When it comes to engaging with the Chinese government, the U.S. Government has long relied on strategic ambiguity over Taiwan, and the issue of human rights, to generate room for maneuver in its dealings with Beijing. Since the advent of popularly elected Taiwanese Presidents in 1996, the U.S. has followed a rhetorical and diplomatic course that could be summed up as ‘defend the status-quo’. In the last two Taiwanese Presidential elections, there is some evidence that Washington was less than partial in the run up to the vote - favoring a party that also claimed to want to protect the ‘status-quo’. But what is the ‘status-quo’ and is it a fixed or fluid definition of the relationship between Taiwan and China?
During the Lee and Chen Presidencies, the ‘Status-Quo’ was not only defined by Taiwanese de facto independence, and rising Taiwanese identification as a separate national entity from China, but also by Beijing’s constant pressure on Washington to castigate or punish Taiwan for alleged ‘provocative’ statements or moves. This strategy came in addition to more direct messages such as the missile ‘tests’ over the strait in 1996, and the Anti-Secession Law of 2005. It is here where analysts make a crucial error. While they often point to Lee and Chen’s so-called Taiwanese nationalism as a dangerous fantasy, political brinkmanship, and overtly antagonistic, they fail to note that it was Chinese nationalism in China, and also in Taiwan, that constructed the outrage, the hurt feelings, and the charge of being provoked, as well as maintaining the very real and expanding threat of deadly military retaliation; all this against an independently functioning, democratic, and above all, peaceful Taiwan. Between about 1996 and 2008, the ‘Status-Quo’ was firstly defined as Taiwan (ROC) and China (PRC) in a ‘special state-to-state’, and later unofficially as a ‘state-to-state’ relationship, in which neither country officially recognized the sovereignty or authority of the other. The ‘Status-Quo’ during that period also acknowledged, in Taiwan and internationally, the reality of Taiwan’s ‘de facto independence’ as a nation currently using the formal title of the Republic of China. Taiwan and the R.O.C. were linguistic equivalents.
In the past six years, the direction of cross-strait relations has changed dramatically. Where the U.S. hailed the signing of nineteen unparalleled cross-strait agreements, it remained mute when President Ma redefined Taiwan as just an ‘area’ of the Republic of China, rather than an equivalent to it. It all but ignored the Ma administration’s recourse to Martial-Law Era territorial claims over PRC administered territories, failed to publicly note the significance, and dangerous unilateralism, of Ma downgrading Taiwan-China relations from ‘Special State-To-State’ to ‘not international’, and stayed indifferent to the statements of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) envoys in favor of a ‘One-Country-Two-Areas’ and the ‘One China Framework’. When reading the works produced by U.S. East Asian analysts and think tanks, we see discourse on Taiwan-China relations still working on the basis of the ‘Status-Quo’ having not changed at all since 2008. Perhaps one reason for this is that the pro-China KMT has been predominant in heavily influencing U.S. and wider foreign political discourse on Taiwan, and what has emerged in turn have been persistent uses of themes such as ‘Ma the peacemaker’ and ‘Ma as be-calmer of cross-strait tensions’. There has been no balance to this framing, no sense of Ma as an ideologue yanking reluctant Taiwanese forward, or some might argue backwards, toward a Greater Chinese identity, and into an economic, paralegal bird cage in which the only direction is closer integration into the PRC.
It is only in the last month, with the President and his party under international scrutiny for the way they have tried to violently ram another trade agreement with China through the Legislature (and in the process sparking a momentous and historic occupation of the Legislature, and briefly the Executive, by the ‘318 Movement’ (dubbed by media as ‘the Sunflower Student Movement’), that some international media and governments are starting to realize that a huge number, maybe even a majority, of Taiwanese don’t agree that the KMT’s apparent strategy of suing the CCP for peace in the name of a repeatedly touted but academically unsubstantiated economic boost from economic ‘integration’ with China, is actually in their best interests.
