branch of existing measures that it has proposed—may be in store. Worse, these may come without a careful evaluation that weighs the accompanying benefits and risks.

The United States maintains a one-China policy, has an abiding interest in peace and stability across the Strait, and continues to urge restraint by both sides. Washington’s policy of strategic ambiguity has worked well for decades by sending a clear warning, to both sides, not to attempt fundamental changes to the status quo. Nevertheless, changing circumstances in China, Taiwan and the United States require adjustments to particular elements of U.S. policy, although not fundamental changes. Three general principles should guide the recalibration. First, Washington should strengthen and regularly reiterate its commitment to deterrence. Second, it should avoid measures that edge towards granting Taiwan formal recognition, or even appear to do so. Third, it should avoid overreacting to political moves that China makes in tit-for-tat exchanges between Taipei and Beijing.