Part 10: Taiwan a deal-breaker for US security

Henry C K Liu

Part 1: Two nations, worlds apart
Part 2: Cold War links Korea, Taiwan
Part 3: Korea: Wrong war, wrong place, wrong enemy
Part 4: 38th Parallel leads straight to Taiwan
Part 5: History of the Taiwan time bomb
Part 6: Forget reunification - nothing to reunite
Part 7: The referendum question
Part 8: Avoiding another no-win war
Part 9: Potential tragedy of miscalculation

This article appeared in AToL on February 12, 2004

The United States argues that the terms and validity of the 1982 communique - one of three documents setting forth the terms of the US-China-Taiwan relationship - depend upon assurances from the People's Republic of China (PRC) to resolve "the Taiwan question" by peaceful means only.

On July 14, 1982, the US gave Taiwan the Six Assurances that it:

Had not agreed to a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan
<>Had not agreed to hold prior consultations with the PRC regarding arms sales to the Republic of China (ROC).
Would not play any mediation role between the PRC and the ROC.
<>Would not revise the Taiwan Relations Act.
Had not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan.
<>Would not exert pressure on the ROC to enter into negotiations with the PRC.

It has further been revealed in recent years that US president Ronald Reagan also secretly assured Taipei that if Beijing ceased its commitment to peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question, the August 17, 1982, US-PRC communique would become null and void.

As is well known, the PRC has never rejected the use of force as an option in resolving the Taiwan question, calling into dispute US good faith in signing the 1982 communique while secretly assuring Taiwan of a precondition. Moreover, the current US administration of President George W Bush has declared that there should be no unilateral change in the status quo by either party.

This policy entails three elements:
Taiwan should not declare independence.
<>Neither side should use force.
Taiwan's future should be resolved in a manner mutually agreeable to the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

In addition, the US has said it does not "support" Taiwanese independence. This means that Washington does not support Taiwanese independence unless all the people on both sides of the Strait agree to it, which in reality could mean never.

Bush flouts accord on Taiwan non-recognition
The Bush administration, in defiance of the basic precondition of non-recognition of Taiwan for normalization of US-China relations, also believes that Washington should maintain robust, albeit unofficial, diplomatic relations with Taipei, on the grounds that peace across the Taiwan Strait is an important US interest and Taiwanese actions, especially provocative ones, fundamentally affect US interests. Regular dialogue and contact with Taiwanese officials are rationalized as necessary to improve communications and limit political surprises. This is a flimsy excuse, since there are already adequate unofficial channels of communication between Washington and Taipei without ostentatious visits between government officials designed merely to boost Taiwan's official status.

The Bush administration has been clear that it expects the parties on both sides of the Strait to act responsibly in support of regional stability, as if they were equal parties. Furthermore, Washington continues to encourage dialogue between Beijing and Taipei on political as well as security issues. This is in contradiction even to Reagan's Six Assurances to Taipei, which maintained that the US would not play any mediation role between the PRC and the ROC and would not exert pressure on the ROC to enter into negotiations with the PRC.

The Bush administration also believes that the United States should assist in finding opportunities for greater international representation for Taiwan in such organizations as the World Health Organization. Its argument for this belief is that it is the right thing to do for the 22 million people of Taiwan, who deserve representation in the international community, especially on issues affecting their health, their economic welfare and the security of their planes and ships. Another reason is that the less Taiwan feels diplomatically isolated and the more it feels part of the international community, the less likely it will be dissatisfied with the status quo and the less likely to undertake provocative actions that could undermine peace and stability across the Strait.

But China only opposes Taiwan's participation in international organizations as an independent entity. Taiwan can participate in international organizations the same way Hong Kong does, as a highly autonomous part of China. But Taipei not only refuses to participate as Taiwan, China, it is even beginning to decline the appellation of Taiwan, Republic of China, and wants to be known only as Taiwan, thus turning the issue to one of independence.

More US moral imperialism directed at China
Finally, US policy encourages political liberalization on the mainland as the best hope for a peaceful resolution of the cross-Strait relationship. This of course is mere moral imperialism in the form of peaceful evolution. Political developments in China will respond only to internal Chinese needs, and are not undertaken to enhance US geopolitical interests. This policy of moral imperialism unwittingly has the counter-effect of deterring political liberalization in China by casting it as a movement against Chinese national interests.

