The status quo on Taiwan and the importance of strategic ambiguity

24 August 2020

By Editorial Board, ANU

This article first appeared on the EastAsiaForum

In June Beijing passed the national security law for Hong Kong, forbidding ‘secession, subversion, terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security’. The law allows the Chinese government to establish agencies in Hong Kong to uphold Beijing’s definition of national security, which almost certainly includes opposition to the mainland’s Chinese Communist Party. By ending this aspect of the legal separation between the two jurisdictions, most political and legal analysts outside China concur that the national security law spells an end to the ‘one country, two systems’ model that facilitated Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997 and was supposed to ensure that life in Hong Kong would remain unchanged for 50 years.

Events in Hong Kong were watched closely in Taiwan, which maintains close but fraught relations with the mainland. Taiwan’s government still officially maintains that it is the legitimate government of all China. In Beijing’s eyes, Taiwan is a renegade province that ‘must and will be’ reunified with China. Chinese President Xi Jinping declared Taiwan’s reunification ‘an inevitable requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people’.

For more than two decades Beijing’s proposed model for Taiwan’s reunification has been Hong Kong. Under the ‘one country, two systems’ model, Beijing offered that Taiwan become a self-governing special autonomous province within the People’s Republic. Current institutions and laws would remain unchanged for 50 years. Many in Taiwan, including supporters of reunification, have been skeptical about the degree of autonomy Taiwan would be permitted to enjoy under such an arrangement. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, sworn in for a second term this May, is adamant that Taiwan can never accept ‘one country, two systems’. And public opinion is now squarely on her side. In a 2019 survey conducted by National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center, 79 per cent of respondents flatly rejected the model, with 90 per cent indicating preference for status quo.

Developments in Hong Kong have had a significant impact on cross-Strait relations. Taiwanese representatives in Hong Kong reportedly fled after refusing to sign a statement ‘rigorously upholding the one-China principle’, allegedly a condition for renewing their work visas. And as soon as the national security law passed, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council opened a new Taiwan–Hong Kong Office for Exchange and Services in Taipei to assist Hong Kongers fleeing persecution.

Tensions between Beijing and Taipei have also been stirred by the Trump administration, which has teased the idea of increased US support for Taiwan. Last month Trump dispatched Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar to Taipei, the first cabinet-level official to visit Taiwan under the Trump administration. Azar was understood to be in Taiwan to examine the island’s successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but such a high-level visitor set off political alarm bells and provoked a prompt warning from Beijing on the ‘potential [of the visit] to harm US–China relations’.

Pundits following the Trump administration’s pugilistic stance on China have gushed about the visit’s significance, wondering aloud whether Taiwan will become a pawn in  US–China strategic rivalry in the Western Pacific with some calling for a formal commitment on Taiwan’s defence.

In our lead essay this week the former US representative to Taiwan Douglas Paal suggests that the visit is best described by the Chinese expression ‘much thunder, little rain’ (leishengda, yudianxiao), or ‘much ado about nothing’. According to Paal, this ministerial visit is simply motivated by US interest in Taiwan’s successful management of the pandemic and is consistent with previous visits to Taiwan (such visits were more common under previous administrations).

This is not to deny the possibility that Taiwan might re-emerge as a point of conflict in US–China relations. Shortly after Trump’s electoral victory in 2016, President Tsai made a surprise call to Trump, who broke convention and picked up her call, greatly angering China’s leadership. Two years later Washington opened a new US$250 million de facto embassy in Taipei. Taiwan also announced plans to increase defence spending 20 per cent by 2025, with the new equipment mostly supplied by the United States.

As Paal is keenly aware, the political implications of Azar’s visit might be overblown in the media, but Taiwan remains an enduring potential flashpoint in US-China relations. How the United States would respond to a Chinese attempt at ‘non-peaceful’ reunification of Taiwan, which Xi has threatened in the case of foreign intervention, remains one of the great unknowns of contemporary geopolitics. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, enacted to ensure US support for Taiwan as the US switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, is deliberately ambiguous about US support for Taiwan’s defence. The strategic ambiguity has helped maintain the status quo ever since.

Military deterrence is nonetheless a critical component of Taiwan’s security. And so, the former National Security Council Advisor on China to President Obama reminds us, is the diplomatic framework with which it is provided. Were China to become convinced that the United States had abandoned the essential elements of the understandings of the past four decades — no support for Taiwan’s formal independence or secession, no establishment of an official relationship with Taiwan, limits on arms sales and no defence treaty or formal commitment — Beijing will conclude that the status quo is no longer sustainable in a period of rising nationalist sentiment at home.

While President Xi has made clear he sees Taiwan’s reunification as essential to ‘Chinese rejuvenation’, there has been no Chinese retreat from the understandings over Taiwan on which normalisation was agreed. If those understandings fractured, the position since 1979 that peaceful reunification is China’s fundamental policy would almost certainly be revisited, and likely renounced. If deterrence fails, as Bader argues ‘and the balloon goes up in the Strait, whoever is US president and the US Congress will have to make decisions about how to react, what level of force will be needed to achieve short and long-term objectives, and how to avoid a massively destructive conflict in which the United States, China, and Taiwan would all suffer grievously.’ 

Such decisions would be necessary, with or without a formal treaty, as Bader suggests, and all that would follow the United States’ breaking its word by entering into one. It is crucial therefore that no actions be taken that make such fateful events more likely.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.