Taiwan's Balancing Act

Eric Heginbotham, Rajan Menon

Eric Heginbotham, Rajan Menon

Security, Asia

Although Washington should not sacrifice Taiwan to placate Beijing, it must also refrain from using it as a stick for beating China.

Taiwan's Balancing Act

With the U.S.-China relationship descending rapidly into acrimony and indeed frequently characterized as a new Cold War, Taiwan remains a particularly dangerous flashpoint. Although maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait has never been easy, it has now become even more challenging for several reasons. Taiwan’s economic prosperity and dynamic democracy have endowed it with increased confidence and an increasingly separate identity.  The leadership in Beijing, for its part, has acquired an unprecedented measure of self-assurance, thanks to China’s growing economic and military power. The United States and China have come to view each other as “strategic competitors,” and the Sino-American trade war shows few signs of fading.  To complicate matters, the U.S. Congress, reflecting a broader bid for foreign policy leadership, has inserted itself squarely into the Taiwan issue.

Dueling speeches in January 2019 highlighted the chasm between mainland and Taiwanese positions and the possibility of trouble ahead. Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his first major address on Taiwan, reiterated that “the future of Taiwan lies in the reunification of the country” and that the path to reunification (under a “one country, two systems” arrangement) lies in economic integration and dialogue. While “Chinese will not fight against Chinese,” he warned, Beijing would not foreswear the use of force against the “interference of external forces” or Taiwan separatists.  Both Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, and the opposition Kuomintang party (KMT), quickly rejected the “one country, two systems” solution out of hand.

A full-blown Taiwan crisis would present all parties with unpalatable choices and unprecedented risk. But while a crisis would be in none of the actors’ interests, avoiding that outcome will require prudent diplomacy. That will be even truer in the future, as Chinese power continues to grow.  In this essay, we assess the challenges facing U.S. policy toward Taiwan and propose adjustments intended to improve the prospects for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing has long maintained that only one China exists, that Taiwan forms part of it and that its legitimate government resides in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). China’s leaders have been equally clear that unifying Taiwan with the mainland ranks among their most cherished objectives and that while they prefer to achieve it through peaceful means, they reserve the right to use force if all else fails—and especially if Taiwan were to declare independence. Yet almost seventy years after the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Taiwan continues to be ruled by a government that does not answer to Beijing and that, if anything, is more determined to ensure that things stay that way.

Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen has been careful not to declare independence, realizing that doing so could precipitate war with China. Yet no one who has visited Taiwan recently and spoken with its senior officials, as we have, can doubt that Tsai and other top foreign policy and national security officials in Taipei are determined to protect Taiwan’s political system and do not even feign interest in eventual reunification. Indeed, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leaders remain wedded to maintaining Taiwan’s distinctive identity and political order, even though they realize that China has vowed never to accept indefinite separation and is more distrustful of the DPP than it ever was of the KMT, which ruled Taiwan from 1945 until 2000 and between 2008 and 2016.

Washington’s “one China policy” acknowledges China’s position that there is only one China, and in 1979 the United States established formal diplomatic relations with Beijing and severed them with Taipei. But, unlike Beijing’s preferred “one China principle,” successive American governments have taken no position on whether Taiwan is a part of China. Moreover, Washington’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” seeks, through specific statements tailored to the circumstances, to discourage unilateral changes to the status quo by either party. For example, George W. Bush sought to rein in Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian in December 2003 when he stated,

We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo. And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo…

In parallel, U.S. policy—embedded in communiqués, legislation and official statements—provides conditional security assurances to Taiwan.

But some American critics have assailed this strategy as too accommodating to China. They insist that the United States must not, for moral and strategic reasons, treat Taiwan as a bargaining chip that can be sacrificed someday in order to placate China, and that the island should be allowed to decide its future, even if that means full-blown independence. For the last two years, pro-Taiwan activists in Congress and elsewhere have seized on the opportunity, especially during times of worsening Sino-American relations, to push for measures that would blur the distinction between diplomatic ties and other forms of relations with Taiwan.

