By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security
“I would like to congratulate Dr. Tsai Ing-wen on the commencement of her second term as Taiwan’s President. Her re-election by a huge margin shows that she has earned the respect, admiration, and trust of the people on Taiwan. Her courage and vision in leading Taiwan’s vibrant democracy is an inspiration to the region and the world.”
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This congratulatory statement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is, in many ways, typical of a U.S. response to a free and open democratic election, but for one exception: The U.S. does not recognize Taiwan as an independent state. China sees Taiwan as a renegade province and was none too pleased with the U.S. statement on the recent elections. China may not be able to integrate Taiwan by force, but it uses other methods — diplomacy, economics — to undermine any perceived drive toward the island’s independence.
US Relations with Taiwan Are a Holdover from a Deal Struck with Maoist China
U.S. relations with Taiwan are the result of another Cold War holdover when Washington struck a deal with Maoist China to help contain what it feared most, Soviet expansion. This was largely accomplished in exchange for economic incentives, but China’s security played a significant role.
For Beijing’s part, the government required the U.S. to recognize the Maoist government on mainland China over the exiled Kuomintang government in Taiwan. Washington closed its embassy in Taipei, but Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, allowing the U.S. to maintain ties to the island. As a result, Washington still has a presence under the American Institute of Taiwan, staffed with U.S. State Department employees.
Chinese President Xi’s Pressure Campaign Alienated Taiwan’s Young Voters
Regarding the recent presidential elections, it should be noted that Tsai Ing-wen was politically dead just over a year ago because Beijing was successfully isolating Taiwan diplomatically. Her political fortunes turned on China’s handling of the Hong Kong protests. But Chinese President Xi Jinping engaged in aggressive pressure tactics that likewise played a decisive role in reversing Tsai’s political fortunes.
Xi’s pressure campaign only alienated Taiwan’s young voters, who also closely watched the Hong Kong protests and likely concluded that a “one country, two systems” approach was not in their interest. Not surprising, but many young people on the island identify as Taiwanese as opposed to Chinese as they have little cultural commonality with the mainland.
Furthermore, Taiwan ran a successful campaign to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrating that Taiwan deserves a seat at the table of the international organizations that have thus far shunned the not-quite independent state.
Since the Kuomintang (KMT) fled to Taiwan in 1949, both the Maoist Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the KMT have held on to the belief in “One China,” yet they disagreed as to who really led the nation. The years since led to a status quo of two separate entities that was eventually encapsulated in the 1992 consensus agreement between the KMT and the CCP.
Beijing Has Increasingly Become Aggressive toward the Island, Fracturing the Status Quo
Internal Taiwanese politics shifting away from the 1992 consensus are creating an increase in cross-strait tensions. The political dynamic that has influenced Taiwan is demonstrably receding, which is leading to uncertainty.
China abhors Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), because it leans toward independence with the recent landslide victory and a majority of young voters expressing dissatisfaction with China. Beijing has increasingly become aggressive toward the island. The status quo, it seems, has fractured.
Xi has threatened to reintegrate Taiwan by force, but he doesn’t yet have the ability to do so. Granted, the Chinese military has modernized over the past two decades.
However, executing an amphibious landing under fire from a well-supplied Taiwanese military is not something the People’s Liberation Army has experience in carrying out. Washington sells military hardware to Taiwan quite generously, even if some of that equipment is a generation behind what the U.S. currently employs. Taking Taiwan by force is something easier threatened than done.
Taiwan, or its main benefactor the U.S., does not want the situation to escalate to that level. This political shift between China and Taiwan poses a challenge for the U.S. Washington prefers the status quo because otherwise the U.S. would find itself in the position of either having to defend Taiwan or walking away from a democratic nation.
Taiwan Relations Act Doesn’t Require Any Explicit US Action Should China Attempt to Invade
The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 states that the U.S. would “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”
The act doesn’t require any explicit action on the part of the U.S. should China attempt to invade, which allows for some maneuverability. But this concerns Taiwan because the island is unsure whether it can count on Washington to come to the aid of the island’s defense.
This strategic ambiguity keeps both Taiwan and China off balance and prevents either party from doing anything rash. However, this ambiguity might also press China into taking a calculated risk if Beijing believes it has the means and capability of integrating the island by force.
Washington’s challenge then is no longer to maintain a failing status quo but rather to forge ahead with a new strategy in the Western Pacific.
China and the U.S. are currently engaged in an economic decoupling that is straining relations between the two nations. But it also explains why the Trump administration has become comfortable with treating Taiwan like an independent state.
Treating Taiwan as independent without actually endorsing independence may be the Trump administration’s approach to reaffirming a defense commitment to Taiwan while warning China that the U.S. will not tolerate a military solution to Beijing’s Taiwan problem. In reality, this approach is likely a stopgap measure until a formal policy or strategy can be adopted. In any case the U.S. will need a new approach to the region as the post-Cold War dynamic collapses.
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