Written by Gerrit van der Wees.
Image credit: Public domain.
On October 12th, 2022, a task force on US-China relations of the Asia Society published a policy brief titled “Avoiding war over Taiwan.”
While it is of course laudable that a number of academics want to avoid a war over Taiwan (we all do!), the analysis of this policy brief is fundamentally flawed on a number of key points.
Taiwan is a vibrant democracy now
First, the fact that Taiwan made its monumental transition to democracy in the 1980s and early 1990s was only mentioned in passing, while this fact should prompt us to look at the equation differently.
For sure, the policy brief states that this fact is “providing the US with an added incentive” to help the democracy against absorption by an authoritarian state, but it does not outline that this fundamental difference between Taiwan in the 1970s (ruled by a KMT regime claiming sovereignty over China) and Taiwan now (ruled by a democratic government that sees Taiwan as a responsible stakeholder in the international family of nations) necessitates us to look at Taiwan in a new light and its own right, and not always as a subset of our relations with China.
What the task force does wrong is to painstakingly apply the recipes invented in the 1970s to the situation now. It is too ingrained in the prescriptions from the 1970s and bases itself far too much on the duelling narratives of the CCP and KMT. Moreover, it insufficiently considers the perspective from the viewpoint of the Taiwanese themselves. For the reasons explained above, the fact that there is a new situation on the ground in Taiwan would be a good basis for adapting our policies to the new reality.
In particular, it is important to emphasize that in the worldwide struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, Taiwan is fighting a battle on the front lines. This dividing line between democracy and autocracy does not only run through Europe but extends itself into the Asia Pacific. In many ways, Taiwan is similar to Ukraine but is fortunate enough to have kept China at bay. To keep it that way, we need new ways to deter Beijing.
Deterrence the right way
A second new reality is that Beijing is now much more powerful politically, economically, and militarily. That is why – together with Taiwan and other friends and allies in the region (inexplicably not mentioned in the policy brief… ) — we need a new level of much broader integrated political, economic, and military deterrence.
The paper briefly talks about the US and Taiwan military deterrence and – rightly – argues for a more mobile, dispersed, and resilient posture in the region. But in doing so, the paper suddenly recommends shifting away from aircraft carriers because of their presumed “vulnerability.” This unnecessarily limits our options: aircraft carriers will be a major means of power projection for a long time to come, though their tactical use may change. It would be wiser for academics to leave decisions on military strategies to military planners.
The policy brief also produces the concept of “triangular deterrence,” in which each side – The US, Taiwan and China – needs to be equally deterred. The authors seem to forget that the status quo is being threatened and undermined by just one side: China. For reasons of its own choosing, the PRC has increasingly threatened the existing status quo through a series of threats and intimidations aimed at pushing Taiwan into a corner and forcing it to accept annexation. It should be clear what needs to be the focus of deterrence.
Going overboard in “credible assurances.”
Thirdly, in discussing “credible assurances” to Beijing, the paper goes way off the plantation – the current assurance that the US policy is willing to maintain the “One China” policy of recognizing the government in Beijing as the government of China but is not accepting or recognizing Beijing’s claims over Taiwan. In the view of the US, the status of Taiwan is unsettled (in accordance with the outcome of the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951-52). It needs to be settled peacefully, as emphasized in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, Three Communiques and Six Assurances.
In this context, it is important to emphasize that a necessary condition for the normalization process was that China would adhere to a peaceful resolution in resolving Cross-Strait differences. This was made clear in the TRA, the three Communiques and documents accompanying the Six Assurances. E.g. the TRA states in Art. 1(b)3:
It is the policy of the United States …to make clear that the United States’ decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.
Where the task force really goes off the rails is the section where it elaborates on the self-imposed “credible assurances” the US should give to the PRC side. It tries to define ad infinitum what the US should or should not do to pacify Beijing. The task force goes so far as to suggest that the US should not “refer to Taiwan as a country or an ally,” or should not say that the Taiwanese can decide their own future, or “should make clear that (the US) is not pursuing sovereign status for Taiwan.” Such shortsighted suggestions are equivalent to shooting ourselves in the foot and are detrimental to the democratic right of the Taiwanese to decide their own future. It simply plays into Beijing’s cards to push Taiwan into a corner.
Strategic clarity is not “unconditional.”
And last but not least, in discussing the “strategic ambiguity” versus “strategic clarity” issue, the policy brief somehow makes it appear as if a clear commitment to the defence of Taiwan would be “unconditional.” That is a serious distortion. In any defence commitment, there will be conditions, both in terms of circumstances which would prompt action and procedure: the US commitment to NATO also depends on the outcome of a consultation between the US President and Congress on how to proceed in case of a crisis.
Thus, the policy brief contains several serious flaws: it might be a well-intentioned effort to present the case for more/different ways to deal with the increasing threats against Taiwan, but an effort that runs off the rails by, on the one hand, clinging to concepts and prescription from the 1970s, and on the other hand going overboard in trying to define self-imposed restrictions on “our” side, which in any case will make no difference in Beijing’s calculations. The policy brief also perpetuates the unhelpful distinction between “symbolic” and “substantive” measures. In many respects, “symbolic” is substance. Otherwise, why doeth Beijing protest so much?
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat who teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and US relations with East Asia at the George Washington University Elliott School for International Affairs in Washington, DC.