Preventing the Taiwan Flash Point

September 18, 2020

Honor Guard of Republic of China at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Taipei City, Taiwain, 2004.
CREDIT: Batiste Pannetier/Free Art License.

A confrontation about Taiwan is viewed by many as the most likely place where the rising tensions between the U.S. and China may lead to an actual confrontation. China has long sought to reincorporate Taiwan into the mainland. The risk is particularly high because the U.S. has maintained an ambiguity about what it would do if China invades Taiwan.

President Xi Jinping recently indicated that he is unwilling to continue to postpone the return of Taiwan to Chinese sovereignty indefinitely, a goal of the Communist Party since Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government fled to Taiwan in 1949. Although China has pledged to seek a "peaceful reunification," it has recently suggested that it is willing to use its military to gain control over Taiwan. China has conducted military exercises, drills, and patrols in the Taiwan Strait, which has increased Taiwan's concerns that after decades of threats, China might actually be ready to proceed.

China is also increasingly using economic and political pressures on Taiwan. "Although the U.S. has been bound to sell Taiwan defensive weapons and to consider threats against it to be issues of 'grave concern' for over 40 years, the nature and extent of the U.S. response to a potential Chinese attack is undefined," The Wall Street Journal reported on Aug 31. However, the U.S. has never specified how Washington would react to a Chinese attack.

One of the leading experts on foreign affairs, Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, asks under the heading "China's dangerous Taiwan temptation", "Is the Trump administration ready to respond to a Chinese attack or threatened attack on Taiwan? Would a Biden administration be? Are the American people? Are we prepared to go beyond statements and sanctions if the Chinese call our bluff? American policies in the two decades before World War II were shaped by what in retrospect looks like a stunning naiveté about other nations' willingness to resort to force. One wonders if we are any less naive today."

In his Washington Post column, George F. Will put the situation in dramatic terms: "The Biden administration's first grave test approaches, not silently on little cat's feet but in the noisy stomping of totalitarians' boots. In 2021, Taiwan might provide the most perilous U.S. moment since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962."

To avoid this conflict the next president would do well to head the suggestions of Richard Haass and David Sacks, president and research fellow, respectively, at the Council on Foreign Relations. In Foreign Affairs, they argue that "the time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan. Waiting for China to make a move on Taiwan before deciding whether to intervene is a recipe for disaster. The White House could articulate this new policy through a presidential statement and accompanying executive order that reiterates U.S. support for its one-China policy but also unequivocally states that the United States would respond should Taiwan come under Chinese armed attack. The statement would make clear that the United States does not support Taiwan independence."

I could not agree more. Here is the way I put the same idea in 2017, in Avoiding War with China: "The United States should make explicit what is viewed by many as an implicit understanding between China and the United States regarding the status of Taiwan. The American and Chinese governments have already demonstrated considerable self-restraint in the matter of Taiwan. Beijing has not yielded to demands from those who call for employing force as a means for 'reclaiming' Taiwan as part of the main-land; meanwhile, Washington has not yielded to Americans who urge the recognition of Taiwan as an independent country. These measures of self-restraint should be made more explicit by letting it be known that so long as China does not use force to coerce Taiwan to become part of China, the United States will continue to refrain from treating Taiwan as an independent state. The prevailing understanding between the United States and China is opaque; although some experts in international relations say an understanding exists, some suggest the substance of such an understanding exists, some suggest the substance of such an understanding is unclear, and still others hold no such understanding has ever existed."

In view of these rising tensions between the U.S. and China, and the risks that always rise when there are presidential elections, and a potential change in power, much is to be gained if the most likely point of tensions, the conflict about Taiwan, is defused.

All this assumes that Trump will not throw Taiwan under the bus, as part of a trade deal. This possibility has been cited by The Economist on September 5: "In his memoir published this year, John Bolton, one of Mr. Trump's discarded national security advisers, speculates that Taiwan might well be the next American ally to be jettisoned by his former boss. As a Global Times commentator put it this month: Taiwan for the US is only a tradable chess piece. After all, Mr. Trump has always put America first. Trade concessions have always seemed to matter more to him than alliances."

Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. His latest book, Reclaiming Patriotism, was published by the University of Virginia Press in 2019 and is available for download without charge.

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