By: Liz Johnson (PO ’24)
One of the most heavily militarized zones in the world is the Taiwan Strait, a 110-mile wide strait that separates China and Taiwan, a self-governing island that China claims as its own. In 1954, both Taiwan and China tacitly agreed to recognize and not cross this median line, since then it has served as an unofficial border between the two. Before 2020, this median line had only been crossed three times since its formation over 60 years ago. In August and September of this year, China crossed the line over 40 times under the guise of airplane military drills. In late September, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated there is “no so-called median [line] of the strait,” undermining the legitimacy of the border. This illustrates an alarming trend of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) increasing assertiveness and sensitivity towards actions that undermine its sovereignty, along with its treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang and crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong.
After the Second World War, the Republic of China (ROC), a US-backed regime ruled by the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party, governed Taiwan after it was transferred from Japanese colonial rule. After a civil war broke out between the KMT and the CCP, the KMT forces were defeated and forced to retreat to Taiwan as the CCP took control of mainland China. Since then, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China in Taiwan have existed as two separate and competing entities. Both governments followed the “one-China” policy, which meant that countries could only maintain international relations with one entity, the ROC or PRC, but not both.
Up until the late 1970s, the United States recognized the ROC and not the PRC. As the Cold War progressed, the United States saw that recognizing the PRC over Taiwan would be geopolitically advantageous and weaken the influence of their opponent, the Soviet Union. In 1979, the United States officially severed official ties with Taiwan and recognized the sovereignty of the PRC. As China began to open up its untapped market to international trade, much of the world began to follow this trend and recognized the sovereignty of the PRC at Taiwan’s expense. Since then, while Taiwan has lost much international recognition of its sovereignty, it still operates as a de facto independent state. Taiwan is also not able to have full membership in any world organization that recognizes the CCP, like the United Nations and the World Health Organization.
To limit the aggression of the CCP, the United States needs to make a substantive commitment to monitor and secure the Taiwan Strait. To achieve this, the issue must be approached with a thorough understanding of the delicate geopolitical balance between Taiwan and China. The US is obligated to support peace and stability in the Western Pacific due to the Taiwan-Relations Act passed in 1979. Notably, while Beijing has always maintained that it wishes to take Taiwan back by force, it has never acted on this. In addition, a forcible takeover initiated by China would only suffocate the self-determination of the Taiwanese people, subjecting them to limited speech, assembly, and other liberties. A US Department of Defense report has stated that China has been improving its military with goals to unify Taiwan by force, even in the event of third-party intervention from the US. The United States has additional moral urgency to counter the diplomatic decisions of China that act against US interests and values.
Accomplishing the tasks set out by the US-Taiwan Relations Act without violating the ‘one-China principle’ requires creative and precise measures. The precise and calculated decision making on US-Taiwan affairs has been blatantly disregarded by the Trump Administration. While previous administrations upset the PRC through quiet arms sales, they followed the precedent of unofficial diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which established US and Taiwan contact must be approved and limited. However, the Trump Administration passed the Taiwan Travel Act in 2018, which suggests support for reciprocal visits between US and Taiwan high-level officials. This establishment of contact between the US and Taiwan has been considered by China as a violation of “one-China.”
In August, US Human and Health Secretary Alex Azar had an official visit with President Tsai, marking the highest level visit by a US Cabinet Official since 1979. Only a month later, Keith Krach, US Undersecretary of Economic, Energy, and Environmental Affairs, attended a funeral in Taipei for former Taiwanese President, Lee Teng-hui. While it is important to further contact with Taiwan, the boisterous visits and lack of political awareness from the Trump administration has unnecessarily inflamed the tense relations between China, US, and Taiwan. This inflammation only encourages President Xi’s eagerness to ‘settle’ the Taiwan issue once and for all, potentially through military means.
With the competing visions of Taiwan’s future between Tsai and Xi, the US has to precisely recalibrate its decades-long stance on strategic ambiguity in the region. There has been undeniable political change in Taiwan since this; Taiwan has evolved into a vibrant democracy since the 1990s, a far cry from the authoritarian nature of KMT rule in prior years.
Taiwan’s political status must be met with the present reality of the political consciousness and ideology of its people. The recent push of President Xi, referring to Taiwan as an inalienable part of China is not how the Taiwanese people see their fate or country. According to Pew Research, 79% of adults in Taiwan support closer political relations with the US while only 36% support closer ties to China. There is also a shift of young Taiwanese people (18-29) who align with President Tsai’s views and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) platform; they overwhelmingly disapprove of increased political relations with China (12%) and 83% see themselves as “Taiwanese” versus 66% of the general population. As younger adults shape the future of Taiwan, the widening discrepancies in political ideology between a progressive democracy and an authoritative China will only increase tensions.
Nevertheless, the incoming Biden administration may not make the substantial changes needed to support Taiwan. During the Obama administration, $12 billion worth of US arms were sold to Taiwan, substantially larger than the Trump Administration. Obama-era arm sales were not as highly publicized but did not include prized J-16 fighter jets found in Trump Administration arm sales. Lai-I-Chung, president of the Prospect Foundation think tank, has expressed deep concern for “the lack of the deeper understanding on the issue of Taiwan by Biden advisers.” Other analysts like Bonnie Glaser, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) have opposing views, stating that there is no concern that Biden will weaken US-Taiwan ties. While Biden has supported the Taiwan-Relations Act as a Senator, if elected, his handling of the fast-paced changes between the US, China, and Taiwan that have occurred since the Obama administration is not known.
Taiwan is permanently triangulated within US-China Relations. An approach disregarding one component of this triangulation only allows for potentially volatile outcomes. One, if no support for Taiwan is given, the Taiwanese people will be subjected to repression from the CCP, violating their self-determination regarding the political status of Taiwan. Second, if support for Taiwan is given without any awareness to the political sensitivities between China and Taiwan, President Xi will not hesitate to subject Taiwan and its allies to aggressive military intervention, further destabilizing the East Asia region. Both scenarios, inaction from strategic ambiguity or the Trump Administration’s recklessness, illustrate how these approaches are primitive, outdated answers to an increasingly complex international problem.