Path to Peace in the Taiwan Strait is Well-Tread

Inauguration ceremonies taking place today for Taiwan's incumbent president, Chen Shui-bian, have serious implications for both regional and U.S. security. Chen favors independence for Taiwan and seems determined to achieve or at least advance that goal in his second term. Although controversy surrounded Chen's razor thin margin of victory and the mysterious election-eve shooting attack upon him, a recount completed this week confirmed the election's outcome.

As a result, for the next four years, we can expect to be dealing with a leadership in Taiwan whose views are in fundamental conflict with both the government of the People's Republic of China and the framework that has been the basis of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations for the last quarter century. The task of the United States will be to assure that the next four years do not see the uneasy peace in the Taiwan Strait drift into conflict. This will require an activist and skillful diplomacy that draws on the lessons and achievements of nearly three decades of relations.

Context of U.S.-Taiwan Relations

The basis of the relationship between the United States and Taiwan is the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. The TRA was designed to provide protection to Taiwan as the United States and China moved to normalize and develop relations after decades of mutual hostility.

The president and Congress in 1979 understood that the new relationship the United States was eager to establish with China could not be purchased at the expense of old friends in Taiwan. Neither American credibility nor its principles would stand for absorption of an unwilling 20 million Taiwanese into a communist People's Republic of China. As a result, the TRA established several legal principles as the core of U.S. policy toward Taiwan:

  • Consistent with our one China policy, which acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China, the United States would continue to maintain a broad relationship on an unofficial basis with Taiwan.
  • The United States would treat Taiwan under our law as a separate entity, not under the authority of Beijing. The United States would negotiate agreements directly with Taiwan, and U.S. laws would apply to Taiwan as if it were a separate country.
  • The United States would supply Taiwan with defensive weapons to assure its security.

While we took those steps to protect Taiwan, we did not provide an unequivocal commitment to its defense. In fact, a proposed amendment in 1979 to consider an attack on Taiwan as a direct threat to U.S. security interests was defeated by the Senate. It was also understood at the time that U.S. support for Taiwan's security was provided in the context of the adherence by Taiwan's leaders and people to the idea that Taiwan was a part of China, though not of the People's Republic= A review of testimony by administration officials and by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee considering the TRA makes it clear that the United States was not contemplating the use of force to help Taiwan become an independent nation.

The framework established around the TRA has helped keep the peace for a quarter century. By preserving U.S. power in the region and creating a set of expectations of behavior among the concerned actors, we have enabled the development of a mutually beneficial relationship with China, Taiwan's prosperity and transformation into a democratic society, and thriving cross-Strait economic and people-to-people ties.

Threats to Peace in the Taiwan Strait

This stability has come into question in the last few years, however, as Taiwan's people have selected officials, including Chen, who reject the one China principle and advocate independence for Taiwan. In a move that has sounded alarms in Beijing, Chen has called for a referendum on a new or revised Taiwan Constitution, one that would replace the Constitution that has provided the legal basis for Taiwan's status as a part of China.

Beijing, for its part, remains as determined as ever to assure that Taiwan eventually reverts to China, and is confident that time is on its side. The last decade has seen a growing build-up of medium-range missiles in China opposite Taiwan that threaten to alter the balance of power that has preserved the peace.

The United States finds itself caught in the middle, committed to a peaceful resolution of differences between two parties whose growing rift makes maintaining peace difficult. The internal fracturing of U.S. policy further complicates the situation.

Some neoconservatives and other like-minded thinkers within and close to the Bush administration favor a clear-cut NATO-like commitment to Taiwan, expanding on President Bush's comment in March 2001 that the United States would do "whatever it takes" to help Taiwan defend itself. They urge the sale of sophisticated, expensive weapons systems to Taiwan that Taiwan's Legislature refuses to pay for and that fuel an arms race by arousing further Chinese counter-measures.

Many of these same thinkers, viewing Beijing as a kind of latter-day Wilhelmine Germany, see its policy as aimed at expulsion of the United States from the Western Pacific and wish to draw the line at Taiwan. Citing the President's speech to the National Endowment for Democracy on the importance of supporting democracies, they urge that the President's declared policy apply across the board with minimal or no regard to local consequences in places like the Taiwan Strait. This means strong diplomatic support for Taiwan's elected leader and his policies, regardless of the perils to peace and security those policies might entail.

