Issue: 2023: Vol. 22, No. 2

Taiwan Symposium: The Road to Peacefully Resolving the Taiwan Issue

Article Author(s)

Yawei Liu

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Yawei Liu is Director of The Carter Center’s China Program. Yawei Liu has been a member of numerous Carter Center missions to monitor Chinese village, township and county people’s congress deputy elections from 1997 to 2011. He has also observed elections in Nicaragua, Peru and Taiwan. He has written extensively on China’s political developments, grassroots democracy and US-China relations. Yawei edited three Chinese book series: Rural Election and Governance in Contemporary China ... 
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On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. That war is still raging. Instead of sending troops, Washington is shoring up the war effort by sending weapons and cash. 

On October 7, 2023, Hamas launched a brutal attack on Israel. The U.S. has been providing military support to Tel Aviv for decades and is an unwavering supporter for Israel’s current war to uproot Hamas in Gaza Strip. The U.S. has deployed aircraft carrier groups in the Gulf and bombed a few targets in Syria that are supported by Iran. 

While American leaders are busy dealing with wars that may engulf regional peace and prosperity, they have a bigger concern over the likelihood of another war: a war with China over Taiwan in the coming years. If China decides to use force to stop Taiwan from becoming independent, in the words of President Biden, the U.S. will intervene militarily. And if this is the case, the world will see destruction of lives and property, ruin of the economy and disintegration of the international institutions on an unprecedented scale.

For China, Taiwan is the final missing piece of its glorious rise

Taiwan was ceded to Japan by the Qing Court after it was defeated by the Japanese in 1895. It was returned to the Republic of China (ROC) at the end of World War II. However, Chiang Kai-shek quickly lost his control of the mainland and the ROC moved to Taiwan in 1949. At the time, Mao Zedong and his lieutenants thought seizing Taiwan was going to be easy. Shortly after declaring the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Mao ordered his People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to cross the ocean and seize one of the offshore islands, Jinmen. To the shock of Mao, Chiang’s troops managed to annihilate the landing PLA forces. At the time, this seemed to be a temporary setback. The PLA nursed its wounds and trained for a bigger attack on Taiwan.

The outbreak of the Korean War on June 25, 1950, led to the deployment of the U.S. 7th Fleet in the Taiwan Strait and the timetable of “liberating” Taiwan had to change. Mao tried in 1955 to seize the offshore islands to test U.S. resolve in defending Taiwan. Not only did President Eisenhower secure a Taiwan Resolution from Congress, but the U.S. eventually signed a Mutual Defense Treaty with ROC. After a massive bombardment of Jinmen in 1958, Mao never again attempted to seize Taiwan. China had to deal with more pressing domestic and international challenges.

When the U.S. was bogged down in the quagmire of the Vietnam War, President Nixon came up with the idea of using China to facilitate the American withdrawal and countering Moscow at the same time. China was happy to play along but had one demand. The U.S. had to acknowledge Taiwan was part of China. Americans reluctantly met this demand:

The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.        

This position was repeated in the following Normalization Communiqué and the August 17 Communiqué. The U.S. abolished its defense treaty with the ROC and withdrew all its forces but continued to sell arms to Taiwan. The American obligation to the ROC was also codified in The Taiwan Relations Act.

Since Mao died in 1976, his successors, from Hua Guofeng to Hu Jintao, all vowed to resolve the Taiwan issue while in office, but none was able to. Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 and like all his predecessors, he declared that the resolution of the Taiwan issue cannot be dragged on forever. He might have won support for extending his leadership beyond two terms by promising to resolve the Taiwan issue during his tenure. On August 22, 2022, the PRC issued a white paper entitled “The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era.” It declares:  

Over its 5,000-year history, China has created a splendid culture that has shone throughout the world from past times to present, and has made an enormous contribution to human society. After a century of suffering and hardship, the nation has overcome humiliation, emerged from backwardness, and embraced boundless development opportunities. Now, it is striding towards the goal of national rejuvenation. The journey ahead cannot be all smooth sailing. However, as long as we Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Straits devote our ingenuity and energy to the same goal, let there be no doubt — we will tolerate no foreign interference in Taiwan, we will thwart any attempt to divide our country, and we will combine as a mighty force for national reunification and rejuvenation. The historic goal of reuniting our motherland must be realized and will be realized.

For the U.S., Taiwan is a killer weapon to contain China

U.S. policy toward Taiwan has evolved over the years. In the years of the Chinese civil war, Washington decided not to intervene but had provided large quantities of weaponry to the Nationalist (KMT) forces. Seeing the CCP was poised to win, President Truman opted for the “dust to settle” approach. The Korean War militarized the American position in Asia and Taiwan eventually became an ally just like Japan. The 1955 and 1958 offshore island crises hardened the U.S. will to defend Taiwan until President Nixon’s trip to China in 1972.

While both the Shanghai and Normalization Communiqués highlighted American “interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves,” President Reagan circulated a six assurances memo that was recently declassified. These six assurances are:

  1. The United States would not set a date for termination of arms sales to Taiwan.
  2. The United States would not alter the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act.
  3. The United States would not consult with China in advance before making decisions about United States arms sales to Taiwan.
  4. The United States would not mediate between Taiwan and China.
  5. The United States would not alter its position about the sovereignty of Taiwan which was, that the question was one to be decided peacefully by the Chinese themselves, and would not pressure Taiwan to enter into negotiations with China.
  6. The United States would not formally recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan.     

President Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carrier groups into the Taiwan Strait during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996 when China launched missiles into waters very close to Taiwan after Lee Teng-hui visited Cornell University. However, during his visit to China in 1998, Clinton issued the so-called “three no’s” policy on Taiwan, i.e. the U.S. would not support Taiwan independence; it would not support one China, one Taiwan; and it would not support Taiwan representation in international organizations where statehood is a requirement. 

