Rep. Ted Yoho’s article highlights the challenges the United States faces in maintaining a consistent policy toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan. But his article tends to fall short. It tends to misjudge the dynamics in the rapidly changing cross-strait relationship and some of the drivers undermining U.S. policy, including the United States’ failure to systematically advance the One China Policy over the One China Principle , which gave an advantage to PRC in the international system.
One Flag, Multiple Interpretations
Yoho notes the removal of the Republic of China (ROC) national flag from U.S. government websites “may seem trivial” but “for Taiwan even the subtlest implications about its status can be highly significant.” Recently I made a similar argument but contended that the flag’s removal could be misperceived by the Kuomintang of China (KMT), Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and PRC, which could create a source of instability and lead to potential escalation in cross-strait ties.
The KMT maintains an established policy to unify Taiwan with the PRC under the system of democracy and rule of law. The ROC national flag represents its vision; consequently the KMT could perceive the flag’s removal as weakening U.S. support for its unification efforts.
In contrast, the DPP tends to assign a lower profile to the ROC national flag. President Tsai’s administration could regard the flag’s removal as U.S. tacit acceptance of its “Dynamic” status quo , which supports Taiwan's indefinite political separation from the PRC and also opposes the PRC’s One China Principle and attendant concepts such as the “ 1992 Consensus .”
The PRC could interpret the removal in at least one of two ways: It could see it as U.S. support for Taiwanese independence groups who are increasingly active on the island nowadays. Or the PRC could see it as support for its One China Principle , which envisions the reunification of the PRC and Taiwan in accordance with the “one country, two systems”, as now being tested on Hong Kong and Macau.
Yoho contends the underlying basis of the United States’ “One China Policy” might not be affected by the flag’s removal. However, it could test the policy. Taiwanese independence groups could view it as support, become more active on the island, and cross a red line drawn by the PRC in the 2005 Anti-Secession Law , a law that outlines the conditions under which the PRC would use force against Taiwan. If hostilities break out in the Taiwan Strait between the PRC and Taiwan, the United States might have to enter the conflict on Taiwan’s side to deter PRC aggression, which, by law, it is required to do.
A Non-Interference Policy
Yoho recommends the “diplomats who steward the U.S.-Taiwan relationship should pursue policies that maximize the gray area in which Taiwan exists.”
But, in this case, the United States should adhere to a non-interference policy. Yet recent U.S. policy statements encourage not only a greater role for Taiwan in the emerging regional security architecture but also closer U.S.-Taiwan ties. The policy statements indicate the United States could expand political and military recognition of the Taiwanese authorities, which the PRC opposes. The PRC could perceive that the United States is moving away from the One China Policy —a policy that has maintained stability between the United States, PRC, and Taiwan for decades—toward a “One China, One Taiwan”, which could exacerbate tensions in U.S.-PRC ties and negatively affect cross-strait relations which are at a standstill.
As Yoho points out, “under the United States’ One-China Policy, the United States recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of “China,” and conducts only unofficial relations with Taiwan. However, under U.S. policy, it is an open question whether Taiwan is a part of “China,” and the United States opposes the use of force to settle the question.
U.S. policy also requires the resolution to include the assent of the Taiwanese people. Likewise, the DPP’s long-standing position , which is reflected in the Tsai administration’s policy statements, asserts the Taiwanese people’s sentiment must be included in the resolution.
Given that Tsai’s administration could perceive U.S. policy now favors Taiwan over the PRC, it could hold a national referendum on a sensitive issue to deepen democracy, protect human rights, and determine Taiwan’s future, something that is an established component of the DPP political agenda and mentioned in President Tsai’s major speeches. Holding a national referendum could cause a further deterioration in cross-strait relationship because the PRC perceives it as “separatist activities”, which, based on the Anti-Secession Law , could justify an aggressive response, making the Taiwan Strait a potential military flashpoint.
In a July 2016 article titled “ One China, 5 Interpretations , I identified emerging battlegrounds in the cross-strait relationship and recommended that President Trump’s administration and Congress monitor them closely. Those battlegrounds have now formed. The battlegrounds, the uneven application of U.S. policy, as well as the growing risk for the PRC and Taiwan to misperceive U.S. policy, all establish the conditions to trigger a potential outbreak of hostilities in the Taiwan Strait that could drag the United States in. Maintaining a “non-interference policy” as expressed in large part by the United States’ One China Policy could check this growing risk.