Status Quo Approach to Taiwan Needs Review

January 25th, 2000


“Maintaining the status quo” seems to be the latest catchphrase in discussions concerning Taiwan.

If one asks those who call themselves realist-either in China, Taiwan or the United State-what they most want to see in Taiwan’s international relations, this phrase will be on most of their lips. As a result, making any statement or taking any action that runs counter to the status quo may be branded a malicious and unnecessarily bellicose move. A typical example of the status quo argument can be found in the article by Henry Kissinger carried in The Yomiuri Shimbun and The Daily Yomiuri on Oct. 25.

At the beginning of the article, Kissinger lambastes Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui for his recent statement about Taiwan’s status vis-a-vis Beijing, criticizing “Taiwan’s sudden and unilateral challenge to the existing political understandings in the Taiwan Strait.”

He continues by saying: “For 30 years, China, while insisting on ultimate unification, nevertheless on several occasions expressed its willingness to defer a final resolution…It did so provided Taiwan did not stake a formal claim to sovereignty.” Based on this recognition, he proposed that Washington should:

* Make it perfectly clear that the United States is opposed to the use of force.

* Make it clear that there is no change in the United States’ longstanding acceptance of the “one China” policy.

* Insist that Taiwan exercise restraint when challenging a framework that in fact guarantees its autonomy and without which events could well get out of control.

However, Kissinger’s proposals, which center on what he calls the existing framework, could easily be said to be based on a Beijing-biased interpretation if we compare his words with the wording of past agreements between the United States and China and those between China and Taiwan.

Transformation under way

In fact, there are no “political understandings” between China and Taiwan, and there are certainly no such understandings concerning the meaning of “one China.” Instead, the two sides have agreed to each interpret the concept as they saw fit. In addition, Kissinger’s assumption that it is a prerequisite for Taiwan not to stake a formal claim to sovereignty can hardly be based on any specific documents, except under a very liberal interpretation of those documents.

Nevertheless, our purpose here is not to discuss the definition of the words “framework” or “political understanding” but to reconsider whether maintaining the status quo is an appropriate policy. First, the framework itself has undergone certain transformations. In the Shanghai Communique issued during Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972, the United States simply “acknowledged that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China.”

U.S.-Chinese negotiations over the past 30 years can be seen as the history of gradual concessions by the United States in the face of persistent Chinese diplomatic pressure to convert the above statement into a policy commitment by the United States favoring Beijing. The United States, while gaining nothing concrete in return, has, inch by inch, yielded ground to Beijing during various negotiations, mainly because it did not want to risk souring U.S.-Chinese relations.

In the 1982 U.S.-Chinese communique, Washington committed itself to “not pursuing a policy of two Chinas.” China then set itself the goal of getting the United States to change the wording of the communique to “supporting a policy of one China”-a subtle but substantial change in its commitment. After 10 years of steady pressure, China has almost succeeded in making the phrase customary in statements issued by the U.S. government on the subject. Even so, theoretically, the United States is still free to extend official recognition to Taiwan should the latter make a unilateral declaration of independence. China’s next aim was to persuade the U.S. government not to support Taiwanese independence. In 1998, China finally succeeded in obtaining “three noes” from U.S. President Bill Clinton. They were that the United States would not support:

* Any solution that would create “two Chinas”-or one China and one Taiwan.

* Taiwanese independence.

* Taiwan’s admission to organizations such as the United Nations.

However, such concessions merely amount to promises made only at the administrative level by both governments. They do not have the same weight as obligations in a treaty ratified by the U.S. legislature, and therefore they do not have any hold on the U.S. political system, including the legislative branch. Furthermore, the U.S. government dispatched a special envoy to Taiwan after Clinton’s “three noes” statement to explain to Taiwan that the United States had refused to put the president’s remark down in writing. The envoy added that Clinton made the remark in the presence of academics, and not of Chinese government officials. If that is the case, the question remains: Why did Clinton make such a remark? When all is said and done, it remains highly doubtful whether anybody other than Clinton himself is bound by the “three noes” statement.

Taiwan’s own identity

Taiwan’s situation has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. The island now has a completely democratic system of government and has abandoned its counteroffensive policy toward China.

Kissinger argues for the need to persuade Taiwan to follow U.S. policy, but the days when things would go smoothly only by appeasing a dictatorial ruler, as was the case under Chiang Kai-shek, have already passed.

Of even greater significance for the future of Taiwan than the implications of its democratization is the growing movement among the people of the island to seek their own identity, separate from that of China. If the Taiwanese want freedom from the mainland and a separate identity, and if these aspirations are officially enshrined in democratic procedures, it will be extremely difficult for another country to prevent such developments.

Then, what shape will policies to maintain the status quo take in the future? First of all, the fantasy of reunification after China’s democratization can safely be removed from practical options for analysis.

In the Oct. 25 article, Kissinger euphemistically wrote, “China…expressed its willingness to defer a final resolution.” However, China cannot realistically expect to occupy Taiwan, as it simply lacks the military strength to do so. China has never hesitated on any occasion to seize whatever it wanted if it could do so through force. One only has to think of China’s sending troops into Tibet and its occupation of the Paracel and Spratly islands.

For China, maintenance of the status quo means things may remain unchanged until Beijing is able to conquer Taiwan by force. China seems to be waiting for a chance to do so, while removing the possibility of changes in the status quo that may become obstacles-namely, Taiwan’s independence and recognition by other countries of this independence-when the chance comes.

