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Resolving the Rifts

May 28, 2021
  • Jin Kai

    Associate Professor, Institute of International Studies, Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences

Is the ultimate unification of Taiwan, which Beijing has long sought, destined to clash with the American values of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and undermine U.S. economic competitiveness and prosperity?

The diplomatic consensus and principles concerning Taiwan’s status articulated in three joint communiques have made it clear that peaceful resolution and unification serve the best interests of all parties. While Beijing’s policies toward Taiwan have remained holistic and consistent, it is variation in the U.S. position and policy on Taiwan that is sending mixed and confusing messages. Thus, restoring restraint based on the spirit and principles of the communiques is a timely mandate for both Beijing and Washington.

One of Washington’s significant actions was the passage of the Taiwan Travel Act in February 2018. This made it more open and convenient for high-ranking officials from Taiwan and the U.S. to make official visits.  Ither legislative efforts in the U.S. Congress (either signed into law or pending passage) also support Taiwan. And the White House recently made public the details of the “six assurances” confidentially made to Taiwan by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

Perhaps the most truculent move made by Washington with regard to Taiwan is the significant increase in U.S. arms sales to the island. By late October 2020, the Trump administration approved the sale of nine packages of arms in less than four years, with total sales exceeding $17.4 billion. Another potentially uneasy change stems        from the “revised” attitude and approaches toward Taiwan by the U.S. Democratic Party’s platform in 2020, which dropped the “one China” language.

These changes may trigger a series of consequences. For example, there will be an impact on the consensus and mutual understanding between China and the United States about Taiwan, but nobody expects political acquiescence and diplomatic appeasement from Beijing. Also, should Washington continue to directly or indirectly encourage Taiwanese independence, the administration of Tsai Ing-wen may undertake more hazardous moves to advance its incremental and substantial pursuit of Taiwan’s ultimate independence.

Moreover, the de facto “strategic ambiguity” of U.S. policy regarding Taiwan’s status has been eroded by recent policy changes — especially by the Trump administration. 

I have the following recommendations: 

1. Send and mutually confirm clear messages. To maintain the stability of the situation, both sides urgently need to send and mutually confirm clear messages to each other. 

2. Reassess and eventually cease U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Washington should reassess its arms sales policy toward Taiwan, particularly those sales approved in the last four years. 

3. Be wary of any intention or move to substantively change the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. Both sides cautiously deal with the desires of Taiwan authorities (and some Americans) to substantively enhance the relationship. 

4. Restructure U.S.-Taiwan security cooperation under a security consensus. Washington must carefully reassess Taiwan’s role in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, while Beijing should provide more options for China-U.S. security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. 

5. Examine Taiwan’s claims for participation in the international community within the framework of the “one-China” principle. Both parties may conduct candid discussions on Taiwan’s involvement in the international community, such as Taiwan’s participation in international cooperative efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, on condition of abiding by the fundamental spirit of the “one-China” principle. 

6. Create a healthy atmosphere for the promotion of cross-strait economic, trade and people-to-people exchanges. Washington should not impose any (or further) restrictions in the area of technology development and economic cooperation between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. 

On the South China Sea 

Though an indirect claimant, the United States has various strategic and policy resources and capabilities to impose substantial influence in the South China Sea. At the strategic and geopolitical level, the South China Sea issue is a matter between China and the United States. At the practical level, it is an issue between China and the other direct claimants in Southeast Asia. Hence, the South China Sea issue is a two-tier structure.

The current U.S. approach in the South China Sea is “provocative, escalatory, and unlikely to be effective, given the changing military balance in the region,” according to Susan Thornton. Also, the absence of a clear and solid common objective for China and the United States could make it possible for spiraling escalation to draw both parties into an unfortunate conflict.

As a result, cessation of the endless and pointless activity of testing bottom lines and an immediate restoration of restraint is undoubtedly the top priority for both parties.

China has sent survey vessels and fishing ships, conducted several naval exercises and deployed maritime patrol aircraft in the South China Sea. In April 2020, the Chinese government approved the creation of two new administrative districts in Sansha city, signifying China’s effective control and governance in the region. The moves and acts adopted by Beijing, especially from a historical view, have been largely reactive if examined in a larger picture that includes other claimants.

The United States cares deeply about its predominance, status and responsibility to allies and has intensified its military patrols and drills in both qualitative and quantitive terms. Meanwhile, a number of recent official documents, strategies, and legislative bills have proved the strategic weight of the South China Sea in Washington’s overall global and regional strategies. These official documents include “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” “National Security Strategy,” “National Defense Strategy,” “National Intelligence Strategy,” “China Military Power Report,” the National Defense Authorization Act, the South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act of 2019 (introduced), the South China Sea Freedom of Navigation Act (introduced), and so on.

High-ranking U.S. government officials have escalated their criticisms of Beijing’s position on the South China Sea dispute, repeatedly referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the United States has not even ratified. Meanwhile, introducing more multilateral interventions in the South China Sea from America’s traditional allies is an important policy aim of the White House.

The above changes may bring about a series of consequences. For example, although the intensified freedom of navigation patrols by U.S. planes and ships may not necessarily lead to a direct military clash, they do significantly lower the bar for unexpected encounters, confrontations and even low-intensity conflicts.

The United States persistently encourages multiple players to get involved in South China Sea disputes, indicating that the possibility of protraction is still very high. Also, repeatedly testing Beijing’s bottom line by conducting more frequent military activities is a barrier to reaching a final settlement of the South China Sea issue based on negotiation and consultation between China and the Southeast Asian claimants. 

I recommend: 

1. Seek a rational and pragmatic restraint. Acknowledging the lack of solid mutual trust between the two sides, both Beijing and Washington must maintain overall self-restraint in the South China Sea, not only by reducing the intensity and frequency of operations in the area but also by significantly easing up on propaganda and media offensives against each other. 

2. Relax muscles rather than keeping them unduly tense. Washington should reduce its significantly intensified military operations in the South China Sea. Reciprocally, Beijing may respond by exercising restraint in its island constructions. 

3. Keep communication channels open, effective and, most important, responsive. Even in the event of an unexpected crisis, designated personnel from both sides should know who will pick up the calls at the other end of the line, along with a handful of other supplementary options. 

4. Prevent further internationalization of the South China Sea issue. Washington should reassess the potential impacts that its Indo-Pacific Strategy and other multilateral mechanisms like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue may bring to the South China Sea issue. 

5. Welcome Beijing’s leadership in preserving the environment and joint development. Beijing should take the lead in proposing a long-term regional survey of maritime resources and the South China Sea environment. The survey results could be used as a common reference for environmental preservation and joint maritime resource development by all relevant parties, including the United States. 

6. Washington should reaffirm a truly neutral stance in the South China Sea. Pragmatism would serve the best interests of the United States. Under the premise that the situation is relatively de-escalated, China and the United States may even discuss the possibility of jointly issuing a statement on the South China Sea based on a new consensus.

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