Written by Gerrit van der Wees.
Image credit: 200325-N-WI365-3004 by U.S. Pacific Fleet/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0
“The Most Dangerous Place on Earth?”
On 30 April 2021, the London-based The Economist published an article with the sensationalist headline referring to Taiwan as “The most dangerous place on earth.” The essay highlighted the increasing tension between the United States and China over Taiwan and the dangers of an armed conflict if China decides to use force against the democratic island.
First, we should dissect the headline: the author or headline writer had not been to Taiwan, which is a most peaceful place, with friendly people, who were named “the happiest” in East Asia and the 24th happiest in the world, in a survey published recently by the World Happiness Report 2021.
So, why the incongruent headline? The Economist apparently intended the article to serve as a “wake-up call,” calling attention to the dangers of an armed conflict between the United States and China. But in doing so, the publication overshot its goal, and in the meantime, fell into the trap of several fundamental misconceptions about the democratic island and its status.
What are the fundamental issues? In this article, we present an overview.
Is Taiwan “Part of China”?
The fundamental question is whether Taiwan should be considered “part of China” or not. There are three aspects to this question: What does history tell us? What is the current status, and how did it evolve? And how do the people on the island see the situation?
History: As elaborated in my article, Has Taiwan always been part of China? The historic relationship is more complicated than Beijing would like to admit. The PRC government claims that Taiwan has been part of China since the Ming and Qing dynasties. This is simply not the case: the Ming never had any administrative presence in Taiwan. Moreover, the Qing considered it an economic backwater. The Kangxi Emperor stated in 1683 that “Taiwan is outside our empire and of no great consequence” and even offered to have the Dutch buy it back. Perhaps this is an inconvenient truth for the current rulers in Beijing.
At various times during its history, different parts of Taiwan were ruled by the Dutch (1624-1662), the Spanish (1626-1642), and Japan (1895-1945) and were certainly not under the control of the rulers in Beijing. Only for eight years, from 1887 until 1895, was it considered an official province of China and an integral part of the Qing Empire. Even in the 1920s and 1930s, when the Chinese Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists of Mao Tse-tung were battling it out for control over China, they considered Taiwan very much outside China’s territory. They even made statements in support of the island’s independence – from Japan, of course.
Things changed after World War II when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost the Civil War and moved their government and army lock, stock, and barrel to Taiwan, where he imposed a repressive regime, ruling the island under martial law for 38 years while continuing to claim sovereignty over China. This outlandish perpetuation of the sovereignty claim was, of course, not to the liking of Mao Tse-tung and his successors in Beijing. They started to claim that Taiwan needed to be “reunified” – although the island had never been under PRC control.
A further new element was that in the 1980s and 1990s, Taiwan made its momentous transition to democracy, when the majority native Taiwanese – 85% of the population – demanded equal rights from the Chinese mainlanders who had come over with Chiang Kai-shek in the 1940s and had monopolized political power for 40+ years.
As this newfound democracy consolidated in the 1990s and 2000s, Taiwan went through three transfers of power between the Kuomintang and the Democratic Progressive Party (founded in 1986). They solidified a vibrant democratic system that aspired to play a fuller and more equal role in the international community and escape the political isolation imposed on Taiwan by the competing claims of China Nationalists and Communists in their fight for supremacy over China. In particular, young people in Taiwan ask: “we didn’t have anything to do with that Chinese Civil War. Why should our future be held hostage to it?”
What Is Causing the Current Tension?
So, with Taiwan moving in the direction of democracy and looking for its rightful place under the sun, why do we have the current tension? The problem is that the PRC government in Beijing still sees “Taiwan” as the tail end of its unfinished Civil War with the Kuomintang. That is at least the formal reason.
Another and more real reason might be that it has discovered the strategic location of Taiwan. Control of it would provide it with and uninhibited access to the Western Pacific, and even more importantly, control of the sea lanes which run from South Korea and Japan towards Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Control of Taiwan would put it in a controlling position of these access routes, through which 85% of the oil supplies to these two countries flow.
Tensions are also rising because, over the past two decades, China has been able to develop its military to a level where – on a regional basis – it could challenge the United States’ supremacy. From this point on, the analyses scatter in all different directions.