President George W. Bush began his tenure by violating the taboo of strategic ambiguity on how the U.S. would react if China used force against Taiwan. In an interview at the Rose Garden, he said the United States would do “whatever it took” to defend the island if it were ever attacked by China.  When he was asked if the United States has an obligation to defend Taiwan, he replied, “Yes, we do, and the Chinese must understand that.” This ominous change was interrupted by the U.S. anti-terrorist campaign after the 9/11 attacks. 

Despite regular complaints over U.S. sales of arms to Taiwan, the U.S. largely stayed within the boundary of the one-China policy until Donald Trump came along. Even before he was inaugurated, Trump took a call from ROC President Tsai Ing-wen. From 2017 through 2021, Congress and the executive branch of the U.S. government worked separately to erode the essence of the one-China policy. 

The Biden administration has not stemmed the erosion of the one-China policy. He sent a high-level delegation of former senior government officials and former members of Congress to Taipei to commemorate the 43rd anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act. He publicly declared that the U.S. would intervene militarily if China used force against Taiwan. He did not try to stop House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from visiting Taipei. His top military commanders keep testifying and saying that China would launch a war against Taiwan as early as 2025. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s refusal to condemn it have created pressure on the administration to officially drop the strategy of ambiguity and to provide more support to Taiwan to deter Beijing from going to war to absorb Taiwan. U.S. naval ships have resumed crossing the Taiwan Strait. President Tsai Ing-wen was allowed to visit multiple U.S. cities and met with then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. While this is yet to be Washington’s official policy, more and more American elites are pushing for the U.S. to recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. A new consensus seems to be emerging in the American decision-making circles: Taiwan is a democracy, a high-tech hub, and a military asset and it has to be defended at all costs. Its loss to China would enable China to edge the U.S. out of the Western Pacific.

How to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait and stop a war between the U.S. and China

At the summit outside San Francisco on November 15, 2023, President Xi told President Biden that the Taiwan issue is the most vital and sensitive issue in U.S.-China relations. Washington should turn its non-support of Taiwan independence into concrete actions by not arming Taiwan and being supportive of China’s quest for peaceful unification.

In response, President Biden said America’s “one China policy has not changed.”  He reiterated that the United States opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side, that U.S. expects cross-Strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means, and that the world has an interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.  

Maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is a tall task because each of the three sides defines the status quo differently and does different things to maintain it. Furthermore, each side believes in its own righteousness and blames others for any mishaps. Nonetheless, all sides should do everything politically possible to prevent the Taiwan issue from dragging them into a war that will end decades of economic growth and prosperity and plunge all sides into an abyss of destruction.

There is no doubt that Xi Jinping wants to resolve the Taiwan issue during his tenure, with no foreseeable end. It could be 2035, which is 12 years from now. But he also knows the following: 

  1. The Chinese military is not ready, and there is no certainty it can win such a war in a very short time. 
  2. The Chinese people may not support a long and costly war on Taiwan. 
  3. The U.S. and its allies will not remain idle when China decides to use force. 
  4. All economic gains of the past 45 years would evaporate as soon as he orders the PLA to seize Taiwan. 
  5. The best way to resolve the Taiwan issue is for Taiwan and its proud people to voluntarily submit to one China, and it will take time to accomplish this.

But Xi Jinping will not tolerate Taiwan becoming independent under his watch. He will risk war if that happens, and he may be able to rally the nation at least for a short period of time. He can afford severe losses in both lives and property on the mainland, but Taiwan will become a ruin, and the U.S. and some of its allies may also suffer tremendous losses. Therefore, neither Taiwan nor the U.S. should give Xi Jinping an excuse to go war.

It is easy for Taiwan not to give Xi such an excuse. Taiwan has managed to do that for more than four decades by exchanging national sovereignty for peace, prosperity, and global respect.

It is much harder for the U.S. to do this. First, the U.S. will never stop selling arms to Taiwan. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, American leaders feel that it is even more urgent to continue arming Taiwan. Second, the U.S. has promised not to mediate between Taipei and Beijing. Third, given the current fierce rivalry between the U.S. and China, it is almost unthinkable for the U.S. to encourage Taiwan to negotiate with the mainland. Fourth, there are growing numbers of American elites who believe provoking China to go to war on Taiwan serves American national interests for obvious reasons. 

Taiwan is a trump card that Washington can play effectively in its effort to win the race against China, but is it worth going to war with China over an island so far away? At the time of confronting two regional wars that require tremendous American moral and material investment, is the U.S. ready to provoke China into opening a much larger and dangerous front? If the answer is no, what could the U.S. do?

Easy and simple: President Biden and his successors can emphasize to President Xi Jinping and his successors that Washington does not support Taiwan independence and that the Taiwan issue requires Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to resolve it peacefully. What the U.S. opposes is unilateral and violent change of status quo in the Taiwan Strait.  Furthermore, the U.S. will not abandon strategic ambiguity nor endorse the idea that Taiwan is an unsinkable aircraft carrier. In other words, Taiwan is not Ukraine. The American messaging before the crucial 2024 Taiwan election should be: the U.S. does not have a favorite candidate, but it supports a candidate who is best equipped to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Xi Jinping told Biden during the San Francisco summit that China will be unified, and unification of China is inevitable (中国终将统一,也必然统一). Well, the American response to this inevitability claim should be: Washington supports the glorious goal of eventual unification but it will and must police the process. 

Chinese people on both sides of the Strait would be forever grateful for the U.S. to take this firm stand.