Even the economy of Taiwan, which is currently vigorous, is bound to see bad days. There will inevitably come a time when Taiwan will lose its business confidence.

Also, U.S. public opinion could possibly be affected by isolationism, maybe sometime in the next 50 years, and the U.S. administration might therefore lean toward appeasing China.

A buildup of Chinese military power may well convince the U.S. public of the scale of sacrifice the United States would probably have to make if it were to intervene in any military conflict between China and Taiwan. This could in turn strengthen isolationist tendencies in the United States.

U.S. trustworthiness at stake

If the Taiwanese lost confidence in the ability or will of the United States to protect them, and thus became defeatist, China would certainly step up its military and psychological pressure. Under such a scenario, a democratic society would have no other option than to agree to unification with a dictatorial state-out of sheer despair-even against its will. That would be a tragedy on the scale of that which occurred in Czechoslovakia in 1938. Such an event would have an immeasurable psychological and geopolitical effect on the entire East Asia region. Psychologically, Asian nations would adopt the defeatist idea that they could not depend on the United States. Thus, U.S. influence would decline in the region and China’s would advance. As a result, Southeast Asia would witness a major shift in the balance of the political clout of indigenous residents and those of Chinese origin.

Geopolitically, the South China Sea would belong to China, and nations along the coast would have to accept a Chinese version of “Finlandization.” Japan would be distanced from Southeast Asia-its economic base. In addition, sea traffic routes would be obstructed, making the country_s security vulnerable.

The threat posed by China is not currently a real one because its military power is still small by international standards. But if this situation were to become a reality, China could threaten the hegemony of the United States in the 21st century. In another possible scenario, however, the United States may not allow such a situation to develop. This possibility is highly likely, provided current trends in U.S. public opinion and in the U.S. Congress continue.

Taking all these into consideration, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that the “policy of maintaining the status quo” will become one merely of not changing the status quo until the United States reaches a crossroads where it will have to take one of two options: losing its influence in Asia after China’s success in its Taiwan strategies, or preventing that scenario from evolving-even at the risk of war.

Kismet, one may think.

History provides many examples of one side temporarily appeasing the other side. And there have been many reasons for doing so. Sometimes adroit diplomatic footwork is used in a bid to avert a collision, or simply out of a desire for peace at any price to prevent problems that could arise from outside demands being made on a nation’s domestic politics..

In his book “Diplomacy,” Kissinger made a fine analysis of the historical inevitability of such cases and the favorable historical significance of some such cases. The Munich Pact signed in 1938 was based on an appeasement policy. When Germany reneged on the spirit of the pact, it forced and motivated Britain to challenge Germany, Kissinger said. Likewise, in his opinion, Franklin Roosevelt’s concession to Joseph Stalin, by which the United States turned its back on East Europe, allowed the United States to develop the psychological readiness to wage the Cold War. Britain and the United States have considerable national strength, and both are protected by the sea. This gives the two countries the leeway they need to adopt a wait-and-see, trial-and-error approach. However, many East European nations have suffered because of the waiting and the errors over the past half a century.

Currently, East Asian countries are not directly faced with such brute force as that wielded by the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. They are, however, exposed to the threat of the sophisticated strategies of which China is a master. Is it impossible for the United States to learn the lessons of history and thus erase the anxieties harbored by East Asian nations?

There is still much the United States can do while it still enjoys overwhelming power.

First, it could promote the principle of a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan problem in a much more concrete form. With the aim of structuring a permanent peace mechanism like that in Europe, the United States should, as a basic policy, demand that China and Taiwan enact confidence-building measures, such as abandonment of the use of force, securing transparency on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, mutual reduction of offensive armed forces, and giving prior notification of military exercises. A simpler, more straightforward option is to let Taiwan become a member of the United Nations and let both China and Taiwan observe their obligations as U.N. members. Clinton’s third “no” opposes this, but it is nothing but a vague promise that has nothing to do with any past promises made by the United States. Japan’s stance honorable Judging from the examples of the former East and West Germany or South and North Korea, Taiwan’s membership of the United Nations would not contradict the idea of future reunification at all. It is not at odds either with the idea of “one China,” since some Arab countries are members of the United Nations in their own right, despite the clear stipulation that “Arabs are one” in their countries’ constitutions.

These proposals, regardless of whether China would accept them, would surely help remove the anxieties of East Asian countries and stabilize Asia’s future prospects by impressing them with the U.S. commitment.

Of course, China would react adversely to the United States, and U.S.-Chinese relations would cool temporarily. China, however, would not find it beneficial for such a situation to continue for years. Therefore, things would soon return to business as usual if the United States firmly maintained the stance I have suggested.

Meanwhile, Japan has persistently avoided taking a stance on whether it supports or recognizes China’s position on Taiwan. It has simply said that it “understands and respects” China’s position. I think this is a decent attitude, similar to the one that cements the relationships between individuals. Suppose one of your friends confronts another friend of yours. If you “understand and respect” the stances of both your friends, you do not cause either friend to lose face. This is a fine attitude that we should respect more than the attitude of those who support one or the other after yielding to pressure.

Japan does not have the power to influence international policies of Asian nations. If the United States made its attitude clear, however, Japan would have a free hand to support the decision on legal grounds, although it would face a number of problems, politically and diplomatically, as would the United States.