Balancing U.s. Interests In The Strait

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 11

In the view of many observers, the normalization of Sino-American relations signaled the end of a strategic relationship with the Republic of China (Taiwan) that had endured with but one brief interruption for forty years. The rapid growth of economic ties between the U.S. and mainland China in the 1980s seemed to confirm this assessment. Although political connections through the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) remain strong, the major benefit to the United States of its unofficial relationship to the island lies in the economic realm.

This view, however, overlooks the fact that the Washington-Taipei tie also has great strategic significance. Regional powers evaluate U.S. leadership according to how well Washington manages the triangular relationship with Taipei and Beijing. Effective management enhances the U.S. position; bad management reduces U.S. prestige and leverage. The situation also has a complicating moral dimension. The TRA codifies a major U.S. commitment, one that is all the more significant because Taiwan is a democracy, and became so under the U.S. aegis. Judged by the results thus far, Taiwan’s overall democratic record is good. However, owing to historical circumstances, evolving concerns in Beijing, and, above all, to changes in the political, social, and even the psychological trajectories of Taiwan’s society, the Washington-Taipei relationship is now faced with a great challenge.

Currents in Taiwan

Taiwan has scored extraordinary domestic achievements in the last three decades. Judged by economic, military, and institutional criteria, and by such ideational factors as identity and social cohesion, the Republic of China on Taiwan is arguably a country in its own right. Ironically, however, its international position has reached a nadir.

Taipei starts with a major disadvantage. Most nations accept Beijing’s sovereignty claim and at least pay lip service to Beijing’s One China principle. Core interests are involved. Despite Taiwan’s position as the world’s 14th largest economy, the region is focused on China. With its potential market of 1.3 billion consumers, consistent annual GDP increases of 6-10% and its penetration of U.S. and regional markets, China seems poised to emerge as the dominant regional economy and driver of economic growth. Economic progress translates into political clout. The PRC has clearly won the competition for recognition.

However, a major reason for this loss of recognition arises from the actions of President Chen Shui-bian and his allies in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU). For example, there is a perception in Beijing, Washington, and in the region that Chen is determined to attain de jure independence. Talk of using Taiwan identity as a basis for reengineering–as opposed to amending–the Constitution and eventually establishing processes for amendment by referendum intensifies this perception and clearly provokes Beijing. This in turn raises concerns about instability or conflict.

Also, Chen and his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, have successfully altered the terms of the cross-strait discourse. Until Lee’s accession, most assumed that Beijing and Taipei would eventually agree to some form of reunification. This was a lesson of the initial Koo-Wang talks held in Singapore in 1993. However, after Lee’s election as President, the concept of the “Special State-to State Relationship” emerged. Beijing viewed this as an explicit renunciation of the one country two systems formulation. President Lee’s “flexible diplomacy,” his “golfing vacations,” and his visit to the United States seemed to substantiate these concerns.

President Chen continued in this vein. After a reassuring “First Inaugural,” he took Lee’s formulation a significant step further by asserting the existence of one country on each side of the strait and proposing a referendum on constitutional revision. This prompted extremely adverse reactions from Beijing and Washington. That the proposals failed for want of sufficient voter participation after having been morphed into a “defensive referendum” did little to reduce apprehension.

It is too soon to judge the effect of Chen’s “Second Inaugural.” He tried to blunt the edge of the referendum knife by specifically excluding territorial sovereignty issues from the agenda. On the other hand, he proclaimed the unity of all sectors in Taiwan based upon the shared (Taiwan) identity of the “Taiwan Experience.” Predisposed as it is to mistrust Chen, it is doubtful that Beijing will derive any comfort from the substance of his address.

In sum, history and current politics combine to seriously undermine Taiwan’s international, strategic position. From their perspective, Taiwan’s democratic leaders are responding to popular will. However, from the PRC and regional perspectives, these same leaders are judged to be, if not duplicitous, then at least inconsistent, irresponsible, wishful thinkers who underestimate or deliberately ignore the potential consequences of their policies.