Opinion leaders from the Beltway regularly regurgitate the idea that President Ma’s administration has reduced tensions and continue to call for the ‘Status-Quo‘ to remain unchanged, but this a contradiction that can only be maintained if one ignores the fact that President Ma has only been partly responsible for less overt cross-strait tension, the lion’s share of the work done by Beijing, but certainly not from a sense that it has come to terms with Taiwan’s de facto independence. Washington has taken the bait and translated Beijing’s soft-power approach to the Taiwan question as a win-win for U.S.-PRC relations, one that it thinks has significantly reduced the pressure placed on the U.S. over the ‘Taiwan Question’. The reason Beijing’s soft-power approach has been so successful is that it has had a willing partner in the Ma Administration which has, via use of the mythical ‘1992 Consensus’, one line in the 2005 Constitutional Amendment that refers to ‘meeting the requirements of the nation prior to national unification’, and the Act Governing Relations Between the Taiwan and Mainland Areas, substantially changed the entire nature of the ‘Status-Quo’ - heavily towards unification and sharply away from de facto independence, despite an election pledge to not move in either direction. The U.S. administration has celebrated ‘reduced tensions’ and steadfastly refused to heed warnings that a ‘United Front’ (See André Beckershoff’s piece: "The KMT–CCP Forum: Securing Consent for Cross-Strait Rapprochement”) between the KMT and CCP was anti-democratic, working against the wishes of the Taiwanese electorate, and producing a new reality in the region that is antithetical to Taiwan’s security and U.S. economic and military interests.
The Chinese government’s premier objective is to break through the island chain that it regards as a form of ‘imperial containment’, and to establish itself as the regional hegemony - Beijing, rather than Washington, being ‘the center’, other countries on the periphery, paying tribute. Taiwan, in the vision of strategic planners in Beijing, is to be recovered, uniting the nation and more importantly, providing the PLAN with a deep water military port facing the Pacific Ocean with clear sailing not only in the critical ocean transport routes of the South and East China Seas, but also all the way to Los Angeles. As Lee Fuell, technical director for force modernization at the U.S. Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center, revealed in testimony before a congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in Washington, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) appears to have a “more mature viewpoint” on military operations against the U.S.. He states: “This means that during a major campaign, the PLA will look to focus its operations primarily against Taiwan — or other adversary — and look to deter U.S. intervention or limit the effects of the intervention.” If that assessment is not considered out of the ordinary (have we become so inured to the idea of a Chinese attack on Taiwan that we now pretend to ourselves the intent behind it has also lost focus?), when we take into account the recent words of the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Daniel Russel - that there were "growing concerns" over the Chinese government’s "pattern of behavior”, and that this pattern of behavior in the South China Sea reflects incremental efforts by Beijing to assert control over the area despite objections of its neighbors - we see a region alive with activity, with lines drawn in the sand and confrontation of one kind or another on an almost weekly basis. If the U.S. genuinely believes the ‘Taiwan Question’ has been neutralized by the cross-strait policies of the current pro-China Taiwanese President and Government, it should ask itself why there is still so much tension in the region, and where that tension is coming from.
That the U.S. could entertain a denial of the actual reality of cross-strait relations or the wishes of a clear majority of Taiwanese, and allow the PRC to dominate international framing of Taiwan-China relations news and analysis, speaks more of a major strategic error and less about a lack of knowledge on the ground. One might suspect that the threat of significant economic penalties might be a motivating factor behind the stream of U.S. official statements that have in recent years propped up the convenient fiction of ‘peaceful relations’. Beijing is paying for good PR and to a large extent it is getting its message across at the expense of Taiwan. In media, academic, and diplomatic circles, the term ‘Status-Quo’ has become a shibboleth that often filters dissenting or ‘unorthodox’ voices from debate on the definition of the relationship between Taiwan and China. By controlling the terms of the debate, the PRC is squeezing the U.S. out of the region and driving a wedge between Taipei and Washington. U.S. strategy on Taiwan is dated and has been manipulated by new alliances. Taiwan is where and how Beijing is shaping the new ‘status quo’ entirely in its favor and the U.S., through inaction and appeasement, is facilitating that fundamental change in the power dynamics of the region.
