Written by Qi Dongtao.
It is well known that Taiwan, China and the US have been in complex triangular relations, which means any relations between the two cannot be well understood without involving the third country. Therefore — and apart from Beijing trying to increase its impact on Taiwan directly — Beijing has realised that the shortest route to Taipei is through Washington and has thus tried very hard to manage Washington’s influence on the island. Washington understands the importance of Taiwan to Beijing, and as a result, has carefully managed its relations with Taipei to serve its tactical relations with Beijing. Taipei, as the relatively much smaller power between these two great powers, has been trying to work with opportunities and challenges — both of which are created by the flux of US-China relations — by keeping a delicate balance between the two countries.
Since Washington established diplomatic relations with Beijing — and ended its official relations with Taipei in 1979 — the intentional ambiguity upheld by these three governments has been the essential foundation for balanced triangular relations. Such ambiguity means all three governments offer equivocal answers to essential questions regarding Taiwan’s political future. For example, Beijing has never stopped showing its determination for uniting Taiwan with the mainland but has been vague on when and how to achieve its unification goal: i.e., unification by peaceful means or by force? With its own one-China policy, Washington has been ambiguous on the extent to which it supports Beijing’s one-China principle and will support Taipei under different circumstances. Understandably, Taipei has been ambiguous on its ultimate relations with Beijing in the future, that is, independence of or unification with Mainland China.
The main benefit of these calculated ambiguities is that they can maintain balance in these triangular relations at a tactical level to avoid armed conflicts. They can also create room for each government to pursue their own interests at a pragmatic level. The US-Taiwan relations since Donald Trump took office is a typical such example. The two governments have significantly improved their relations through a series of tactical moves without breaking the strategic ambiguity upheld by them. In the context of rising competition between the US and China, American politicians have achieved an anti-Beijing consensus, which has substantially raised Taiwan’s value in Washington’s China containment policy. Washington’s long-term deliberate equivocation on the Taiwan issue has been utilised actively by congress, the Trump administration, think tanks and other forces to pass pro-Taiwan bills unanimously. It has also helped increase exchanges and collaborations with Taiwan significantly in many areas. Facing such an excellent opportunity, Taipei has not hesitated to respond to Washington’s active support, and on the other hand, has maintained its deliberate ambivalence on its future relations with Beijing. The high value of such strategic ambiguity to both governments is demonstrated by improving their relations without severely damaging their relations with Beijing.
Since both Washington and Taipei have not broken their strategic ambiguity, Beijing does not need to abandon such tactics first. Beijing however, has tried to move towards strategic clarity after Xi Jinping took power by clarifying the deadline for unification; revising the 1992 Consensus; more actively promoting the “one country, two systems” as the model for unification; aggressively demonstrating China’s military power in the region, and so on. But all these moves have backfired in Taiwan, especially during Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election. Consequently, Beijing has understood that it was too early to abandon such strategies and has slowed down its aggressive moves on the Taiwan issue. This has encouraged Washington and Taipei to move faster to a new equilibrium in triangular relations.
The strategic ambiguity does provide room for a new equilibrium. However, this equilibrium will not be achieved without conflict. The new symmetry would consist of significantly improved US-Taiwan relations and deteriorating but manageable US-China and cross-Strait relations. From Beijing’s point of view, Washington and Taipei have been gradually moving to the limit of their deliberate ambiguity. Thus, Beijing must stop them before they reach that limit, or, Beijing’s “red line.” What Beijing has adopted in fighting Washington and Taipei’s gradual strategy is the same type of strategies backed by Beijing’s own use of planned ambiguity. It has continued to squeeze Taiwan’s international space and increase military pressure and economic sanctions on Taiwan without stopping its efforts for peaceful unification.
It is inconceivable that any of these three governments would abandon strategic ambiguity first, which could lead to severe conflicts between them, including military ones. Nevertheless, the new equilibrium under the old strategic equivocation is hard to achieve, as it is an integral part of US-China strategic competition, so both sides will have to struggle wisely for a strategically advantageous position in the new equilibrium.
The on-going COVID-19 pandemic is adding more uncertainties to the three government’s struggle for a new equilibrium. China was hit earliest and hard by the virus, but it is likely to recover from the crisis first, which may boost its confidence and power in pushing the new equilibrium towards its strategic direction. The US, weakened by the pandemic and facing China’s continued rise, may see higher stakes in the future new equilibrium, and therefore, has to put more efforts in building its relations with Taiwan. The opportunities brought about by the high-power competition will continue to benefit Taiwan on international, political, economic and military fronts. Still, Taipei must also prepare for the rising pressures from Beijing on the same fronts. Therefore, the pandemic will likely further enhance Taiwan-US relations, which will inevitably alienate Beijing and lead to more vigorous opposition against both Taipei and Washington. Fortunately, because the three governments will be least likely to abandon their strategic ambiguity, radical conflicts such as military ones are less likely to happen.
Qi Dongtao is a Research Fellow in the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore and is the author of The Taiwan Independence Movement In and Out of Power (World Scientific Publishing, 2016). This article is part of special issue on the U.S.-Taiwan relations.