As the relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) becomes more contentious and distrustful, differences between the two countries over the current state and future status of Taiwan—always a source of tension—are becoming more pronounced, and the stakes more elevated. The island is in serious danger of becoming a source of zero-sum strategic competition between Beijing and Washington—a significance it has never possessed in the past.
For nearly fifty years, Beijing and Washington have successfully avoided the transformation of Taiwan into a focal point of strategic competition and a potential trigger of war. This has been made possible largely because of a tacit, but nonetheless clear, understanding reached between the two nations at the time of normalization and diplomatic recognition.
This understanding exchanged Washington’s official recognition of the PRC (and derecognition of the Republic of China, or ROC) as the sole legitimate government of China and its “acknowledgment” of the PRC’s position that Taiwan is a part of China. China, in exchange, replaced its stress on forcefully “liberating” Taiwan with a new policy of peaceful unification as a top priority.
The U.S. side of this understanding constitutes the core of its One China Policy, while Chinese leaders have repeated their position in official statements since the 1970s.
Although Beijing does not accept some aspects of the U.S. One China Policy—e.g., that Washington only “acknowledges” that Taiwan is part of China and holds that the legal status of Taiwan remains undefined—it has, until recently, taken it as a credible statement of a U.S. commitment to refrain from supporting Taiwan if it were to seek sovereignty or permanent separation from mainland China. This has given Beijing the opportunity to focus on reunifying peacefully with the island while sustaining deterrence against possible attempts to violate the understanding.
To be clear, Beijing has never disavowed the possibility of using force to reunify with Taiwan as a last resort. So too does the process for achieving peaceful unification and the specific features of that end–state (beyond vague descriptions of the “one country, two systems” formula) remain largely undefined. Nonetheless, the United States has seen China’s commitment to peaceful unification as sufficiently credible to justify upholding its One China Policy and limiting its military assistance to Taiwan, albeit in the context of continued arms sales to the island.
Maintaining the viability of this U.S.-China understanding requires the upholding of specific types of behavior. Most importantly, Washington’s scope of relations with Taiwan must remain limited to the unofficial level, defined in ways that are readily understood and accepted, especially by Beijing. In addition, Washington’s resistance to any unilateral effort by Taipei to permanently separate Taiwan from China must remain credible.
Equally important, to maintain the viability of the One China policy, the United States must continue to reject efforts to treat Taiwan as a full-fledged security ally—e.g., by holding military exercises with Taiwan’s forces, deploying U.S. combat forces to the island, or bringing Taiwan within the U.S. defense network now being built along the Asian littoral. Violations of these behaviors, regardless of whether U.S. officials rhetorically continue to espouse fealty to the One China Policy, directly undermine the U.S.-China understanding; it increases the possibility of a very dangerous conflict over Taiwan, which Washington wants to avoid.
Similarly, Beijing’s commitment to peaceful unification with Taiwan must also remain credible. This implies continued efforts to engage Taipei in cross-strait talks, to strengthen cross-strait economic, cultural, and social ties, and to avoid acquiring major amphibious or other military capabilities or making deployments that would logically convey preparations for attacking Taiwan.
Unfortunately, the commitments of both the United States and China to the above features, which maintained stability in the Taiwan Strait for decades, have been eroding for several years. This erosion process began in the 1990s, if not earlier, but has accelerated significantly over the past decade with the intensification of competition between Beijing and Washington.
Although both sides are to blame for this process, the United States is arguably the most dangerous driver of potential conflict. This is because Beijing’s red line is much more easily crossed than Washington’s. For China, the risks and costs of resorting to force to seek control over Taiwan are certain and remain extremely high, while an increasing number of American observers believe that eviscerating or even abrogating the One China policy is a necessary and acceptable risk to deter Beijing.
There is little doubt about the consequences of a Chinese decision to attack Taiwan. Numerous war simulations, Track Two crisis management discussions, and detailed assessments of military capabilities on all sides clearly show that a war over the island would result in a pyrrhic victory, regardless of which side prevails.