The Bush administration has pursued an erratic course in navigating between these neoconservative voices and those who seek to adhere to the traditional framework. The president, for example, supported by the State Department, has properly warned Chen not to pursue changes in the status quo.

At the same time, the administration-appointed director of the American Institute in Taiwan – the Washington office responsible for relations with Taiwan – who has enjoyed the patronage of the offices of the vice president and the secretary of defense, publicly characterized Bush as Chen's "guardian angel" and undercut attempts by others in the administration to rein Chen in. The administration also authorized a transit visit by Chen through the United States in September 2003 that burnished his credentials at home and allowed him to close the gap in the polls with the opposition.

These mixed signals not only provided the opening that Chen used to claim U.S. support in his reelection campaign, but have led him to calculate that the United States will stand by him as he pushes the envelope in seeking more formal independence from China. Chen brushed off Bush's urgings not to hold a referendum coincident with Taiwan's presidential elections, signaling that U.S. warnings were not taken seriously. Unless the Bush administration speaks with one voice in the future, he will continue to do so.

As a result, we face the risk of a dangerous sequence of steps by the three actors in the Taiwan Strait:

  • Taiwan, bolstered by ill-considered, inconsistent U.S. rhetoric and action and a misreading of Chinese intentions, could move toward formal independent status through constitutional revision.
  • China, in response, could judge that it needs to threaten or take military action to prevent Taiwan from achieving formal independence.
  • While not supporting Taiwan independence, the United States could find itself dragged into a position where it considers its strategic interests in Asia imperiled by the threat of Chinese use of force and responds by mobilizing to meet the Chinese threat.

Ironically, China, the large power whose goal is to reclaim control over the smaller one, seems prepared to tolerate the status quo arrangement for quite some time, while Taiwan, the small highly vulnerable player – though not under attack or imminent threat of attack – seems ready to destroy the framework that has guaranteed the peace.

Taiwan has made clear to the United States that it doesn't want to buy sufficient arms necessary for its defense. Just defend us, they say, while we chart our own future. This behavior only makes sense if Taiwan assumes that the United States will defend it no matter what the circumstances. We should make it clear that this assumption is not correct.

Prescription for U.S. Policy

There are three things that the United States should do under these circumstances:

  • Stay the course with the framework that has maintained the peace: the Taiwan Relations Act, three U.S.-China Joint Communiques, and the one China policy.
  • Make absolutely clear to Taiwan that actions that threaten the stability of the Strait, including any move towards independence or a permanent separation, are unacceptable and will have consequences for our relationship. U.S. defense assistance to Taiwan should only be contemplated in the context of our one China policy, not movement by Taiwan toward independence.
  • Make clear to Beijing that it would pay a costly price for military action against Taiwan. U.S. steps could include an embargo on trade and investment; a break in relations; increased support for Taiwan's defense; and possible direct U.S. military involvement.

The first two of these steps are relatively easy. The third is not. The potential economic and human consequences of military conflict between the United States and China, the world's most populous country, are enormous and could surpass the horrors of the 20th century's wars. Even those who told us that the Iraq invasion and occupation would be a "cakewalk" – incidentally often the same ones who resist constraints on Taiwan's conduct – probably understand that a U.S.-China conflict would be devastating.

Time could turn out to be an ally, if the hotheads among the three sides are not allowed to dictate the pace of events. China and Taiwan are drawing closer together economically. China is also transforming socially, with greater freedom and better rule of law enjoyed by hundreds of millions in the developing eastern provinces, and further evolution toward pluralism can be expected. Moreover, notions of absolute sovereignty, so dear to both the United States and China, are beginning to erode in much of the world, as Europe's union demonstrates.

Formulas to bridge the gap between Beijing and Taipei could well be found – ones that satisfy Taiwan's need for freedom, democracy, and identity and China's need for unity – if people and leaders on the three sides do not try to force events.

Jeffrey Bader is senior vice president of Stonebridge International, a global strategy consulting group based in Washington D.C.

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