Taiwan, China & the U.S.

From Thinking Outside the Boxe’s London Correspondent

When it comes to dealing with China, Taiwan is a bit of a touchy subject. Although the two territories have had separate governments for over 70 years, the United States has to choose its words (and its actions) carefully when dealing with the Taiwan problem, or risk upsetting one of the world’s most powerful nations, which still claims Taiwan as its own.

The Taiwan problem originated in 1949, when the Communist Party drove the government of the Republic of China (ROC) out of the mainland onto the island of Taiwan and founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in their place. Both governments, and the world at large, believed that there was only “one China” with one legitimate government, but despite a few minor scuffles, the two areas have remained separate in practical terms ever since. At first, the world officially recognized the ROC as the true government of all of China, and they held a seat in the UN since it was founded in 1945. However, due to the growing recognition of the legitimacy and influence of PRC by the global community, the UN officially welcomed the PRC as the government of China in 1971, causing the ROC to lose their seat. Since 1991, the ROC has only claimed to control the Taiwan area, but to this day, the PRC strongly upholds the One China Policy, which states that there is only one inseparable “China,” including Taiwan and the surrounding islands. It is strongly opposed to any move that could be seen as an endorsement of Taiwan as either an independent state or as a rival China. Any country that seeks diplomatic relations with the PRC, including the U.S., must therefore break official ties with the Taiwanese government, and the PRC has made it clear that if Taiwan makes any move towards independence, it would take military action to bring the island under control.

This presents significant problems for the U.S. government. The U.S. has traditionally supported the ROC, and, ideologically speaking, is more inclined to assist the democratic Taiwan than communist Mainland China. However, since the 1970s, China has become one of the world’s major players in terms of economics and foreign policy. In order to pass resolutions on the UN Security Council, the U.S. needs China’s support. As one of the world’s major exporters, China could render most economic sanctions ineffective if it chose not to cooperate. China is also the U.S.’s second largest trading partner and held $906.8 billion in U.S. debt at the end of 2010. Although in a perfect world, where every decision could be based on ideology alone, the U.S. would support the ROC, that approach is currently beyond impractical. The U.S.’s relations with China are therefore based upon its own special “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy: the U.S. officially “acknowledges” that the Chinese people believe that there is One China, and “does not challenge that position.” The U.S. has never clearly stated whether it believes that Taiwan should be independent, instead always defaulting to the acknowledgement of China’s own claims. Meanwhile, the U.S. maintains de facto relations with Taiwan based on the Taiwan Relations Act, provides Taiwan with weapons “of a defensive nature,” and insists that it will not act as a mediator between the two governments or pressure Taiwan into entering negotiations on the issue. Despite the apparent precariousness of this smoke-and-mirrors approach to international relations, this strategy has allowed the U.S. to conduct successful foreign policy in the region for several decades.

However, the Taiwan problem may need to be addressed soon. Between 1993 and 2007, the ROC petitioned to rejoin the UN under various different names almost every year, and although it dropped these attempts in 2008, support for Taiwan to declare itself as an independent sovereign state is growing in the region. Although three of the main political parties in Taiwan – known as the Pan-Blue Coalition and including Kuomintang, the People’s First Party and the New Party – continue to believe in One China, the Pan-Green Coalition, including the Democratic Progressive Party and the Taiwan Solidarity Union, view Taiwan as a separate country and are slowly pushing for independence.

If Taiwan makes an official declaration of its independence, China has vowed that it will attack, and as the U.S. has been arming Taiwan against such an attack for decades, it seems likely that it will intervene. Indeed, one mainstream interpretation of the Taiwan Relations Act suggests that the U.S. must come to Taiwan’s defense in this scenario, as the Act declares that it will consider “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the U.S.” However, the U.S. has never explicitly stated that it will come to Taiwan’s aid, maintaining strategic ambiguity on the issue.

No one can be sure how the U.S. would react if mainland China attacked Taiwan, but both action and inaction would have serious consequences for American standing in the international community. Defend Taiwan and anger the world’s second largest economy and our own second largest trading partner. Fail to defend Taiwan and publically abandon the concepts of democracy and self-determination that the U.S. stands for, which would, at the very least, lose the U.S. respect and influence on the international stage. Either option is certain to anger many voters. It is therefore currently in the U.S.’s best interests to maintain the current, vague status quo. As long as no one asks too probing questions, the U.S. can maintain de facto relations with both mainland China and Taiwan, and as long as Taiwan does not make an official declaration to the contrary, it can continue to exist in de facto independence. As long as the status quo remains unchallenged, Taiwan is not a major issue in U.S. foreign policy. Once the balance is disrupted, however, it could become one of the U.S.’s biggest political headaches.

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