Preventing a Chinese Ultimatum on Taiwan
Updated: Apr 20, 2020
First published in the Asian Wall Street Journal following the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996, this article was intended to argue for a restoration of nuance that was obliterated by Clinton Administration misstatements on the matter of the "One China policy."
With Taiwan’s presidential election over, the tension between China and Taiwan appears to be easing somewhat. But the Taiwan Strait will remain a potential flash point in the region, and so it is important to consider mainland China’s longer-term strategy for reunification. It is conceivable that, around the year 2001, China will simply set a deadline for Taiwan’s reunification. How might the Chinese leaders envision such a plan, and how would Taiwan, and the world, respond?
Consider the following hypothetical scenario: A few years after the handovers of Hong Kong and Macau, Beijing tells the Taiwanese that they have been patient enough, but can wait only one more year. China points out ot the rest of the world that they—along with Taipei—have acknowledged “one China.” Beijing reassures Taiwan that it prefers a peaceful solution, but also points out that China’s military buildup, begun many years ago, now allows for a military option.
But as any lawyer will tell you, to acknowledge something is not the same thing as to agree with it.
The Chinese would hope that merely by establishing a deadline, they would cause irreversible market pressures on Taiwan. The Taiwan stock market might crash and, facing economic ruin, the image of a prospering Hong Kong would give them comfort. The Chinese will count on this economic effect to force Taipei into serious negotiations. If so, Taiwan may agree to a transition to mainland rule. Under this best-case scenario, the PRC will have achieved the integration of Taiwan without firing a shot.
Both military and political realities affirm the plausibility of such a strategy. China lacks the military muscle for an invasion, as the chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff has recently said. And China hinted recently at its desire to set a timetable for Taiwan’s reunification. Deng Xiaoping’s “one nation two systems” policy for recovery of Hong Kong was designed as a demonstration model for Taiwan’s benefit. So it seems likely that such a plan for a post-1997 unification effort is under consideration to Beijing.
While both China and Taiwan are engaged in an arms race, the Chinese must understand that time is on Taiwan’s side, since Taipei has access to better American technology and because defense is generally easier than offense. If military action is deemed necessary, this perception may argue for early action.
Taiwan’s government is itself contributing to the sense of urgency in Beijing. Until recently, Taipei has not acted in a way that gave the mainland reason to fear that unification would not take place. But over the last few years, Taiwan has become more assertive. Taiwanese leaders have stated in the face of increasing Chinese military posturing that Taiwan won’t “back down.” President Lee Teng-hui recently said, “The existence and development of the Republic of China in Taiwan is a fact. It will not change because of threats or coercion.”
This behavior may, from the Chinese point of view, widen the rift between China and Taiwan—a rift that is supposed to be closing. If the rest of the world begins to return to a pattern of behavior where it treats Taiwan as an independent country, China’s claims to the territory could be nullified forever. Hence, if Taiwan continues to act in this way, China may feel it necessary to act preemptively and close the gap before it solidifies.
So how does the US, the third partner in a triangular relationship with China and Taiwan, fit into such a scenario? The United States has led the world to believe that it adheres to a “one China” policy based on the 1978 Recognition Communique, which stated “the government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”
But as any lawyer will tell you, to acknowledge something is not the same thing as to agree with it. Further, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act which—unlike the Recognition Communique— carries the weight of law, states that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means including boycotts and embargoes is a threat to the peace and stability of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”
This language was carefully selected to engage the United Nations Charter litany dealing with “actions with respect to threats of peace.” In other words, it was written to justify American military intervention in defense of Taiwan. So, despite the rhetoric, the United States may very well intervene to ameliorate the disruptive effect of a deadline for reunification.
Most People’s Liberation Army leaders know they will lose if the United States enters any war. But American malpractice could still play a role in promoting Chinese militarism. Glyn Davies, spokesman for the US State Department, recently said, “… the future of Taiwan is a matter for the Chinese people themselves on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to resolve.” If the United States leads Chinese leaders to believe that it would not intervene to defend Taiwan, the PLA has even more reason to advocate early military intervention.
How should the US handle this mess? First, it must take care not to demonize the People’s Republic of China. Say what you want about the Chinese, the days when Mao was willing to let millions of his people starve so that he could convert his fiefdom from an agrarian to an industrial society are gone. Moreover, China is rehabilitating itself without a massive American get-well program—a real virtue in today’s world.
Second, the US should avoid reviving the specter of April Glaspie by saying that Taiwan is an issue for the “Chinese to decide.” This position ignores the strategic importance of the island.
Third, the US must keep its policy constructively ambiguous. This ambiguity would not be a ruse, for in fact nobody can say with certainty what the US would do if China attacked or seriously threatened Taiwan. Few believed that the US would lead the world in waging a major war over Kuwait—another country with which it did not have a defense agreement—but it did. The Chinese must not assume that the US won’t intervene on behalf of Taiwan. It would certainly be easy enough—a handful of American submarines could destroy any attempted invasion with minimal risk to American forces.
On the other hand, the Taiwanese have to be made aware that the US won’t rescue them from self-induced crises. The Taiwanese are more likely to act irresponsibly if they believe America will defend them under any and all circumstances. The US must be brutally clear to Taiwan that American will not risk lives and American treasure extricate Taiwan from a situation they got themselves into. This means that the Taiwanese must cease taking action that causes the Chinese to lose face.
The US must refrain from making ill-conceived statements about withdrawing forces from the region. If Beijing feels the US is withdrawing, or is weakening its position, in Asia, it may act precipitously.
In sum, the US and Taiwan must take steps to obviate any Chinese plan to issue a reunification timetable, since once presented, any such deadline could not be withdrawn without great loss of face. The solution is for both to lower the decibel level, return to the modus vivendi, and restore the era of quiet diplomacy.