By: Mark Stokes |
NOTE: This post draws largely from aÂ Project 2049 study, authored by Mark Stokes and Sabrina Tsai, published in February 2016.
With the inauguration of President TsaiÂ Ing-wen in May 2016, the Republic of China (ROC, or Taiwan) completed its third peaceful transition of presidential power and the first transfer of power within its legislature in history. Since May, the Peopleâ€™s Republic of China (PRC) and its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have sought to further isolate Taiwan internationally. Sao Tome and PrÃncipe’s abrupt switch in diplomatic relations last month from the ROC to the PRC is the most recent example. The PRC has also leveraged its financial influence to shut Taiwan out of international organizations, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL).
Authorities in Beijing have long sought the political subordination of Taiwan under its formula for unification — â€œOne Country, Two Systems.â€ Under this principle, there is One China, Taiwan is part of China, and the PRC is the sole representative of China in the international community. From Beijing’s perspective, the ROC ceased to exist in 1949. Therefore, theÂ PRC functions as the successor stateÂ and sole legal government of China, including Taiwan.
Viewing political legitimacy as a zero-sum game and applying its One China principle internationally, authorities in Beijing seek further political isolation of Taiwan and co-management of U.S.-Taiwan relations as means to coerce the islandâ€™s democratically elected leadership into a political settlement on terms favorable to Beijing. Overtly or covertly, the PRC has sought to influence an amendment to, if not an outright repeal of, the U.S. Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the legal basis for bilateral relations since the break in diplomatic relations with the ROC in 1979.
Beijing has established Taiwanâ€™s embrace of a â€œOne Chinaâ€ principle as a precondition for resumption of formal dialogue. Political preconditions in the Taiwan Strait have a long history. Former presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian implicitly linked the Chinese Peopleâ€™s Liberation Army (PLA) missile buildup in southeast China with Taiwan’s willingness toÂ enter intoÂ political negotiations, including a peace accord. During his first term in office, former President Ma Ying-jeouÂ went further and explicitly established PLA withdrawal of missiles opposite Taiwan as aÂ precondition for initiating political negotiations. Â And rightly so, negotiation under duress almost ensures a bad outcome.
The PLA hasn’t reduced its force posture opposite Taiwan. With minimal U.S. political support for Taiwan’s position (with possible exception of arms sales notifications), former President Ma dropped his precondition and put any hope of political negotiations on indefinite hold.
In a break from past practice, the Tsai administration has expressed willingness to begin cross-Strait political negotiations without preconditions. It’s Beijing that now has a precondition, namely thatÂ the Â DemocraticÂ Progressive Party (DPP) must embrace a “One China” principle, often referred to as the 1992 Consensus. SeenÂ as a means toÂ sustain ROC sovereignty, the Ma administration viewed this consensus as each side recognizing One China, but with each interpreting its meaning differently. The DPP generally has regarded “One China” as an issue to be negotiated, rather than unilaterally conceded or inherited.
In the absence of countervailing policies, political pressure against Taiwan is likely to intensify. The PRC has been steadfast in its â€œOne Chinaâ€ principle and opposes any solution that creates â€œTwo Chinas,â€ or â€œOne China, One Taiwan.â€ Regardless of policies adopted by the Tsai administration, authorities in Beijing are expected to continue their campaign to subordinate Taiwan to the PRC under a â€œOne Country, Two Systemsâ€ framework.
While the PRCâ€™s policy towards Taiwan is shaped by concerns over political legitimacy, national interests and principles guide the U.S.’ relations with Taiwan. For decades, at least four schools of thought have influenced U.S. policy in the Taiwan Strait. One school holds that the U.S. should accommodate the CCPâ€™s position on Taiwan to advance its interests in stable and constructiveÂ U.S.-China relations. Â As part of a “grand bargain,” advocates propose amending the sechile the PRCâ€™s policy towards Taiwan is shaped by concerns over political legitimacy, national interests and principles guide the U.S.’ relations with Taiwan. For decades, at least four schools of thought have influenced U.S. policy in theÂ urity-related provisions of the TRA. Â In sharp contrast, a second school of thought has promoted the abandonment of the U.S. One China policy altogether with an extension of formal diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. Since 1979, the third and arguably dominant school of thought calls for maintenance of the status quo in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. Relying on ambiguity in the U.S. One China policy, defenders of the status quo stop short of defining the nature of relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. These supporters rightly argue that the current approach â€• formal diplomatic relations with the PRC and unofficial relations with authorities in Taipei under the Taiwan Relations Act â€• has contributed to peace and stability in the region. By provision of necessary defense articles and services to Taiwan, advocates of a status quo in U.S. policy highlight the role that arms sales play in enabling authorities in Taipei to engage counterparts in Beijing with confidence.
