A 2020 Vision for Strategic Clarity on Taiwan

Written by Gerrit van der Wees.

Image credit: United Nations Headquarters by United Nations Photo/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A free and democratic Taiwan should not be excluded from the international community, including the United Nations. We need to develop a vision on how we want to include Taiwan into the international family of nations.

As the United Nations General Assembly is preparing to meet in New York for its annual gathering, the international community is facing multiple issues in all parts of the world that need to be resolved.

Among all of those issues, there is one burning question: why is a free and democratic Taiwan not part of the gathering? Why is a vibrant democracy being excluded from the international family of nations? The answer is of course well known: the PRC’s insistence that Taiwan is part of its territory and should be kept out of international organizations.

The international community, as assembled in the United Nations, need to insist that the people of Taiwan, in accordance with the principle of self-determination as enshrined in UN Charter Article 1.2, have the right to determine their own future. We need to develop a longer-term vision on Taiwan’s place as a full and equal member in the international family of nations. In order to do that, we need to move from strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity.

How Strategic Ambiguity Has Outlived Its Usefulness

The year 2020 is turning out to be the year in which the United States transitioned from the well-worn concept of strategic ambiguity to a new vision of strategic clarity in how we counter China’s ambitions to take Taiwan.

While the concept of strategic ambiguity itself has its roots back in the 1950s, it was Clinton Administration official Joseph Nye who stated it most clearly. Indeed, when asked during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait missile crisis whether the US would come to the defence of Taiwan, he said: “It depends on the circumstances.” In other words, the best deterrent was perceived to be to keep them guessing.

Some observers, such as former Pentagon official Joe Bosco have long argued that this approach had outlived its usefulness and that there was a need for strategic clarity.

An Increasing Consensus on the Need for Strategic Clarity

However, other key observers, have only recently come around to the idea that more clarity from the US is needed if we are to convince China that the use of force is not acceptable: e.g. Richard Haass and David Sacks, and Jerome A. Cohen.

This much broader support for strategic clarity can be traced back to the fact that, as time went on, the PRC significantly increased its military build-up. To be sure,  over the past few years—particularly since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 and her overwhelming victory in re-election in January 2020—China has ratcheted up the pressure with military exercises, incursions and circumnavigation flights, threatening peace and stability in the region.

Seen in combination with the domestic repression of alternate voices in China itself—the incarceration of several million Uyghurs in East Turkestan since 2016, the increasing lack of freedoms in Hong Kong through the Extradition Law (2019) and the introduction of the National Security Law (2020), along with the PRC’s increasingly menacing moves in the South China Sea and East China Sea—have led many observers to believe that the PRC’s next step might be toward Taiwan.

A Positive Move by the Trump Administration

Because of this widely perceived need that something needed to be done, it is encouraging that a rather broad consensus is emerging that strategic clarity is essential. This point was indeed clearly made in an August 31st 2020 speech by US Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David R. Stilwell at the Heritage Foundation, who – under the heading “Longstanding Strategic Clarity” – stated, inter alia:

“We feel compelled to make these adjustments for two reasons. First, because of the increasing threat posed by Beijing to peace and stability in the region, which is a vital interest of the United States. (emphasis added).

In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has targeted Taiwan with diplomatic isolation, bellicose military threats and actions, cyber hacks, economic pressure, “United Front” interference activities – you name it. These actions challenge the peace and stability of the Western Pacific. Let’s be clear: These destabilising actions come from Beijing, not from Taipei or Washington.

We support the longtime status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Beijing has unilaterally altered it, through flipping of diplomatic partners, pushing Taiwan out of international organisations, stepped up military manoeuvres, and other activities. So, we must act to restore balance. Other peace-loving countries should do the same.

Looking at Hong Kong, it is clear that Beijing is willing to disregard its international obligations to extend its authoritarian system and box in freedom-loving people. We no longer have the luxury of assuming that Beijing will live up to its commitment to peacefully resolve its differences with Taipei, as it promised us in the three joint communiques.

And while we continue to honour those agreements, I assure you that the United States is fully committed to upholding the Taiwan Relations Act and fulfilling our commitments under the Six Assurances as well. We will continue to help Taipei resist the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign to pressure, intimidate, and marginalise Taiwan. The United States has responded and continues to respond to increased PRC military pressure by providing necessary defence articles and other support.”

The second reason mentioned by Mr Stilwell for making adjustments in US policy was that “….we have been focusing on our engagement with Taiwan is simply to reflect the growing and deepening ties of friendship, trade, and productivity between the United States and Taiwan.”

In other words, Taiwan is now a vibrant democracy. More on the importance of that point later.

Clarity with Some Ifs and Buts

The question with a given policy is, of course, how it is implemented. The problem with the approach suggested by Richard Haass and David Sacks, in Foreign Affairs, is that it only “…focuses narrowly on restoring deterrence” and does not look at the broader picture. Haass and Sacks specifically state that “Strategic clarity would not entail that the United States recognise Taipei or upgrade its relationship with Taiwan, nor would it involve a mutual defence treaty or any signed document with Taiwan.”

By phrasing it in this way, Haass and Sacks unnecessarily restrict US’ options. In fact, it should be argued that strategic clarity can only be useful in the long run if a long-term vision accompanies it on Taiwan’s place in the international community.

Developing a 2020 Vision

Thus, rather than emphasising that “US policy remains unchanged”—as argued by Haass and Sacks—we need to develop a vision based on the fact that Taiwan is now a vibrant democracy. It is no longer ruled by the repressive Kuomintang regime that was in power when we derecognised Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China in 1979. That regime’s claims to sovereignty over all of China was, of course, untenable and led to its political isolation.

Taiwan’s lively democracy—which was won through the hard work of the Taiwanese people along with assistance from the American “Gang of Four” in the US Congress in the 1980s – namely with the help of Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Claiborne Pell (D-RI),  Congressmen Stephen Solarz (D-NY) and Jim Leach (R-IO)—means that there is now a fundamentally different Taiwan that aspires to be a full and equal member in the international community.

The problem with the current “One China policy” and the current status quo is that it implicitly and explicitly leaves Taiwan dangling out in the cold of international political isolation, which gives Beijing an opening to push Taiwan further into a corner. It is essential that – together with other friends and allies – the US develop a strategy to get Taiwan out of that corner. 

Particularly during the Coronavirus crisis, many countries in Europe have started to appreciate Taiwan’s precarious position and have begun to counter the PRC’s pressure. The visit by the Czech Republic’s Senate Chairman Miloš Vystrčil and a large delegation to Taipei is one example.

The constructive steps taken by the current US administration – providing strategic clarity, enhancing bilateral relations on several fronts as well as supporting a more expanded participation and engagement in international organisations – is a welcome first step.

Nevertheless, to give real substance to the statement—as enunciated by Assistant Secretary David R. Stilwell on August 31st 2020 at the Heritage Foundation—that “America and Taiwan are members of the same community of democracies, bound by our shared political, economic, and international values”, we need to develop a longer-term vision on Taiwan’s place as a full and equal member in the international family of nations, including the United Nations. Thus, we need to move away from the complex constructs of the past and move toward clear policies that have their basis in the principles of freedom, democracy, and self-determination.

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016, he served as chief editor of Taiwan Communiqué. He currently teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University and Current Issues in East Asia at George Washington University.

This article is part of a special issue on Taiwan’s application for the United Nations membership.

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