Although Washington should not sacrifice Taiwan to placate Beijing, it must also refrain from using it as a stick for beating China. In recognizing the People’s Republic of China, the United States agreed to eschew statements or actions that signal recognition of Taiwan. The United States must not dictate outcomes to Taiwan, but it should also not have to pay the price—in blood and treasure—if Taiwanese leaders decide to seek de jure independence. Redefining the terms of U.S.-Taiwan relations, especially on the security front, will increase the probability that Taiwanese politicians will do precisely that. If they do, the United States will be dragged into a crisis that could escalate and prove catastrophic. Continued strategic ambiguity, therefore, remains Washington’s best course. Maintaining it will, however, require adjustments that adapt to changing circumstances.

Taiwan’s success in creating a prosperous, vibrantly democratic society has produced a distinctive identity. In addition to nearly seventy years of separate political existence from the People’s Republic of China and the consolidation of democratic rule, the International Monetary Fund ranked Taiwan’s 2018 gdp twenty-second in the world in terms of purchasing parity—extraordinary considering that the Taiwanese account for a mere 0.3 percent of the world’s people and rank fifty-sixth in population size. All of this has made for a Taiwan that has an identity quite separate from China, especially among individuals who are forty or younger. Annual polls by Taipei’s National Chengchi University reveal that whereas only 17.6 percent of the respondents saw themselves as “Taiwanese only” in 1992, the first year the survey was conducted, 55.8 percent did so in 2018. During the same period, those who regarded themselves as solely Chinese fell from 25.5 percent to 3.5 percent.

Furthermore, for nearly two-thirds of those who identified as Taiwanese only, preserving Taiwan’s sovereignty was more important than maintaining economic ties with China, in comparison to 36 percent for those who considered themselves as Chinese as well as Taiwanese. The poll also found that 65.5 percent of respondents under thirty-nine years old supported preserving the status quo in the Taiwan Strait but that 63.4 percent of them also favored fighting a war in the event of a Chinese attack.

Taiwan’s China policy has evolved to reflect these changes in national identity, though not in a linear fashion. President Lee Teng-hui, who led a KMT government, proposed in 1999 that Taiwan and China should engage in “special state-to-state relations,” while his DPP successor, Chen Shui-bian, described cross-Strait relations as involving “one country on each side.” In 2008, KMT leader Ma Ying-jeou backed away from such “two-state” formulations and embraced the so-called “1992 Consensus,” under which both sides accept that there is only one China but agree to disagree on its definition. But since her election as president in 2016, Tsai Ing-wen has pointedly avoided explicitly recognizing the 1992 Consensus even as she has attempted, with only marginal success, to assuage Beijing’s ire over her apparent departure from a “one China” framework.

China, for its part, has vastly more wealth and military muscle than it once did, and thus more options for coercing Taiwan. In inflation-adjusted dollars, China’s economy today is ten times larger than it was in 1992. Its defense expenditure, twice that of Taiwan in 1992, is now roughly eighteen to twenty-three times larger, depending on the methods of calculation used. Although China’s military still suffers from several shortcomings that might make a successful amphibious invasion of Taiwan difficult to pull off in the immediate future, the local balance of power no longer overwhelming and unequivocally favors the United States. The day is fast approaching when China will have a full range of military means to use against Taiwan, making possible large-scale counter-intervention by the United States even more important to the island’s security. In the meantime, Beijing now has many more economic and political levers to pull in order pressure Taiwan.

The United States has long insisted that it would welcome a peaceful reunification on terms acceptable to China and Taiwan; and, from a strategic as well as a moral standpoint, this remains the best position for Washington to adopt. Were China forcibly to reunify Taiwan and the mainland, Washington’s allies in East Asia would conclude that they cannot count on the United States to defend them. And while the United States and its allies might partially compensate for the setbacks that would follow China’s absorption of Taiwan, their relative strategic position would nevertheless suffer. Chinese submarines and aircraft would be in a position to sortie directly into the Philippine Sea and, from there, into the Western Pacific and Japan’s vital sea lanes directly from Taiwanese bases.

