During an exclusive interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on August 18, 2021, President Joe Biden stated, “We made a sacred commitment to Article Five that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with–Taiwan.” He appeared to be suggesting that the so-called collective security article of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty — an armed attack against one or more of NATO members shall be considered an attack against them all — would apply to Taiwan.
This raised some confusion about America’s Taiwan policy since Washington has long followed “strategic ambiguity” on whether it would intervene militarily to protect Taiwan in the event of an attack by mainland China. The White House quickly backtracked, with a senior Biden administration official saying the following day that “US policy with regard to Taiwan has not changed.”
Though Biden may have misspoken, this episode is the latest revelation of many paradoxes or contradictions regarding the Taiwan issue. If unresolved, such fundamental problems in the trilateral Washington-Beijing-Taipei relationship will exacerbate tensions in the Taiwan Strait and contribute to turning Taiwan into “the most dangerous place on earth.” Here are some examples of such paradoxes.
1. Seeking to boost its international status, Taipei shuns Beijing that holds the key
The United Nations and other international organizations follow Beijing’s “one China” principle and do not recognize Taiwan’s independent status. Since Tsai Ing-wen took office as President of the Republic of China (ROC) in 2016, Taiwan has lost seven diplomatic allies and has not been able to attend the World Health Assembly (WHA). Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government rejects the notion that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to the same country. Taipei has done a remarkable job in navigating the international system, upgrading substantive relations with Washington in particular, yet it is unable to change its international status and obtain diplomatic recognition.
Taipei is fully aware that the short cut to expanding its international space is via Beijing, but the DPP government has opted for an anti-Beijing approach. Indeed, it has eagerly joined hawks in Washington to counter China, inducing Beijing to amp up military and diplomatic pressures. Without improving relations with Beijing first, Taipei faces an uphill battle to be a normal member in the international community.
2. Rejecting “one China,” Taipei imposes a precondition for cross-Strait talks
Tsai has expressed interest in a “meaningful dialogue” with Beijing, it sounds promising, but her government claims that “one China” has been unilaterally imposed on Taiwan by Beijing as an unacceptable precondition. The truth is the ROC Constitution which Tsai pledged to abide by follows “one China,” and Tsai’s predecessor Ma Ying-jeou was able to maintain friendly cross-Strait ties based on the one-China “1992 Consensus.”
The Ma administration used “Chinese mainland” to refer to the other side of the Taiwan Strait while the Tsai administration routinely uses “China” instead to intentionally disassociate Taiwan from the mainland. The DPP government appears to be paying lip service to the ROC Constitution. By asserting that Taiwan and China are two separate countries, Taipei imposes a precondition that Beijing cannot accept.
The United States
1. Attempting to maintain the status quo, Washington upsets the cross-Strait order
It’s a long-standing US policy to oppose unilateral change of the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Clearly Washington has not done much to encourage peaceful dialogue between Beijing and Taipei lately. It has focused on Beijing’s aggressive behavior without opposing Taipei’s troublesome policies. After taking office in 2016, Tsai ditched the “1992 Consensus,” the foundation of cross-Strait exchanges since official contacts were initiated in the early 1990s. This was unmistakably a most serious unilateral change of the status quo, and yet Washington turned a blind eye to it.
Furthermore, Washington has itself changed the status quo. In recent years US Congress has passed a series of bills to support Taiwan and the State Department has revised the provisions governing unofficial contacts between Washington and Taipei, significantly upgrading bilateral relations. Washington has arguably broken its commitment to maintaining the status quo across the Taiwan Strait, shifting the vaguely-defined guardrails of “one China.”
2. Following its “one China” policy, Washington may be helping create “one China one Taiwan”
US officials like to distinguish America’s “one China policy” from Beijing’s “one China principle.” The letter and spirit of “one-China” are contained in the three Sino-US joint communiqués. The 1972 Shanghai Communiqué states that the United States “acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States government does not challenge that position.” The 1979 and the 1982 Joint Communiqués contain similar expressions.
The Taiwan Relations Act passed by US Congress in 1979 essentially treats Taiwan as an independent state, contradicting the concept of “one China” that Washington did not fully endorse but tacitly agreed with Beijing. Besides the three communiqués, Washington has added the Taiwan Relations Act and Six Assurances as the basis of America’s “one China policy.” However, Washington has been elusive about Taiwan’s legal status under its “one China policy,” creating a gray area for implementing a de facto “one China, one Taiwan” policy.
1.Treating Taiwan like Hong Kong and Macau widens, not narrows, the cross-Strait gap
The “one country, two systems” model has been unpopular in Taiwan. What happened in Hong Kong in the past couple of years has further reduced support for it.
The status of Taiwan is different from that of Hong Kong and Macao. The ROC government was defeated by the Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War and retreated to Taiwan in 1949, but it did not perish. Instead, the ROC has prospered in Taiwan. Beijing is unwilling to face the reality of the ROC’s continued existence. When Hong Kong and Macao were returned to China, the people there had no input. To reunify with a democratic Taiwan, Beijing will need to respect the wishes of the Taiwanese people.
Beijing has stated that under “one China” anything can be discussed. Shouldn’t Beijing offer a better option to Taipei and invite proposals from Taipei about future cross-Strait relations?
2.Punishing Taiwan independence strengthens the push for separation
President Xi Jinping has noted that cross-Strait unification is not just the integration of territory but also the synchronization of hearts and minds of the people. Beijing strongly opposes Taiwan independence and will castigate those pursuing the independence cause. But how can Beijing distinguish the desire of ordinary Taiwanese to be the masters of their own future from the attempt of those who promote Taiwan independence? What is Beijing’s strategy to attract, not coerce, the Taiwanese?
Beijing continues to stifle Taiwan’s international space, such as blocking its participation in the WHA as a way to penalize the DPP government. It has alienated many Taiwanese, who have grown resentful of Beijing’s intimidation. Beijing not only gives the DPP ammunition to attack it but also helps consolidate the DPP’s support base in Taiwan.
Taipei, Washington, and Beijing all have a huge stake in peace and prosperity of the Taiwan Strait, but they have conflicting interests and goals and are advancing inherently contradictory policies.
The three parties must take actions simultaneously to lower tensions and avert potential war in the Taiwan Strait. They should all demilitarize the Taiwan Strait, with a shared understanding that the final solution of the Taiwan issue should not be by military means. For Taipei, following the “one China” ROC Constitution to manage cross-Strait relations is crucial. Advocating the notion that Taiwan and China are two separate countries invites trouble. For Washington, playing the Taiwan card against Beijing is tempting but risky. Expanding economic and cultural relations with Taipei is not to be confused with supporting Taiwan independence. For Beijing, offering carrots is better than waving sticks. It must dial down military and diplomatic pressures on Taiwan and commit to resolving cross-Strait disputes peacefully.