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The Logical Dilemma of Taiwan

Apr 24, 2023
  • Zhong Houtao

    Associate Professor, School of National Security at the Institute of International Relations

Recently, U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy met with Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen in California. This was the first time since 1979 that the third-ranking political figure in the United States had met with the political leader of Taiwan on U.S. soil, and it aroused widespread concern. Why did McCarthy insist on meeting with Tsai despite China’s stern representations and repeated warnings? What does the meeting reveal about America’s policy toward Taiwan? 

U.S. "cost-imposing" strategy 

In 1972, Andrew Marshall of the RAND Corporation, a research and intelligence analyst for the U.S. military, first proposed the “cost-imposing strategy,” arguing that the U.S. should make full use of its own strengths to attack the weaknesses of its rivals in its competition with the Soviet Union. In 1976, the cost-imposing strategy was formally incorporated into U.S. Department of Defense documents and became the guiding principle for the competitive strategy against the Soviet Union throughout the final years of the Cold War. Marshall became known as the Pentagon’s master strategist, the godfather of America’s new military strategy and the most important architect of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Now the United States has identified China as its most serious competitor. In October, the Biden administration released the latest version of its National Security Strategy, which explicitly names China as “the only country with the power and intent to reshape the international order” and the No. 1 geopolitical adversary of the U.S.

In the context of a major shift in the U.S. strategic perception of China and the continued escalation of competition between the two countries, America is seeking to replicate the cost-imposing strategy used against Soviet Union during the Cold War. The best option is undoubtedly to use Taiwan as leverage against Beijing by turning it into the vanguard in the strategic competition.

For the U.S., Taiwan is a low-cost, or even zero-cost, bargaining chip that can yield high returns. With a few symbolic gestures, such as the meeting between McCarthy and Tsai, it can touch China’s soft spot, deplete its strategic resources on all fronts and interfere with its economic and social development. This is designed to delay the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. 

Dual deterrence, diplomatic “compensation” 

For a long time, the U.S. has tried to play the role of an overriding and transcendent balancer and arbiter on the Taiwan question — i.e., the course, process, pace and speed of development of cross-strait relations has to be controlled by the U.S. In other words, the United States should have absolute dominance and initiative in the Taiwan Strait.

The U.S. believes that if the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are at peace, or maintain good momentum in peaceful development, and if they gradually expand ties from economic domains into politics, or even move into more challenging areas such as military security, this will reduce the space for U.S. intervention and manipulation. Only if the two sides strait maintain a moderate level of tension or even conflict will the U.S. have enough room for intervention or leverage. In this sense, future cross-strait relations will involve a tug-of-war between the Chinese mainland and the United States. Which side the Taiwan region will lean toward depends mainly on the balance of power.

It is precisely out of this tactical logic that the U.S. intervened aggressively in the 2016 Taiwan leadership election, either explicitly or implicitly supporting the DPP’s return to power after cross-strait relations saw accelerated development, exchanges and cooperation from 2008 to 2016. Having the DPP in power would bring cross-strait relations to standstill, or even result in setbacks.

Since Tsai took office in 2016, she has touted “maintaining the status quo” and asserted that the Chinese mainland was responsible for changing it — a narrative enthusiastically endorsed by the United States. The U.S. has selectively ignored the fact that Tsai has been pursuing Taiwan independence in disguise and argues that, unlike Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian, Tsai has neither engaged in the “two-state theory” nor the “one country on each side theory,” and so she deserves recognition and encouragement.

Thus, when Honduras severed its ties with Taiwan in March — recognizing “only one China in the world” and that “the People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government that represents all of China” — the United States considered it unfair to Tsai. And so McCarthy’s meeting with her would undoubtedly help her recoup some of the loss. Tsai and the DPP got back on the roundabouts what they lost on the swings, gaining some separatist support on the island and paving the way for the party’s re-election in 2024. Thus, they continue to be a tool for the United States in containing China. 

Strategic ambiguity or tactical clarity 

For a long time, the U.S. has maintained strategic ambiguity on Taiwan. It has never made a clear statement on the positioning of Taiwan, supported by the so-called “undetermined status of Taiwan” theory. The U.S. has also remained vague on whether it will assist in Taiwan’s defense in the event of conflict in the Taiwan Strait, neither promising aid nor denying it.

However, in recent years, the strategic ambiguity has become increasingly tenuous and is gradually moving toward tactical clarity. Last year, for example, when Biden was two years into office, he had already stated four times that U.S. would defend Taiwan. McCarthy’s meeting with Tsai is also a vital part of the move toward clarity. But a clarification of U.S. policy and strategy toward Taiwan is bound to have dire consequences. It could drag the U.S. into conflict, confrontation or even war.

Thus, after Biden’s four so-called slip-of-the-tongue statements, the White House clarified each time that it did not represent a change in America’s one-China policy. After his meeting with Tsai, McCarthy also claimed that the one-China policy would not change, while stressing that he would not invite Tsai to Washington, that he had no plans to visit the island anytime soon and that he also hoped to communicate with Beijing.

The U.S. has been pursuing a contradictory and inconsistent two-faced strategy, saying one thing and doing another, reflecting its torn state of mind as it walks a fine line between strategic ambiguity and tactical clarity.

The Taiwan question is at the center of China’s core interests and the foundation of China-U.S. relations. It is a red line that cannot be crossed. After the meeting between McCarthy and Tsai, China responded with a series of measures. First, it staged combat readiness patrols at an unprecedented scale around the island of Taiwan and “Joint Sword” simulated precision strike drills, which sent a clear warning.

The Chinese government has also taken unprecedented steps to hold separatist Hsiao Bi-khim accountable for life and took countermeasures against the Hudson Institute, the Reagan Library and their directors through Order No. 1 issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These measures show China’s firm will to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

At present, the United States is on the verge of a profound adjustment. It is at a three-way crossroads — defending Taiwan, abandoning Taiwan or destroying Taiwan. Will the U.S. decisively reverse course and return to the right track of the one-China policy, or will it risk being dragged into a war trap as it continues to use Taiwan to contain China’s progress? The ball is in the court of the United States.

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