The United States also has an interest in avoiding war with China, and while deterring an attack on Taiwan is a means to that end, so is minimizing Beijing’s motivation to take that step. The triangular relationship between the United States, China and Taiwan necessitates a policy of dual deterrence based on conditional assurances and strategic ambiguity. One part of this strategy involves discouraging Taiwanese actions that could pull the United States into conflict in the Taiwan Strait. The other requires using military and diplomatic means to prevent China from going to war to achieve unification.

The United States must also seek to maintain a functioning, and preferably multifarious and robust, relationship with China; and the reverse is also true, even if neither country consistently considers the other as an easy partner. Where interests coincide or overlap, cooperation can yield benefits to both sides, as it has recently on issues ranging from North Korea to removing highly enriched uranium from Nigeria and Ghana. Gains on these and other issues may recur on other important issues down the line, as international circumstances and national interests evolve. To be sure, the United States and China are often rivals in Asia, and Beijing has, not surprisingly, sought to shape the existing order in ways that better serve its interests—but it has not acted as a universal spoiler driven by a zero-sum mindset.

The United States may have to tailor the messages and capabilities that preserve deterrence, particularly as the balance of power continues to shift in China’s favor. But changes in American policy that depart from its “one China” policy risk triggering a chain of events that culminate in a crisis in the Taiwan Strait—even if none of the parties sought that outcome. Frustration over the inability to prevent the reelection of Taiwan’s pro-independence president Chen Shui-bian in 2004 led China to pass the 2005 Anti-Secession Law, which threatened the use of “non-peaceful means” if “separatist forces” pursued independence or if “the possibilities for a peaceful reunification...  [were to be] completely exhausted.” Further developments that suggest to Beijing that unification through diplomatic means has become a lost cause might impel it to up the ante. China’s increasing power has led its leaders and people to expect that others will acknowledge and respect its position and be mindful of its interests to a greater extent than before.

Domestic politics could also impel China’s top leaders to act more assertively for fear that failure during a crisis over Taiwan could erode their legitimacy at home or even encourage challenges to their power from within the ruling elite and even the People’s Liberation Army, which sees itself as the guardian of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Even if China does not resort to military force against Taiwan—the riskiest of its options—fundamental changes in U.S. Taiwan policy will almost certainly transform Beijing from a competitor that is also a partner into an outright adversary and spoiler. Yet, a bolder pro-Taiwan policy is precisely what some, notably within Congress, advocate.


Since the election of Donald Trump, Washington’s Taiwan policy has changed in style and substance, and influential members of Congress are pressing for even more pronounced shifts. Even before he entered the White House, President Trump sent some early signals, particularly through his decision to accept a telephone call from President Tsai in December 2016, that he might change American policy toward Taiwan. Although Trump has since pulled back significantly toward a more traditional Taiwan policy, the administration contains a number of influential Taiwan supporters and China hawks. This has encouraged pro-Taiwan individuals and organizations to double down and demand more fundamental changes in support of Taipei, the more so as the U.S.-PRC relationship has turned adversarial on several fronts.

Because of its role in overseeing American adherence to the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act, which mandates providing defensive weapons to Taiwan, Congress has long regarded itself as an important and legitimate player, even watchdog, when it comes to the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. And the emergence of the anti-establishment Tea Party, together with the mounting suspicion toward the “deep state” since Trump’s election, has further emboldened Congressional backers of Taiwan.

Consider, as an example, the 2017 Taiwan Travel Act (TTA), introduced by Representative Steve Chabot and Senator Marco Rubio, which was passed unanimously by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Trump in March 2018. The TTA permits American government officials at all levels to travel to Taiwan for mutual consultations. Though the legislation has not yet been used to enable precedent-breaking visits to Taipei by senior American officials, it represents a major departure in the way that the United States engages Taiwan. Chinese officials were quick to condemn it as a violation of the “one China” policy, and so did several prominent Chinese academics. One scholar, better known as an outspoken critic of various aspects of Xi Jinping’s rule, suggested that if the high-level visits occur, “Trump should not expect China to offer help on big international issues.”

