Standing by Taiwan and Its Democracy: Why Statecraft Is Not Just About Avoiding Conflict

Speaking Out


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According to the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense, China’s warplane incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) nearly doubled in 2022, with a surge in fighter jet and bomber sorties, and China launching the largest war games in decades after a visit by United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August.

China sent 1,727 planes into Taiwan’s ADIZ in 2022, compared with around 960 incursions in 2021 and 380 in 2020. Last year also witnessed China’s first use of drones, with all 71 reported by Taiwan’s military coming after Pelosi’s visit.

Going into 2023, Taiwan reported that 57 Chinese aircraft and four warships were detected near Taiwan on January 9 as part of joint combat training exercises. It said 28 of the aircraft either crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait or breached the southwestern perimeter of Taiwan’s ADIZ.

This was the second round of military exercises conducted by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) around Taiwan over two weeks since President Joe Biden had signed the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act into law on Dec. 23, authorizing $10 billion in loans to Taiwan to buy weapons from the United States over the next five years.

Since then, Taiwan has reported that the PLA now conducts military aircraft incursions across the median line on an almost daily basis and continues to send squadrons of fighter jets into Taiwan’s ADIZ.

Heightened Concerns

China’s rapid escalation of military threats against Taiwan has prompted a sharp increase in concerns about an imminent outbreak of a cross-Strait conflict, and many analysts are now urging the United States to take steps to ease tensions and avoid conflict across the Taiwan Strait.

For instance, in an October 2022 Foreign Affairs article, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Thomas J. Christensen and a task force of U.S.-China experts argued that while the United States needs to adapt and strengthen defense preparations to deter the PRC, it must also provide assurances to Beijing that the United States will not take actions to support Taiwan independence. They recommended the United States maintain “strategic ambiguity” and “avoid symbolic political gestures that needlessly aggravate Beijing.”

In another, more recent Foreign Affairs (January-February 2023) article, U.S. analysts Jude Blanchette and Ryan Hass went further, recommending the United States not focus narrowly on military solutions that escalate tensions with China and stoke fear in Taiwan. The United States must not back Chinese leader Xi Jinping into a corner.

“The sole metric on which U.S. policy should be judged is whether it helps preserve peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait—not whether it solves the question of Taiwan once and for all or keeps Taiwan permanently in the United States’ camp,” they stated. The United States, they said, needs to understand China’s anxieties and convince Beijing that unification belongs to a distant future.

Finally, Blanchette and Hass argued, the United States should resist casting the Taiwan problem as a contest between authoritarianism and democracy, because “framing tensions as an ideological struggle risks backing China into a corner, too,” leading Beijing to conclude that its only choice is military action.

In their view, the United States has shifted to a policy of countering the threat the PRC poses to Taiwan (as reflected in President Biden’s repeated statements about U.S. commitment to intervene militarily on behalf of Taiwan) and “abandoned any pretense of acting as a principled arbiter committed to preserving the status quo and allowing the two sides to come to their own peaceful settlement.”

To evaluate the Biden administration’s responses and to determine the best U.S. policy in dealing with Beijing’s cross-Strait moves and the increased tension, we need first to understand the PRC’s strategy.

What Game Is Beijing Playing?

As I argued in my June 2021 article in these pages (“Countering China’s Intimidation of Taiwan”), given the anticipated cost of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, Beijing’s current cross-Strait strategy appears to be following the script of the classic Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu. He posited that the best way to win a war is without fighting it, that is, by employing tools of coercion and intimidation to obtain concessions and, eventually, the enemy’s surrender.

We have seen this strategy play out successfully in the case of Hong Kong, and it is now being applied against Taiwan. Accordingly, I suspect that Beijing sees the recent calls in the U.S. to shift from open and determined resistance to its aggressive actions to a policy of understanding Beijing’s “anxieties” and providing various assurances to the PRC as evidence that its strategy is working.

Biden’s recent statements about U.S. commitments to Taiwan and some analysts’ demands for greater “strategic clarity” in direct response to Beijing’s increasingly aggressive threats are now being criticized as dangerous and provocative on the grounds that they may provide a “blank check” to advocates of Taiwan’s de jure independence, thereby provoking rather than deterring a PRC attack on Taiwan.

Beijing’s ultimate goal is to create uncertainty about U.S. commitments in order to erode the confidence of the Taiwan people.

Significantly, however, in my discussions with Taiwanese political figures and analysts from both sides of the aisle during recent visits to Taipei, I never encountered any question as to where the Biden administration stood regarding the issue of Taiwan independence, especially as the October 2022 U.S. National Security Strategy clearly reiterated the decades-long U.S. position: “We oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side, and do not support Taiwan independence.”

(Rather, in view of the abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the current conflict in Ukraine, the question most often raised was whether the United States would in fact come to the assistance of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion absent any declaration of Taiwan independence.)

