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The United States and Future Policy Options in the Taiwan Strait


By: Mark Stokes |

NOTE: This post draws largely from a Project 2049 study, authored by Mark Stokes and Sabrina Tsai, published in February 2016.

With the inauguration of President Tsai 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 People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have sought to further isolate Taiwan internationally. Sao Tome and Príncipe’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 — “One Country, Two Systems.” 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, the PRC functions as the successor state 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 island’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 Taiwan’s embrace of a “One China” 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 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) missile buildup in southeast China with Taiwan’s willingness to enter into political negotiations, including a peace accord. During his first term in office, former President Ma Ying-jeou went further and explicitly established PLA withdrawal of missiles opposite Taiwan as a precondition for initiating political negotiations.  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 that the  Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) must embrace a “One China” principle, often referred to as the 1992 Consensus. Seen as a means to 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 “One China” principle and opposes any solution that creates “Two Chinas,” or “One China, One Taiwan.” 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 “One Country, Two Systems” framework.

U.S. Schools of Thought in Cross-Strait Policy

While the PRC’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 CCP’s position on Taiwan to advance its interests in stable and constructive U.S.-China relations.  As part of a “grand bargain,” advocates propose amending the sechile the PRC’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 urity-related provisions of the TRA.  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 ― formal diplomatic relations with the PRC and unofficial relations with authorities in Taipei under the Taiwan Relations Act ― 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 “soft balancing” 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 negotiation on the basis of 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 Taiwan’s sovereign status. This policy was reaffirmed in the 1972 Communiqué, in which the Nixon administration acknowledged, but did not recognize, Beijing’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 a U.S. One China policy.  The Carter administration ― making one of the most significant  concessions in American foreign policy history ― 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 a 2004 testimony 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. 

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 “deal with the devil” that would legitimize the ROC and reverse long-standing policy that holds Taiwan’s international status as undetermined. Beijing officially opposes One China Two Governments. Viewed as contrary to Beijing’s One China principle, the CCP has long been opposed to any inkling of shared sovereignty, which it associates with this option.

Future Options

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, “the 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 People’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 enjoy 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. “One-China” policy. Nor would it be prudent to promote “One China, One Taiwan” or “Two Chinas.” 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.  However, as highlighted in international law (Montevideo Convention), “the political existence of the state is independent of recognition by the other states.”  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. 

Secondly, resolution of cross-Strait differences is constrained without broad acknowledgement if not recognition of Taiwan’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 negotiation on the basis of 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. Taiwan’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 Beijing’s own democratization. Herein lies the rub. From Beijing’s perspective, Taiwan’s democratic government—an alternative to the PRC’s autocratic model—presents an existential challenge to the CCP’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. Taiwan’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, China’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 force as a means to 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 examine a number of 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 Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program, and consider development of a long-term work plan for bilateral defense and security relations.