Beijing’s suspicions have been stoked by other legislative moves, especially those that presage a change in American policy toward Taiwan on the security front. A case in point is the July 2017 Taiwan Security Act (TSA) introduced by Senators Tom Cotton and Cory Gardner. It mandated defense and diplomatic exchanges with Taiwan at the flag officer and assistant secretary levels, including Taiwanese forces in the RIMPAC naval maneuvers and the Red Flag air-to-air exercises, initiating U.S. Navy port visits to Taiwan, and inviting the Taiwanese navy to call at American ports. Nor was this a flash in the pan: two months later, Republican congressmen introduced a similar bill in the House of Representatives.

Ultimately, neither bill went forward to a vote, and Congress backed away from specific mandates. Still, the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) included language suggesting that the United States should (not must) take all of the steps proposed in the TSA. In addition, it mandated briefings on Taiwan’s defense needs plus reports on the Defense Department’s (DOD) evaluation of Letters of Request from Taipei for arms transfers. The 2019 NDAA likewise required that the DOD submit a plan for expanding senior military-to-military engagement and joint training with Taiwan, as well as for selling Taiwan weaponry to strengthen its asymmetric warfare capabilities.

Republicans have not been alone in seeking to strengthen American support for Taiwan. In September 2018, Republican and Democratic senators introduced legislation, the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act, that “requires a U.S. strategy to engage with governments around the world to support Taiwan’s diplomatic recognition or strengthen unofficial ties with Taiwan.” In addition, the bill, according to Senator Marco Rubio, one of its sponsors, “authorizes the State Department to downgrade U.S. relations with” and to “suspend or alter U.S. foreign assistance” to governments that switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing. The irony—or one might say hypocrisy—of a proposed law that seeks to punish small, poor countries for a change that the United States made almost forty years ago has surely not been lost on its potential targets.

The executive branch has resisted many of these changes or refrained from implementing them aggressively. Nevertheless, the TTA represents a major shift in American policy and pressure for additional change continues, particularly from within Congress, which is better known for its susceptibility to influence peddling by tribes of special interests than for balanced strategic thinking. Moreover, Taiwan proponents outside of Congress have pushed a range of additional departures from established policy, including scrapping the third communiqué with China, which was adopted under Ronald Reagan in 1982 and stipulated that the United States would gradually reduce arms supplies to Taiwan.

China has regarded the TTA, TSA and the NDAA as part of a trend and hit back by labeling them as “provocations” that “have crossed the ‘red line’ on the stability of the China-U.S. relationship.” But with a Sino-American trade war and possible sanctions on China over its arms purchases from Russia having added to existing tensions between Beijing and Washington, additional measures by Congress—or the fuller implementation by the executive branch of existing measures that it has proposed—may be in store. Worse, these may come without a careful evaluation that weighs the accompanying benefits and risks.

The United States maintains a one-China policy, has an abiding interest in peace and stability across the Strait, and continues to urge restraint by both sides. Washington’s policy of strategic ambiguity has worked well for decades by sending a clear warning, to both sides, not to attempt fundamental changes to the status quo. Nevertheless, changing circumstances in China, Taiwan and the United States require adjustments to particular elements of U.S. policy, although not fundamental changes. Three general principles should guide the recalibration. First, Washington should strengthen and regularly reiterate its commitment to deterrence. Second, it should avoid measures that edge towards granting Taiwan formal recognition, or even appear to do so. Third, it should avoid overreacting to political moves that China makes in tit-for-tat exchanges between Taipei and Beijing.

The most important, though conditional, deterrent message that the United States sends with respect to the cross-Strait relationship is its recurring statements opposing any forcible alteration of the status quo. This message should continue to be reiterated regularly at the highest levels of government. The United States should also maintain the military capability to make the message credible and clear to Beijing. Strengthening niche capabilities particularly relevant to a Taiwan scenario, such as submarine and anti-submarine warfare as well as mine and counter-mine capabilities, can highlight U.S. deterrence, though displays of strength linked to explicit statements centered on Taiwan are not only unnecessary, but could prove inflammatory and counterproductive.