Despite the U.S. need to maintain strategic ambiguity as to whether and when it might aid Taiwan in a conflict with Beijing, it is virtually certain that U.S. forces would be deployed to defend the island if China were to attack it without provocation, thus ensuring a major conflict. As a result, Taiwan would suffer enormous physical and economic damage, which would guarantee a deep level of enmity between Taiwan and China for generations. Loss of lives would likely number in the tens of thousands, if not more. China’s economic and diplomatic relations with the United States, Japan, and other major countries would collapse, triggering a major regional and global recession. And military capabilities on all sides would of course be degraded severely through the loss or expenditure of numerous aircraft, ships, missiles, and other weaponry and logistics facilities. Finally, any major war would risk nuclear conflict if one or both sides were to miscalculate.
Xi Jinping has placed significant emphasis on achieving progress toward unification. However, seeking to make progress toward unification and actually moving decisively to achieve unification are two very different things. Despite its increasing reliance on military intimidation, Beijing’s calculus for the actual use of force remains heavily political, not military; it is centered on whether or not Washington entirely abrogates its One China Policy and opts for the permanent separation of Taiwan from China.
Such a U.S. move would back Beijing into a corner and compel it to take the huge risk of using force, either to compel Washington to reverse course or to attempt to resolve the Taiwan problem once and for all. And it would almost certainly do this even if the United States enjoyed a superior military capability, given the extremely high, nationalist stakes involved in China “losing” Taiwan. China is far more motivated to achieve unification through indirect pressure and enticements, as long as Washington does not close off that option by abandoning its One China policy.
The United States weighs different considerations when it contemplates moves that undermine its bilateral understanding with Beijing. Instead of eroding the One China Policy, Washington sees itself as engaging mainly in prudent increases in military deterrence and signals of resolve and support for Taiwan, undertaken without any threat of direct military action and in compliance with the Taiwan Relations Act. However, these have included many actions that clearly undermine the U.S. commitment to conduct only commercial, cultural, and other unofficial relations with Taiwan.
Some of these actions include: using official, governmental types of nomenclature or symbols to describe U.S. offices or maps relevant to Taiwan; sending very senior government officials and military officers to the island; receiving senior Taiwan officials in U.S. government offices in Washington; shrugging off the optics of Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan when she was Speaker of the House, which gave the impression of an official visit; attempting to discourage countries from switching their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC; dispatching U.S. military trainers to Taiwan; placing increasing emphasis on the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances (both intended to justify close defense relations with and to reassure Taiwan) in descriptions of US. policy regarding Taiwan; remarks by a senior U.S. defense official describing Taiwan as a critical strategic node in the U.S. defense posture in Asia; statements by President Joe Biden that the United States will definitely defend Taiwan militarily if China attacks, and that Taiwan alone will determine whether or not the island becomes independent; and an effort by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when in office, to lift all limits on relations with Taiwan short of re-establishing formal state-to-state diplomatic relations with the island.
In addition to all these moves, countless numbers of former U.S. officials, members of Congress, defense analysts, and policy experts have advocated a wide range of actions that, if implemented, would severely undermine the One China Policy and, in some cases, clearly violate the understanding with Beijing.
For example, since leaving office Pompeo has openly advocated for the United States to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign, independent nation—a move that would almost certainly lead to an armed crisis if not outright war. Defense analysts such as Elbridge Colby argue that, given its supposedly critical strategic location, Taiwan must be brought within the U.S. defense perimeter. And some serving U.S. military officers want to re-establish elements of the U.S.-ROC mutual security treaty which Washington terminated in 1980, one year after normalizing relations with Beijing. Members of Congress have described Taiwan as a front line in the defense of Guam, Hawaii, and the continental United States, advocating extensive joint military exercises with Taiwan and the deployment of combat forces to the island. Meanwhile, analysts have stoked tensions by predicting a near-imminent war over Taiwan.