By Robert C. Thomas
The murky political status of Taiwan is likely to jump back into the headlines as tensions with a more assertive China begin to bubble up. One of the first foreign policy controversies to afflict Donald Trump's presidential transition in late-2016 focused on his telephone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and the ensuing public spat with officials in Beijing over US adherence to the so-called One-China policy. Attention to the issue faded again after Trump reaffirmed US commitment to the One-China policy shortly after taking office, but this policy still needs a closer look in the context of a changing Asia-Pacific, mainland China, and Taiwan. The current relationship between Beijing, Taipei, and Washington will not remain stable and static, and US policymakers must develop a new policy sooner rather than later.
The One-China policy is an artful example of diplomatic ambiguity. Currently, Chinese leaders insist that Taiwan is a breakaway province of China and that the government in Beijing holds legitimate sovereignty over both Taiwan and the mainland. The implication is that Taiwan and mainland China will eventually reunify in practice, instead of just on paper. Meanwhile, the United States officially recognizes the government in Beijing and maintains an unofficial diplomatic and security relationship with Taiwan. US policymakers hope that both sides will continue to deal with each other peacefully and that US deterrence will nudge things in that direction. Unfortunately, this status quo shows growing cracks that deserve more attention in the United States.
The political climate in mainland China signals a break from the status quo. Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous and hotly debated advice that China should keep a low profile in the world as it patiently rebuilds its strength and position has given way to a more assertive approach as Xi Jinping rethinks Chinese governance. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army has pushed to secure its regional control with aggressive new long-range missile forces, an aircraft carrier program, and a buildup of military facilities in the sensitive South China Sea. At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party has become increasingly reliant on volatile domestic nationalism, and is worried about civil unrest and regional separatism. The risk of setting a precedent for separatism, and the fact that mainland Chinese public opinion is overwhelmingly hostile to Taiwanese independence, suggests that mainland Chinese leaders are likely to become more aggressive about bringing Taiwan back into the fold.
Unfortunately for the leaders in Beijing, the population and government of Taiwan are increasingly uninterested in playing along with the idea of reunification. Polls show that most Taiwanese residents currently see Taiwan as a distinctly sovereign state. Few remember a time before the Nationalist faction fled to Taiwan in 1949 after effectively losing the Chinese Civil War. Meanwhile, Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen is trying to delicately manage strong pro-independence sentiment within her own Democratic Progressive Party. Just as Beijing is showing signs of impatience over the timeline for unification, Taipei looks ever more resistant—setting the stage for an ever-increasing risk of conflict that could cause regional instability that would inevitably entangle the United States.
The good news is that US policymakers still have a broad menu of options to choose from to avoid (or at least contain) a conflict. One option would be to signal support for formal Taiwanese independence in a bid to force the issue before officials in Beijing feel confident in their chances of success. On the other hand, the United States could taper off security assistance in order to avoid any obligation to militarily support Taiwan in a possible confrontation, which would require congressional action under the existing Taiwan Relations Act. A more measured alternative could use a mix of high-profile action on other bilateral and regional issues to draw the focus of Chinese and Taiwanese officials and their respective publics away from the question of unification. Of course, this option would only buy time to allow for more favorable conditions for a peaceful long-term solution. Careful use of a full foreign policy toolkit involving diplomacy, military deterrence, and economic pressure would be crucial for influencing the decisions of leaders in Beijing and Taipei in any of these approaches.
The bad news is that US policymakers have largely put off a serious conversation about how to deal with this eroding status quo and remain distracted by domestic politics and broader uncertainty over the future of US foreign affairs funding. There is still time for US officials to develop and implement strategies to avoid a crisis, but time is running out. If disputes over the status of Taiwan reach a breaking point while US officials remain preoccupied elsewhere, all parties stand to lose.
Robert C. Thomas is an Asia-Pacific Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is also a government security contractor and the Managing Editor of Parabellum Report. Robert expects to receive his MA in Ethics and Public Affairs from George Mason University in 2017.