Taiwanese capabilities are also critical to the effectiveness of deterrence. Encouraging and supporting Taiwan’s acquisition of asymmetric military technologies—survivable systems that can boost its ability to implement a denial strategy—would buy time for U.S. mobilization in the event of a crisis and discourage Chinese leaders from concluding they might use force to quickly achieve a fait accompli. The relevant systems to bolster Taiwan’s defensive resilience include surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles and radars systems, as well as weapons that can prevent China from establishing amphibious bridgeheads in the early stages of an invasion. Such systems are consistent with Taiwan’s new Overall Defense Concept and have the added advantage of not providing offensive capacity, thus contributing to, rather than undermining, crisis stability because they shore up deterrence through forceful, but defensive, steps.

If the aim of deterrence is to prevent war, the same end is also served by observing the commitments that the United States made to China when it recognized Beijing in 1979. In particular, Washington should avoid steps that suggest a movement towards officially recognizing Taipei. This does not require it to drop its longstanding policy of supporting Taiwan’s inclusion in international bodies that include non-state actors more generally, such as UN agencies like the World Health Organization. But Washington should, for example, oppose any legislation that would mandate senior level government-to-government contact or coordination or U.S. military deployments or visits to Taiwan. Moreover, the president, exercising the prerogatives of commander-in-chief, should refuse to implement any such legislation that might be passed.

The steady stream of statements by U.S. retired military leaders, activism by individuals with direct ties to the Taiwanese government, and pro-Taiwan legislation by Congress may give Beijing the impression that a wholesale reassessment of the agreements the United States reached with China is underway. That could confront Chinese leaders with the choice between losing legitimacy at home by failing to defend a central pillar of Chinese foreign policy, on the one hand, and, on the other, risking a major war by taking military steps intended to communicate their resolve to Washington. The United States could also be confronted with a terrible choice: remaining on the sidelines after having provoked China and put Taiwan in harm’s way or risking a war with nuclear-armed China in order to defend Taiwan. Even if the United States were to achieve a military victory, a very cold, fragile and possibly short-lived peace would follow.

Finally, the United States should exercise caution in wading into the back-and-forth political skirmishes between Taipei and Beijing. Since most Americans are, for all intents and purposes, oblivious to changes on the Taiwanese side, in practice, this means not overreacting to Chinese moves. China has certainly adopted new coercive diplomatic and economic measures to isolate and demoralize Taiwan’s DPP leadership. Yet these steps cannot be separated from incremental and episodic Taiwanese moves towards open declarations of separateness, which, at a certain point, may become difficult to distinguish from independence.

Moreover, the Chinese pressure tactics taken to date do not even remotely threaten the Republic of China’s (ROC) existence. True, in recent years, China has induced several states, most recently El Salvador, to abandon Taiwan and establish diplomatic relations with the PRC, but these defectors have been small countries and therefore unimportant to Taiwan’s economy, let alone its security. Their withdrawal of recognition does scant material harm to Taiwan, which has survived, and indeed thrived, despite having seen many far more powerful countries do the same—the United States included.

China does have many other options to squeeze Taiwan short of using force, and some of these measures would threaten the island’s economic viability, necessitating a more fundamental rethinking of U.S. policy. But the moves made by Beijing thus far are better viewed as sparring by both Taiwan and China. Heavy-handed U.S. action may simply spark more consequential moves by China, for which the United States may not have an adequate response, which is to say one that avoids creating a crisis.

The current situation in the Taiwan Strait does not fully satisfy any of the three most interested parties: the PRC, the ROC and the United States. But so far, although the three have skirmished at the boundaries and their positions have evolved and sharpened over time, each has wisely avoided precipitous moves to remake the political and strategic landscape, realizing that the status quo, while not optimal, is safer than the feasible alternatives. The Taiwan dispute will not be resolved anytime soon, but it should be managed prudently until that proves possible. The consequences of intemperate words and deeds in the Taiwan Strait could prove deadly—especially now, as discord between Washington and Beijing continues to deepen. A sensible strategy requires that the United States not use Taiwan as a hammer with which to beat Beijing or treat it as a tradeable commodity that can be used to mollify the Chinese leadership.

Eric Heginbotham is a principal research scientist in the Center of International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at City College of New York/cuny and senior research scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.

Image: Reuters

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