However, a fourth school of thought advances a â€œsoft balancingâ€ strategy that gradually extends equal legitimacy to both sides within a broadened U.S. One China policy framework. U.S. policy has yet to catch up with the changes that have taken place on Taiwan since 1996, especially since the first peaceful transfer of power in 2000. Acknowledging that negotiationÂ on the basis ofÂ sovereign equality is a necessary prerequisite for cross-Strait political talks, soft balancing advocates argue that adjustments are needed to create an environment more conducive to the resolution of differences over sovereignty in the Taiwan Strait.
The soft balancing school of thought, sometimes imprecisely referred to as a U.S. One China Two Governments policy, can be traced back to the 1960s, if not earlier, and remained on the table until the Carter administration. At its most fundamental level, the U.S. One China policy, in place in various forms since as early as 1943, cautions against the U.S. taking sides in sovereignty disputes and avoiding a position on Taiwanâ€™s sovereign status. This policy was reaffirmed in the 1972 CommuniquÃ©, in which the Nixon administration acknowledged, but did not recognize, Beijingâ€™s position on Taiwan. Between 1972 and 1979, however, the U.S. maintained relatively normal relations with governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Preserving relatively normal relations with both sides was viewed as consistent with aÂ U.S. One China policy. Â The Carter administration â€• making one of the mostÂ significant Â concessionsÂ in American foreign policy history â€• reverted to a narrow, zero-sum game interpretation of One China in 1979. However, the U.S. One China policy has never been easy to define. As former Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly noted in aÂ 2004 testimonyÂ before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs:
The definition of One China is something that we could go on for much too long for this event. In my testimony, I made the point “our One China,” and I didn’t really define it, and I’m not sure I very easily could define it. I can tell you what it is not. It is not the One-China policy or the One-China principle that Beijing suggests, and it may not be the definition that some would have in Taiwan.Â
Public debates have generally been between the first two schools — accommodation versus status quo. Even the last two — normalization versus soft balancing can be contentious, since the latter maintains a “One China” policy. Critics on Taiwan have cited a U.S. One China, Two Governments policy as a â€œdeal with the devilâ€ that would legitimize the ROC and reverse long-standing policy that holds Taiwanâ€™s international status as undetermined. Beijing officially opposes One China Two Governments. Viewed as contrary to Beijingâ€™s One China principle, the CCP has long been opposed to any inkling of shared sovereignty, which it associates with this option.
U.S. policy helped create the conditions within which Taiwan transformed from an authoritarian party-state to a representative democracy. However, U.S. cross-Strait policy has not adjusted to reflect this fundamental transformation. The zero-sum framework of formal diplomatic relations with one side and informal ties with Taiwan may have been appropriate in 1979, when both governments were authoritarian. However, with each passing election on Taiwan, and the further consolidation of popular sovereignty, the current U.S. cross-Strait policy may be increasingly difficult to sustain.
As Congressman Randy Forbes noted in The National Interest in 2015, â€œthe status quo in the Taiwan Strait is the existence of two legitimate governments. One, the Republic of China (Taiwan), is a liberal democracy. The other, the Peopleâ€™s Republic of China, is an autocracy under the control of the Chinese Communist Party.” He further asked “applying your [the PRC’s] One Country, Two Systems narrative to U.S.-Taiwan relations, how can you claim the right to represent 23 million people on Taiwan who enjoyÂ popular sovereignty?”
A more objective representation of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait may better serve long-term U.S. interests. More balanced relations with both sides of the Taiwan Strait need not fundamentally challenge the U.S. â€œOne-Chinaâ€ policy. Nor would it be prudent to promote â€œOne China, One Taiwanâ€ or â€œTwo Chinas.â€ Rather, within the context of a broadened U.S. One China policy, careful consideration should be given to a more balanced approach to dealing with both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
There are at least three reasons for reviewing U.S. policy. First, foreign policy should, to the maximum extent possible, align with objective reality. The objective reality is that Taiwan, under its current ROC constitution, exists as an independent, sovereign state. In 1979, the U.S. withdrewdiplomatic recognition. Â However, as highlighted in international law (Montevideo Convention), â€œthe political existence of the state is independent of recognition by the other states.â€ Â In other words, U.S. withholding of diplomatic recognition is a matter of political expediency. For purposes of domestic law, the TRA states:
The absence of diplomatic relations or recognition shall not affect the application of the laws of the United States with respect to Taiwan, and the laws of the United States shall apply with respect to Taiwan in the manner that the laws of the United States applied with respect to Taiwan prior to January 1, 1979.Â
Secondly, resolution of cross-Strait differences is constrained without broad acknowledgement if not recognition of Taiwanâ€™s legitimacy within the international community. The U.S. should not serve as a mediator or pressure Taiwan to negotiate. However, U.S. policy plays an important role in creating conditions for the two sides to resolve political differences. If one assumes that negotiationÂ on the basis ofÂ sovereign equality is a necessary prerequisite for cross-Strait political talks, one could argue that a policy that gradually extends equal legitimacy to both sides, within a broad U.S. One China policy framework, could be the only solution to create that kind of conducive environment.
