As Taiwan nears its next election, the United States has made two noteworthy moves. One is passage by Congress of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2024, which calls for sending more resources to the Indo-Pacific region to prevent an “invasion” by China, and to provide support for the island. Second is the approval by the State Department of a $300 million arms sales package to Taiwan, the fifth one this year and the 12th since President Joe Biden took office. The purpose is to preserve Taiwan military’s command, control, communication and computing capabilities; to provide it with secure tactical information for its so-called defense; and to improve its capacity for coping with present and future threats through enhanced war preparedness.
Last month during his meeting with Biden in San Francisco, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged the U.S. to “stop arming Taiwan” — to which Biden obviously turned a deaf ear. In fact, in recent years, China and the U.S. have been talking about Taiwan following their respective logic. There is indeed some limited consensus, but it’s not easy to expand it.
Two sets of logic
The Taiwan issue is a legacy of China’s civil war, which involved national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and its resolution is a domestic matter between the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Beijing has always committed to a peaceful solution. However, the mainland has also condemned — and pushed back strongly against — efforts toward Taiwan independence. Beijing’s refusal to rule out the use of force is aimed directly at the separatists.
Based on the above logic, China, in dealing with other countries, hopes its sovereignty and territorial integrity is respected. Countries that want to develop equal and friendly relations with China commit to the one-China policy as the foundation. The United States, too, established diplomatic relations with China after cutting off official relations with Taiwan, scrapping treaties, and withdrawing its troops. Yet the U.S. has played tricks from the beginning, passing the Taiwan Relations Act in the same year it established diplomatic relations with the mainland. It thereby preserved political and military ties with Taiwan, but in disguise. Thus, matters regarding Taiwan have become complicated because of U.S. intervention.
Taiwan is the most important, most sensitive topic in China-U.S. relations. Recognizing that there is only one China is the political foundation of China-U.S. relations and the first red line not to be crossed.
In the Xi-Biden meeting in San Francisco, the Chinese side again reiterated its principled stance on Taiwan, stating that the U.S. should translate its pledge of non-support for Taiwan independence into concrete action. It should stop arming Taiwan, and support China’s peaceful reunification. However, despite all this, the U.S. has its own logic.
The U.S. claims there has been no change in its one-China policy, but in truth — in addition to the three joint communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act — the U.S. has put on the table “six assurances” it has made to Taiwan privately over the past few years. The U.S. claims it is opposed to either side unilaterally changing the status quo and says it hopes the two sides will resolve differences in a peaceful manner. Peace serves the world’s interests, it says, calling on Beijing to use restraint in military activities in the strait and adjacent areas. This has been America’s stated position for years, yet it has continued its arms sales to Taiwan to strengthen the island’s asymmetric war capacity against the mainland.
In fact, after the San Francisco meeting of Chinese and U.S. leaders, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reiterated his country’s commitment to providing arms to Taiwan. National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby also told media that the U.S. would continue providing Taiwan with weapons to strengthen its self-defense capabilities in accordance with domestic laws.
This means that the so-called peace in the Taiwan Strait that is being pursued by the U.S. is based on Taiwan having asymmetric war capacity, U.S. allies and partners joining hands and officials exchanging visits between the U.S. and Taiwan. On top of all this, the two economies are increasingly being bound more tightly together.
In 2023, in addition to U.S. arms dealers visiting Taiwan in groups and doing business there, the U.S. for the first time offered military aid in such forms as presidential drawdown authority and foreign military financing. Members of Congress have continued to introduce legislation supporting Taiwan and to create anxiety over an “invasion” by the Chinese mainland. They also seek to expand economic bonds with Taiwan. Semiconductor manufacturing giant TSMC is building a factory in the U.S., and the first-stage of the U.S.-Taiwan Initiative on 21st Century Trade is underway, and negotiations for the second stage have begun.
Continual mention of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is standard fare, as is the promotion of “internationalization” of the Taiwan issue. Politicians have attached great importance to the coming election in Taiwan. The chair of global transport leader AIT, Laura Rosenberger, who took office in March, has visited Taiwan three times, holding in-depth discussion with all three political candidates. AIT is particularly concerned about cooperation between the “blue” and “white” camps, and a phone call was made directly to Ko Wen-je.
The U.S. claims it takes no side in the election, but it actually is betting on all sides and testing all candidates. After comprehensive interviews, it indicated its support for the DPP and its candidates by its latest arms sales.
How to expand consensus
China and the U.S. have been talking their own talk on Taiwan because the competitive aspects of bilateral ties have led the U.S. to attempt containment of China by playing the Taiwan card. The U.S. has chosen an approach that optimizes its own interests, so the only consensus between the two sides now is avoiding conflict.
In September, the Chinese side published “Opinions on Supporting Fujian to Explore New Routes for Integrated Development of Both Sides of the Strait, and to Build a Corresponding Demonstration Area.” This was an attempt to promote integrated development on both sides of the strait. Of course, China doesn’t want a conflict. Likewise, with the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts on its hands, America doesn’t want one either. Its priority for 2024 is the general election. This limited consensus has kept things relatively quiet.
However, China is preoccupied with the ultimate reunification of the Chinese people, while the U.S. is in favor of preserving the status quo — peace but no reunification and separation but no independence. Different goals determine how the two sides will engage in the long game going forward. Fortunately both sides want peace, and if they can do more toward peacefully resolving the Taiwan issue, the consensus would be expanded. The trouble is that the voices for peace are not in the mainstream in the United States. Rather, the loudest voices are for competition with China.
If China and the U.S. could manage their differences well, and if voices in Taiwan that are calling for peace and exchanges could press the authorities there to take positive actions, and if people of insight on both sides of the strait could join hands and explore an plan for reunification, a resolution of the Taiwan issue may see a precious ray of hope.