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Ambiguity Fading on Taiwan

Sep 18, 2020
  • Yan Yu

    Current Affairs Commentator on Taiwan affairs

Because of the dual stimulus of worsening China-U.S. strategic wrangling and the coming election, U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration has placed conspicuous emphasis on Taiwan:

• Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has openly referred to Taiwan as a country.

• The White House sent Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, the highest-ranking U.S. official ever, to visit the island.

• The U.S. is planning to sell Taiwan a number of its SeaGuardian surveillance drones, which it only sells to core allies, as a step in military cooperation.

• In economics and trade, the U.S. is planning to send Keith Krach, the Undersecretary of State for economic growth, energy and the environment, and even Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, for the first economic and business dialogue with Taiwan, to be followed by development of a U.S.-Taiwan free trade agreement.

Such moves U.S.-Taiwan relations warm. But why has the U.S. been upgrading substantive relations with Taiwan in such dramatic fashion? What adjustments in U.S.-Taiwan policies do these things reflect?  

Since 1979, the U.S. has long maintained a position of ambiguity on Taiwan, neither acknowledging the island as a state, nor denying it; neither pledging to come to Taiwan’s defense, nor declaring not to. Yet, as strategic gaming with China escalates, support for Taiwan and containment of China have become the basic consensus of both the Republican and Democratic parties in America. The Democratic Party’s 2020 platform deleted the “one China policy” while preserving the Taiwan Relations Act, displaying undisguised support for the island. Whether Trump is re-elected or Joe Biden becomes the next U.S. president, the country’s policy toward Taiwan will likely turn from strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity.

First, the definition of U.S.-Taiwan relations will shift from unofficial to official — never mind that under the three U.S.-China communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress, the U.S. may only maintain “cultural, business and other unofficial relations” with Taiwan. The Trump administration has broken the promise and is openly developing increasingly high-profile ties with officials under Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen. It recently declassified the “Six Assurances to Taiwan” made in 1982. Article 5 of that document says the U.S. “would not alter its position about the sovereignty of Taiwan.”

Second, the U.S. is shifting the previous policy of “dual deterrence” — both sides of the Taiwan Strait — to one-way deterrence against the mainland. The U.S. has followed a long-standing balancing strategy, exerting pressure on both sides and preventing both unification by the mainland and Taiwan independence. But there has been an obvious reversal in the past few years, breaking with the mode of “doing without speaking” in substantive relations with Taiwan, especially in military cooperation, and shifting to both doing and speaking. The approach is turning from low-profile to high-profile, and aims to impose maximum pressure on the Chinese mainland. This will convey a signal to Taiwan that the U.S. is a reliable backer of independence and will only encourage in to more aggressively accelerate efforts in that direction.

Third, the U.S. approach to cross-Straits situation has turned from preserving the status quo to sabotaging status quo. The U.S. had long maintained a policy of opposing either side of the strait unilaterally changing the status quo, and once harshly admonished the Chen Shui-bian administration over a referendum on revising the island’s constitution. However, the U.S. has adopted a policy of both appeasement and agitation when it comes to Tsai’s notion of “flexible” independence, “cultural” independence and independence through revisions in the law. It shows no indication that it intends to apply the brakes. On the contrary, the U.S. has established quasi-state, quasi-diplomatic and quasi-alliance ties with Taiwan as cabinet-level officials have visited Taiwan and large-scale arms sales proceed, constantly changing the cross-Straits status quo.

Fourth, the “one China policy” to which the U.S. agreed is morphing from “one law and three communiques” to “multiple laws and three communiques.” In addition to the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. successively enacted the Taiwan Travel Act and Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019. The U.S. Congress is aggressively planning other dramatic legislation, including the Taiwan Assurance Act, Taiwan Defense Act, Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, Taiwan Symbols of Sovereignty Act, and Taiwan Envoy Act. Such moves are aimed at building a legislative regime regarding Taiwan and an institutional framework for U.S. policies to ensure that whoever wins the White House in the future is bound by law to continue promoting relations with Taiwan and offset the Chinese mainland’s one-China principle.

There are multiple layers and complex causes behind the frequent U.S. moves regarding Taiwan. In the short term, they are meant for election benefits, and aimed at boosting voter approval ratings. An important tactic for Trump in shoring up approval ratings and desperately trying to gain advantage on Biden is his persistent effort to shift blame to China, for the pandemic and other things. His constant targeting of the Chinese mainland and use of the Taiwan question to shape a tough stance against China are no doubt priority options that offer the least cost and most benefit.

In the intermediate term, the moves are meant to recapture American dominance in the cross-strait situation. According to a U.S. assessment, the Chinese mainland’s cross-strait integration tactic is to increase the magnetic pull on Taiwan, economically and in other ways. Therefore, the U.S. needs to enhance its control before the mainland becomes a full-fledged major power that will no longer lack the capacity to intervene.

In the long term, the moves are intended to devour the political, economic, military and strategic resources of the Chinese mainland regarding Taiwan, making it harder to concentrate on developing itself, not to mention to have sufficient strength to tackle Taiwan. In this way, the U.S. intends to retard China’s process of rejuvenation and naturally hold back reunification.

The Taiwan question has always been the most important core issue between China and the U.S. The dramatic upgrade of substantive ties with Taiwan by the U.S. and its continual challenges to Beijing’s bottom lines will inevitably escalate cross-strait tensions. Recent encounters between Chinese and U.S. naval vessels in waters off Taiwan have conspicuously worsened the atmosphere and put bilateral relations in a precarious position. Miscalculation or misjudgment by any party may result in an unintended conflict, or trigger a large-scale confrontation, even war. The U.S. may be dragged into another mire. Nor can subsequent risks be underestimated.   

Meanwhile, America’s turn to clarity in its Taiwan policies may be hijacked by the authorities on the island under Tsai. Persistent pro-Taiwan moves by the U.S. may encourage misjudgments — for example, that some U.S. support for Taiwan means it will support independence. With a perceived American endorsement, agitators will become ever more reckless and may even proceed to a referendum on constitutional revision, which would directly provoke the mainland and push it to initiate the Anti-Secession Law — meaning non-peaceful means to safeguard state sovereignty and territorial integrity.

By then the U.S. will face a dilemma over whether to fight for Taiwan or forsake it. If it chooses the former, it would mean a protracted war with China, even a nuclear one, which is obviously against U.S. interests. If it chooses the latter, U.S. credibility will be undermined in the Asia-Pacific, with U.S. allies unsure whether it can be trusted.

For the U.S., clarity on Taiwan will generally be more effective in the short term than in the long term. In the short term, it may only anger Beijing. Over the long term, however, it will place the U.S. in a difficult position. The U.S. will face tremendous risks and tests regardless whether it supports or abandons Taiwan.

In the mid-1990s, there was a short period when U.S. Taiwan policy was unambiguous. It allowed Lee Teng-hui to visit the U.S., which ignited the third cross-strait crisis. At the beginning of this century, soon after George W. Bush was elected, the U.S. said it would spare no effort to help defend Taiwan. This inspired Chen Shui-bian’s push for independence and created a dangerously volatile crisis. To prevent harm to U.S. interests, the U.S. president had to personally condemn Chen as a troublemaker and take emergency steps to prevent escalation.

The historical lessons remain fresh. It is worth deliberating what U.S. clarity on Taiwan will mean to the U.S., and what consequences will flow from it.

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