Finally, soft balancing in the Taiwan Strait could better reflect foundational American interests in promoting democracy around the world. Viewing the U.S. One China policy in a zero-sum light, Washington extends legitimacy to an autocratic state while denying equal legitimacy to the ROC that has evolved into a vibrant democracy. Taiwanâ€™s institutionalized democracy is of intrinsic, fundamental value to the United States, but also could be instrumental in influencing political reform on the other side of the Strait. Indeed, Taiwan may gradually influence the course of Beijingâ€™s own democratization. Herein lies the rub. From Beijingâ€™s perspective, Taiwanâ€™s democratic governmentâ€”an alternative to the PRCâ€™s autocratic modelâ€”presents an existential challenge to the CCPâ€™s legitimacy and its monopoly on domestic political power. This need not be the case.
The United States has an important role to play in promoting peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region. Taiwanâ€™s value to the United States and the international community should not be assessed as a subordinate issue of balance-of-power theories or according to its relevance in U.S.-China relations. Taiwan is not an instrument in a great game. Nor is Taiwan an American asset that can be traded away to attain favor with Beijing. Taiwan is of intrinsic value to the United States simply because of its existence, historical significance, and potential contributions to the international community. Taiwan, under its current ROC constitutional framework, is a state, despite the political obstacles that have obstructed dual recognition of both Beijing and Taipei. All members of the international community matter and should be accorded status, especially among those with shared values. The PRC and U.S. relations with China are important to be sure. However, if the democratic peace theory that posits that democracies are less likely to go to war with each other has any merit, Chinaâ€™s political liberalization is a matter of utmost importance. Arguably, no other society is as capable as Taiwan in demonstrating democracy to the mainland with meaning and impact. Beyond this, Taiwan is valuable to the international community due to its economic role, support for international rules and norms, and contributions to humanitarian aid. Finally, Taiwan is valuable for Washington because of its history as a loyal friend to the United States.
In short, the PRC can be expected to increase reliance on coercive persuasion and accelerate its isolation of Taiwan internationally. Reflecting its own Cold War mentality, Beijing’s intransigence in recognizing the political legitimacy of the Republic of China (Taiwan) remains one of the most significant obstacles to regional peace and stability. As its pressure increases, the U.S. should consider expanding interactions with Taiwan within the framework of our existing U.S. One China policy. Greater balance in U.S. cross-Strait policy could help create conditions, without playing a mediation role, for resumption of cross-Strait negotiations on terms acceptable to both sides. The onus is on Beijing, and others in the international community, to conceive of some alternative that would be acceptable to people on Taiwan and mindful of Taiwan’s popular sovereignty. The U.S. should actively encourage Beijing to engage counterparts on Taiwan without preconditions and renounce the use of forceÂ as a means toÂ resolve differences.
The new Trump administration offers an opportunity for a fresh look at U.S. cross-Strait policy. A carefully considered policy review could examineÂ a number ofÂ near term measures. These include potential structural adjustments, such as possible re-subordination of the State Department Office of Taiwan Coordination as a direct reporting agency under the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, or perhaps organizationally aligned with Southeast Asia. To facilitate more senior level engagement, including regularized travel to Taiwan, consideration could be given to dual hatting of selected assistant and deputy assistant secretaries within State and Defense Departments as American Institute in Taiwan (AIT/W) associates or consultants. Consideration could be given to initiation of a formal consultative mechanism for people-to-people exchanges. The new administration also should clear the deck on outstanding Congressional notifications; approve commercial export licenses and/or technical assistance agreements in support of Taiwanâ€™s indigenous submarineÂ program, andÂ consider development of a long-term work plan for bilateral defense and security relations.Â