The Military Dimension

United States’ relations with the Republic of China have always been complex. After 1949, it seemed as though the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) conquest of the island was imminent. However, war in Korea brought the military neutralization of the Taiwan Strait. Later, this initial engagement of U.S. power was reinforced by the need to contain global communism. By concluding the Mutual Security Treaty and recognizing the Republic of China, Washington successfully embedded another stone in its wall of global containment. However, it also acquired an ally in which it had little confidence, one that required massive amounts of economic assistance and which was more authoritarian than democratic. As a result, although the relationship with Taiwan was strategically and economically beneficial, politically it was never really very close.

Containment is no longer an issue. On the contrary, since the late 1970s, every U.S. administration has engaged directly with Beijing and tried to develop an extensive network of relationships, a trend that has intensified since 9/11. Although there is legitimate debate within the United States about Beijing’s ultimate intentions, maintaining good relations with China remains a high priority.

Also, it is not likely that reunification and basing of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces on the island would impede the U.S.’s ability to operate in the Western Pacific. PRC territory would be extended by about 200 miles, but that short distance would not constrain the ability of the U.S. and Japan to concentrate military force effectively. Nor would PLA control of Taiwan necessarily threaten Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs). Most commercial sea traffic passes east of Taiwan and could still be defended successfully in the unlikely event that Beijing would try to interdict them, however, unrestricted SLOCs are as important to China’s economy as they are to those of the other Northeast Asian nations.

In sum, PLA control of Taiwan would complicate the work of U.S. and Japanese planners by imposing additional strain on naval and air forces that are already overextended. But, such control would not threaten any vital U.S. interests. In military/strategic terms, Taiwan’s value to the U.S. is marginal.

The Political/Strategic Dimension

Nonetheless, in strategic terms, the nature of Washington’s ties with Taipei remains critically important. They are a sign of America’s will and, therefore, affect American credibility.

Washington is virtually alone in its support for Taipei. Canberra, Tokyo, Seoul, and Singapore all mistrust Chen Shui-bian. Their unofficial economic contacts with Taipei are regarded as a price to be paid rather than an intrinsic good. Mindful as they are of China’s growing comprehensive national power, they are not willing to risk ties with Beijing for the sake of Taiwan. Simultaneously, they see the U.S. presence in the region as an effective counter to China’s rise.

Accordingly, maintaining the effectiveness of Washington’s relations with Beijing and Taipei is a matter of the highest priority. If the U.S. can balance Chinese insistence on the One China principle against the growing separatist feeling in Taiwan, and if Washington is able to uphold the commitment to a peaceful solution, it gains strategically. To the extent that it fails to do so, it loses. The effectiveness of U.S. strategic leadership is evaluated according to how well it “manages” the Taiwan issue. If Taiwan’s future becomes the issue that forces the nations of the region to choose between the U.S. and China, American management will have failed and U.S. influence will diminish.

If Beijing uses force to compel reunification and Washington fails to support Taiwan, the U.S. will suffer an irreparable strategic loss. Management failure aside, not defending Taiwan from an unprovoked attack would destroy American credibility and completely undermine the balancing functions of the U.S. presence; regional powers would almost certainly begin to bandwagon with China.

Finally, although it is arguable, a conflict provoked by a Taiwan declaration of independence or Taipei’s crossing of a Chinese redline would produce a similar situation. Again, putting management considerations aside, U.S. failure to aid a democratic county that owes its accomplishments to years of U.S. support would also undermine confidence in U.S. reliability.


During the run-up to Chen Shui-bian’s second inauguration, it is clear that Washington worked hard to make the DPP leadership aware of the potential negative consequences of his actions and their implications for U.S. support. U.S. officials have also tried to clarify the boundaries within which the DPP can operate and still remain confident of U.S. assistance. However, given that Chen and the DPP continue to push the envelope, it is not clear that the message is being heard, or that it is being heeded. The administration must take steps to ensure that it speaks with one voice. It is only by adroit management that the United States will be able to affect a resolution of the China/Taiwan dilemma that offers a chance of maintaining its strategic equities in the region and globally.