Similarly, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022 to underscore the United States’ “unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant democracy” has been variously criticized as “political,” “gratuitous,” and “reckless”—despite the fact that the visit had clear precedence, was endorsed by both the ruling and opposition parties in Taiwan, was broadly welcomed by the people of Taiwan, and had bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress.

Finally, calls for expanding U.S. military capacity in light of China’s rising military power are now also being characterized as provocative, despite the clear mandate under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

In fact, the Biden administration has not changed long-standing U.S. policy and is responding to Beijing’s increasingly aggressive actions.

Nonetheless, Beijing will continue to reject any call to renounce its use of force against Taiwan and will continue to apply even greater military and political pressure with the aim of further raising tensions.

We saw Beijing’s determination in its strong military response to the recent authorization of $10 billion in loans for U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, as well as its success in getting Honduras to switch diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing.

Beijing’s ultimate goal is to create uncertainty about U.S. commitments in order to erode the confidence of the Taiwan people and, eventually, pressure a future Taiwan government into making concessions on the issue of reunification in an effort to ease tensions and avoid conflict.

Dangers of Appeasement

If the “sole metric” of U.S. statecraft is indeed to preserve peace and stability, then some might consider Beijing’s strategy as offering an acceptable solution. Technically, it could be argued, this would allow “the two sides to come to their own peaceful settlement,” albeit as a result of Beijing’s intimidation.

It may, after all, take many more years before Beijing can actually impose a solution in which it is able to exercise full control over Taiwan and achieve “Chinese reunification.” Meanwhile, this “peaceful settlement” would arguably reduce the risk of a major power conflict between China and the United States, at least over Taiwan and for the time being.

In my opinion, however, such an outcome would be recognized by the people in Taiwan and other democracies as the United States having wavered not only in its commitment to Taiwan but also more broadly in its support for democratic values and the rules-based liberal international order.

Successive U.S. presidents have praised Taiwan as “a beacon of democracy” in its remarkable transition from autocracy to democracy over the past two decades. Despite Beijing’s protestations, President Biden invited Taiwan representatives to attend the Summit for Democracy in Washington in 2021.

In fact, the Biden administration has not changed long-standing U.S. policy and is responding to Beijing’s increasingly aggressive actions.

For the United States to accept a cross-Strait settlement that was clearly arrived at under duress will be seen as our abandoning not only the people of Taiwan, yet again, but also betraying the U.S. commitment to democracy. This would have a major impact on Japan and Korea and other democratic allies, who will have good cause to doubt U.S. commitments in the face of a rising China’s increasingly aggressive policies.

Moreover, having succeeded in its strategy against Hong Kong and at least for now Taiwan, Beijing will be emboldened to use the same strategy to pursue its interests around the region, starting with its territorial disputes with Japan and other countries in the South China Sea. I believe this will eventually lead to increased tensions—and perhaps even conflict in the region.

It is also not clear to me whether this “peaceful settlement” will continue to be accepted by the people of Taiwan, even without the support of the United States. While a future Taiwan government may accept an initial settlement, an increasingly alienated and desperate Taiwan population may emerge to resist Chinese efforts to consolidate its hold over Taiwan, as we saw in the later years of the Ma Ying-jeou administration.

So the question is: How long will peace and stability endure if Beijing continues to be able to pursue its strategy of intimidation in the region?

Wise Statecraft

My own understanding of modern history and diplomatic experience leads me to believe that wise statecraft is not just about easing tensions and avoiding conflict but also about adhering to fundamental values and thinking beyond current challenges.

Hence, I believe the United States should first build the capacity, as per the TRA, “to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” This requires maintaining a credible military deterrent in response to Beijing’s increasing military threats.

Beyond this, it is equally critical that the United States demonstrate its political will to defend Taiwan and its democracy. While continuing to make clear its opposition to “any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side,” the United States should respond firmly to Beijing’s threats in both statements and actions (e.g., pledging and strengthening military cooperation and further congressional engagement to bolster the trust and confidence of the Taiwan people in the U.S. commitment). It should also seek more broadly to enlist the cooperation of Japan and other democratic allies in this effort.

At the same time, the United States should strengthen its “extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations” with Taiwan (as stated in the TRA), for example, by completing a substantive bilateral trade agreement as soon as possible.

Last but not least, Washington should continue to underscore that the United States values Taiwan not just as a military or economic asset but also as “a beacon of democracy.” It should encourage further civil society ties between Taiwan and the United States, as well as with other democracies around the world.

The ultimate goal is to convince Beijing that its only path to Chinese reunification is not through coercion but through the free and willing consent of the people of Taiwan. While such statecraft may not reduce current tensions, we need to make it clear to Chinese leaders that the United States and our allies will not succumb to its strategy of intimidation now or in the future.

Robert S. Wang, a retired Foreign Service officer, is a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. During a 32-year career with the Department of State, Mr. Wang served overseas in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Taiwan, and Beijing, where he was deputy chief of mission from 2011 to 2013. He served as the U.S. senior official for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (2013-2015) and retired in 2016.


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