There can be no doubt that the last five years have seen both substantial and symbolic changes to the relationship between Taiwan and China. While President Ma has often spoken of the strength of his administration’s ties with Japan and the U.S., it should be clear that it is in cross-strait relations where he is seeking to build the defining and enduring legacy of his Presidency - preparing the ground for Taiwan’s future annexation into the PRC. The most important ‘Taiwan question’ currently for the U.S. then is ‘Has the ’status-quo’ changed?’, and if so, ‘How has it changed’, and, ‘Whose interests are benefited and threatened by this change?’
The facts are clear: as a de facto independent and democratic country, Taiwan remains under threat of attack and occupation until the PRC decides and declares otherwise. It has done neither. Taiwan has a generally good reputation abroad, and Taiwan is certainly not perceived as country that has an inclination towards war or conflict. It is also one of the most important economies in the world (20th largest in 2013) and a bridge for the U.S. across the Pacific to East Asian markets. A defense of Taiwan, a democratic and peaceful fully functioning nation, against a much larger and autocratic neighbor, which is already creating conditions for expansion by declaring new exclusive sea and air zones, makes moral, political, and economic sense. The nature and feasibility of such a defense of Taiwan changes the longer such a concept is debated. The more time it takes for the U.S. to address and neutralize rising maritime and international tension in East Asia, and to recognize the sources of it, the closer China comes to achieving denial of entry.
The U.S. appears to not understand that losing Taiwan as a de facto independent nation doesn’t make the region more peaceful, it almost certainly invites the immediate escalation of tensions between China and Japan, will likely mean a substantial reduction in U.S. influence in the region, and will only encourage other neighboring countries to increase their current high pace of arms purchases. If war is what the U.S. wants, and an argument can be made that there certainly are big vested economic interests which regard peace as ‘bad for business’, then retreating on Taiwan and watching it get swallowed up by China, either via political, economic, or military pressure, will be how it happens.
For the last three years, East Asia has simmered as decades old dormant questions of who claims what and where, born of a legacy of centuries of colonialism and military adventurism, have been purposely resurrected. I say purposely because aside from perhaps historians and naval strategists, the names Scarborough Shoal, Senkaku Islands, and Spratley Islands meant very little to most people until they were forced into the news by the actions of one East Asian country determined to impose its own map on the territory of its neighbors.
Via a series of specific planned policy and military moves, the Chinese government has created tensions in the region with, amongst others, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. It has done so in the name of a map of dotted lines that represent its regional hegemonic aspirations and not actual realities of sovereignty on the ground or actual recorded histories in the area. While it is obvious that these tensions have been manufactured, often just to test the response time and capacity of other nations such as Japan and the U.S., Beijing has insisted on framing opposition to its specious claims as a historical, sinophobic, enabling Japanese imperialism, and hurting the feelings of the Chinese people. The Chinese government has employed nationalist rhetoric as a vehicle for justifying the defining of a ‘red line’ of ‘core interests’ that it cannot retreat from. The longer the U.S. skirts around or grants legitimacy to these red lines, the harder it will be to later dissuade the Chinese government from military adventurism.
There is a closing window of opportunity for the U.S. to ‘pre-secure’ Taiwan, and the Philippines, and to send a clear and unambiguous message that this adventurism will not be tolerated. With both Prime Minister Abe of Japan and President Aquino of the Philippines recently drawing parallels between tensions in the South and East China Seas and the appeasement of Germany prior to World War II, there is a growing and worrying consensus that it might not be a case of if China and Japan or another country come into conflict, but when. The window for peaceful resolutions to building conflicts in the region is closing. Only one country has the military power to make a difference to de-escalate confrontation - the U.S.. And it is U.S. Taiwan policy where it can best pour a little alkaline on increasingly acidic seas.