Last June 1, Bush discussed Taiwan with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit of industrialized nations in France. In a press briefing later that day, a senior Bush administration official described Bush's comments, triggering speculation on whether US policy toward Taiwan had changed. Within a few days both Taiwan's cabinet spokesman Lin Chia-lung and American Institute in Taiwan chair Therese Shaheen said there had been no harmful change in US policy toward Taiwan.

On the other hand, the People's Daily noted on June 13 that after deviating from the policy of the previous six US administrations, Bush's Taiwan policy had now moved back to the mainstream. It described Bush's "non-support" as "opposition" to Taiwan independence and aligned the United Stats' "one-China policy" more closely with Beijing's "one China principle". Without directly correcting the Chinese interpretation, the same US senior official said: "On Taiwan, the president repeated our policy of a 'one China' policy based on the three communiques, the Taiwan Relations Act [TRA], no support for Taiwan independence ... The president also said ... if necessary, we will help Taiwan to the extent possible to defend itself."

Bush's remarks were widely interpreted as a softening in US support for Taiwan. This was the first time "no support for Taiwan's independence" had been elevated to the level of the TRA and the three communiques, and Bush did not mention peaceful resolution with the assent of the people on Taiwan. The April 2001 Bush promise of "whatever it took" to help defend Taiwan, committing the United States to maximum effort in Taiwan's defense, was replaced with the new wording, "If necessary, we will help Taiwan to the extent possible to defend itself" with two qualifications. The phrase "if necessary" is superfluous if it simply means "if China were to attack Taiwan" because US intervention presupposes Chinese military aggression. There is little question that if the People's Liberation Army (PLA) were to launch a blitzkrieg against Taiwan, the island could not alone repel the invading forces.

Taiwan would clearly need US assistance. China has always insisted on its right to the force option on the independence issue. Beijing in fact has put a still-unspecified time limit on peaceful resolution by warnings of military action if Taiwan refuses to acknowledge Chinese sovereignty indefinitely. The qualifying phrase "if necessary" can be interpreted as a US hedging against Taipei's opting unilaterally to make accommodations with Beijing. Similarly, the phrase "to the extent possible" could be a hedge against the eventuality of Taiwan's leadership caving in to PLA actions so quickly that US intervention would make no difference.

Would Taiwan really fight for independence?
Although not publicly acknowledged, Washington is reported to be steadily losing confidence in Taiwan's resolve to fight for its survival as a de facto independent nation. With economic integration with the mainland, Taiwan's economy is increasingly dependent on the motherland. Because of massive outflow of capital, technology and people from Taiwan to the mainland, the Taiwanese economy is being hollowed out of manufacturing. And yet all the island's political parties are intent on early implementation of direct links, further weakening Taiwan's desire for political independence and US-backed security.

After a US B-2 (mistakenly, the United States said) bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in May 1999 during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military action in Kosovo, the administration of president Bill Clinton worked to rebuild its relationship with the PRC. Taiwan "president" Lee Teng-hui's July 9 statement that Taiwan and China should deal with each other on a "special state-to-state" basis upset the US State Department. While Washington and Beijing have restored some momentum to their bilateral ties with a landmark agreement on China's entry into the World Trade Organization, the relationship between Washington and Taipei continues to drift.

Lee's "state-to-state" announcement created serious strains between Taiwan and the United States. His provocative statement, so soon after the embassy bombing, could not have come at a more sensitive time for Washington, which viewed Lee's behavior as reckless. The Clinton administration delayed a trip to Taiwan by a Pentagon delegation and leaked to the media the possible scaling back of deliveries of F-16 spare parts, sending a clear signal that Taiwan could not go too far down the "state-to-state" road without risking its security ties to the US. Even some of Taiwan's longtime supporters in Congress criticized Lee's remarks as being unhelpful.

In June 1998, Clinton publicly stated the "Three Nos":
<>No support for Taiwan independence.
No support for "two Chinas".
<>No support for Taiwan's participation in state-based international organizations.

Taiwan also sensed US pressure for an interim arrangement whereby Taipei would agree not to declare independence in exchange for Beijing's pledge not to use force. Faced with these developments, Lee chose to assert that Taiwan was already an independent, sovereign state and Beijing and Washington needed to deal with this reality. Nevertheless, it is a de facto sovereignty that depends directly on the US skirting official non-recognition of Taiwan.

Cross-Strait status quo unacceptable to Beijing
The interim agreement proposals from US academics and officials actually fanned misunderstanding. Assistant secretary of state Stanley Roth and other US diplomats suggested that an interim agreement might be useful for improving cross-Strait relations, in the spirit of buying time and stabilizing the status quo. But the status quo was a continuing state fundamentally unacceptable to Beijing.

