Too Much Taiwan Tension, Not Enough Management

Written by Douglas Paal.

Image credit: 190112-O-N0801-001 by U.S. Pacific Fleet/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

In the early 1970s, I studied in Tokyo during the first OPEC-generated energy crisis. Against all prevailing common anxiety about the long-term shortage of energy, The Economist published a cover story entitled “The Coming Oil Glut,” which correctly predicted that demand would induce increased supply. It did. I was duly impressed.

More recently, The Economist again produced a cover story, “Taiwan: the most dangerous place on earth.” This time, in my view, the editors have got it wrong, reflecting common opinion but failing to see through the conflicting headlines to the core of the problem.

First, Taiwan is a major potential flashpoint if the parties in charge fail to manage it adequately. But that has been true for decades, and as time passed and China has grown stronger, the price of mismanagement would be correspondingly higher. But in the meantime, Taiwan has been an extraordinary success story because it has been handled well for the most part.

Much smaller than mainland China, Taiwan has successfully developed its democracy and economy, enjoying prolonged autonomy from Beijing’s rule and territorial claims. So far, together, the U.S. and Taiwan have done enough to deter Chinese aggression and not to provoke it, and while this remains a work in progress, it is too early to throw in the towel.

Headlines recently have focused on China’s growing military capabilities. Even the new American commander of Indo-Pacific forces indicated Beijing might choose to invade Taiwan within six years.

However, what the headlines skirt is the array of factors that militate against that sort of outcome. First, the direct costs of invasion and occupation would be enormous, so high in fact that the prize of Taiwan would likely be ruined in the seizing of it, and successful invasion is far from likely. Second, the indirect costs to China primarily, but to others as well, would be huge losses of international markets, access to global commodities, alienation of the civilised world, even possible all-out war, and a threat to the Chinese leadership’s ability to claim to rule effectively.

The task for Washington and Taipei, then, is to ensure that Beijing continues to take all the relevant factors into account and continues to pursue a peaceful path to what it says it wants, which is to persuade Taiwan to accept some form of unification.

The original elements of the formula for Taiwan’s success included credible military deterrence through an American strategy of ambiguity about whether it will come to Taiwan’s defence. Washington has not guaranteed it would defend Taiwan if it rashly dooms the theoretical possibility of unification with China, nor has the U.S. promised Beijing that it would not defend Taiwan if the mainland rashly tries to force the issue. Both sides are incentivised to exercise restraint.

Meanwhile, the U.S. adhered substantively to its “one-China policy,” not formally recognising Taiwan as an alternative to Beijing or as an independent state, but pursuing American economic, cultural and other interests in an “unofficial” framework.

In other words, the key to Taiwan’s success was not military deterrence alone. Instead, it can be seen as diplomatic legerdemain of a traditional but creative sort, applied to an entirely new circumstance in diplomatic history.

Today, this balance of hard and soft power is wobbling. The Trump administration appeared to be of several minds about managing Taiwan-related issues, sometimes belligerent and incautious, other times weak and ineffective. The successor Biden administration has indicated an intention not to challenge the core diplomatic compromise of the “one-China policy” while widening the “guardrails” to work with Taiwan to resist Beijing’s pressures on the island. Congress has become a bipartisan wonder when it comes to supporting Taiwan, where it fails to achieve shared purpose on much else.

What is needed now, in my view, is a re-emphasis on the diplomatic side of the deterrence equation. Military encounters are increasing, and that is likely to continue and become more dangerously capable of producing events that will be hard or impossible to manage. Washington should return to proposing confidence-building measures and crisis management mechanisms that can help contain crises before or as they occur and lead to wider conflict.

Critics will likely point out that Beijing’s interest is not to build confidence in Taiwan but intimidate it into submission. True, but that is just one of Beijing’s interests, albeit an important one. So long as Taiwan’s democratic system chooses not to goad Beijing into a conflict, there is plenty of room to explore how the Chinese calculate their other interests as well.

An opening list of measures that might be explored to sustain deterrence while reducing unnecessary tensions and shifting competition to non-belligerent arenas could include:

  • offering a dialogue between U.S. and Chinese commands to hear and make suggestions on how to prevent and manage crises;
  • announcing in advance any military exercise that the other side could reasonably be expected to view as possibly threatening;
  • continuing to reward responsible behaviour by Taiwan’s leaders with respectful treatment during transits of the U.S.;
  • moving forward on the substantively important parts of the U.S.-Taiwan agenda, notably on the enhancement of the trade relationship that reduces the likelihood of Taiwan’s (and America’s) increasing isolation as regional trade arrangements expand;
  • the U.S. administration internally evaluating how many close-in manned reconnaissance missions are really necessary to have adequate indications and warning of possible attacks on Taiwan; if there are enough, continue them without announcements; if UAVs can accomplish them, move in that direction; if asked, publicly remain committed to adequate situational awareness;
  • continuing warship and aircraft transits of the Taiwan Strait, which is an international waterway, but discontinuing the public announcement of each voyage as was the case until the Trump administration. The PLA will know of the transit, but the Chinese public does not need to have its nationalism stirred. (This could also be applied in the South China Sea and the East China Sea).

These efforts at management of the triangular relationship may fail because of Chinese truculence. Officials should also prepare for that.

But China’s leader Xi Jinping seems focused on the upcoming Beijing Olympics in early 2022 and the subsequent 20th Party Congress. The Joe Biden administration shows strong signs of positioning itself for the 2022 mid-term elections and expanding its Democrat majorities in Congress while focusing on a primarily domestic agenda of rebuilding in the immediate time ahead.

These factors militate against choosing paths toward conflict, and they should be explored as thoroughly as military deterrence is pursued.

Douglas H. Paal is a Distinguished Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously served as Vice President for Studies and Director of the Asia Program of the Carnegie Endowment vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase International (2006–2008) and was the unofficial U.S. representative to Taiwan as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (2002–2006).

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan’s Security & China-US Rivalry.

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