Some military commanders, like former PACOM Commander Adm. Philip Davidson and his successor Adm. John Acquilino, testified in separate hearings in the US Congress in March 2021, that Taiwan could face an invasion threat in the near future. Davidson stated that China could invade Taiwan within six years, while Aquilino said that the threat to Taiwan from China is “closer than most think” and that the annexation of Taiwan was China’s “No. 1 priority.”
Other observers, mainly in academia, argue that while it is true that the risks of a conflict are rising, it is more likely that Beijing is simply upping the ante through a variety of tactics. These are designed to undermine Taiwan’s confidence and support for the island in the international community. In Australia, e.g., Mark Harrison and Natasha Kassam argue that trumpeting an imminent threat plays into Beijing’s goals and risks undermining Taiwan further. While in Washington, Richard Bush, Bonnie Glaser, and Ryan Hass argue that “…hyping the threat that China poses to Taiwan does Beijing’s work for it. Taiwan’s people need reasons for confidence in their future, not just reminders of their vulnerabilities.”
Thus, the threat by China against Taiwan is real, but the question is how to counter it and how a conflict can be avoided.
How Can the Tension Be Decreased, and the Situation Resolved?
The question of how to move forward in US relations with Taiwan in China is often couched in “strategic ambiguity” versus “strategic clarity.” For many decades it was thought that “strategic ambiguity” was the best option: leaving China uncertain whether the US would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked and leaving Taiwan uncertain on the precise level of support it could get from the US side.
Over the past year, several voices have argued that “strategic ambiguity” has outlived its usefulness. Moreover, they argue that China’s new aggressiveness warrants a shift to “strategic clarity”: making it clear to China that in the case of Chinese military moves against Taiwan, the United States would unequivocally respond should Taiwan come under Chinese armed attack. The most prominent advocates of this line are Council of Foreign Relations President Richard Haass and CFR research fellow David Sacks.
The problem in the current debate is that almost all commentators present the “strategic ambiguity” vs. “strategic clarity” as an “either-or” proposition. It would be helpful if we could change the perspective by seeing it more as a question of “where on the spectrum/continuum between “ambiguity” and “clarity” do we position ourselves?”
The fact is that over the past years – through the US government’s words and actions – the US and other like-minded countries have already significantly shifted in the direction of “clarity.” Today, it is much more certain that the United States, with Australia’s assistance, Japan and others would come to Taiwan’s defense in the case of an attack than it was even two or three years ago. Thus, the needle has shifted a long way in the direction of “strategic clarity” already. The question is whether there is still a need for a formal pronouncement in that direction.
In early May 2021, in a discussion reported by the London-based Financial Times, Mr. Kurt Campbell, who serves as “Asia Czar” in the Biden administration, stated that “There are some significant downsides to … strategic clarity.” He added: “There are some significant downsides to … strategic clarity.” He added: “The best way to maintain peace and stability is to send a really consolidated message that involves diplomacy, defence innovation and our own capabilities to the Chinese leadership, so they don’t contemplate some sort of ambitious, dangerous provocative set of steps in the future.”
In the present situation, it thus looks like the Biden administration has concluded that one will get better results (“China keep your hands off Taiwan”) through a series of measures and steps such as coordinating with friends and allies, sending repeated signals through statements such as done at Anchorage by Secretary of State Tony Blinken, working with Taiwan on a range of issues, upgrading communications and coordination with Taiwan, enhancing Taiwan’s participation in the WHO, UN, etc., rather than if one would make a formal pronouncement. The proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating.
To circle back to The Economist and its “The most dangerous place on earth” headline: it is clear that through their hard work, persistence, and perseverance, the people of Taiwan have created a beautiful place, already aptly named “Ilha Formosa” (=Beautiful Island) by Portuguese explorers in the 16th Century. It is a vibrant democracy in an existential fight for survival as a free and democratic nation on the frontline of democracy in Asia. Bringing it into the international family of nations is the best guarantee for peace and stability in the region.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016, he served as chief editor of “Taiwan Communiqué.” He teaches at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.
This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan’s Security & China-US Rivalry.