Lee's "state-to-state" announcement was coached by Republican China hand James Lilley, a former Central Intelligence Agency director with close ties to Taiwan and former ambassador to China in the administration of president George H W Bush, in order to give the Clinton administration a diplomatic headache - and it went further than a declaration of "independence". In alluding to the German model of reunification, Lee identified Taiwan with West Germany, reuniting with a poorer and less developed mainland, as East Germany.

Taiwan realizes that it will need to enter into political discussion with the Beijing government sooner or later and the "state-to-state" formula is a strategy to reject Beijing's idea that it is merely a province. Meanwhile, as Beijing insists on Taiwan being a Chinese province, Taipei insists on being an independent state.

Taiwan's adoption of a "state-to-state" formula was triggered by a perceived softening of US support as the Clinton administration in its second term became more receptive to China's "one country, two systems" formula, as applied to Hong Kong, as a possible solution to the Taiwan issue. Taiwan's state-to-state formulation, in turn, increased US annoyance at Taipei acting as an unwelcome obstacle to US global geopolitical strategy that requires Chinese cooperation. Washington's desire to restrain Taipei's provocative behavior fueled Taiwan's anxieties, and caused Taipei to exert increasing independence even from Washington with the support of the right wing in US domestic politics. "Selling out Taiwan" became a campaign issue in the 2000 presidential election.

The Bush administration's robust support of Taiwan has been diluted primarily because of Taipei's failure to commit unequivocally to non-provocative acceptance of the status quo and secondarily because of America's need to elicit China's help in fighting global terror after September 11, 2001, in resolving the North Korean nuclear standoff, and in supporting (or not opposing) the United States on Iraq in the United Nations Security Council. This shift in the US stance is tactical, however, rather than strategic. The US still perceives geopolitical interests in maintaining the status quo on Taiwan. The recent appointment of Princeton professor and prominent sinologist Aaron Friedberg to the post of deputy national security adviser and director of policy planning on Vice President Dick Cheney's staff tends to support this interpretation (see The Struggle for Harmony Part 1: Myths and realities about China, June 13, 2003, and Part 2: Imagined danger, June 14).

Some see inevitable US-China confrontation

Friedberg sees potential long-term dangers that a modernized PLA may pose to US security and has written about the inevitability of a US-China confrontation. After the September 11, 2001. attacks, world geopolitics has become highly volatile. The US-Taiwan relationship is not exempt from the dynamics of changing international relations. After a private meeting in the White House with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao last December 11, during Wen's state visit, Bush told the press: "We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo. The comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose." Thus "oppose" has officially replaced "non-support" for Taiwan independence.

The area of converging US-Taiwan interests is shrinking because of changing geopolitics. The single most important consideration remaining is US concern that allowing Taiwan to fall back into the arms of the PRC by force or coercion could prove detrimental to US leadership in East Asia, particularly in terms of security arrangements with US allies, especially Japan and South Korea. Yet the test of maintaining security is in US diplomatic skill in avoiding war, not its war-winning capability. US allies in East Asia know that while a victory in war may protect US prestige, it would nevertheless leave their respective countries in ruins.

Such war-deterring diplomatic skill requires yielding to China on issues of its fundamental and vital national interest, such as the issue of Taiwan. Taiwan is a deal-breaking issue, as the American saying goes. Pushing the Taiwan issue to a military solution would represent a massive failure of US diplomacy in Asia. Even if the US 7th Fleet with its two carrier groups and the overwhelming force-projection capabilities from US bases in Japan should manage to thwart a PLA invasion of Taiwan, the Taiwan that was left after the bomb smoke clears would not resemble anything worth defending. On the other hand, even if China should succeed in regaining Taiwan through military conquest, the gain of a war-torn economy would be a Pyrrhic victory.

The Taiwan issue is a political issue, and all parties agree that it needs to be solved with political accommodation. Yet political options exist only within limits. Failure to exercise political options will lead to war. Clausewitzian concepts of war notwithstanding, war is not diplomacy by other means (Karl von Clausewitz, a Prussian military officer, wrote on military strategy). War is the product of failed diplomacy. The legacy of war is international hatred that fuels future wars while the legacy of diplomacy is international harmony that fuels stability. A war over the Taiwan Strait has no winners. All will lose more than they hope to gain.