Ian Aucoin, MPA
With a rising China, a teetering regime in North Korea facing a succession crisis, and increasingly self-reliant and assertive governments in Japan and South Korea, the economic and political order in the Pacific is changing shape. In this emerging new East Asian order, does still Taiwan matter? Does it remain a potential flashpoint of military conflict? Most importantly, should its defense remain an article of US foreign policy?
In the middle of the last century, the US took up the cause of defending the island to ensure that Chang Kai-Shek and our capitalist Kuomintang (KMT) allies would survive long enough for Mao and the communists to lose control of the mainland and subsequently reclaim China for the nationalists. With his horrible mistakes in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, Mao came close, but things have now changed. In both capitals the old guard is dead and economies are booming. Both parties still seek a negotiated reconciliation, but neither the “one China, two systems” that Beijing proposes nor the independence that some in Taipei desire is acceptable at present. However, with the continent’s exponentially greater resources and Taiwan’s increasing diplomatic isolation, time does not appear to be on the latter’s side. Any agreement is increasingly likely to come on Beijing’s terms.
The 21st century People’s Republic of China is more robust than ever before and it is starting to throw its weight around, most dramatically within the past year. In 2010, Beijing reacted with unusual venom to a routine American arms deal with Taiwan, brought economic weaponry to bear against Japan after a confrontation near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, repositioned missile batteries to better “encourage” Hanoi to give up its claim on the Paracel Islands, and more or less turned a blind eye to North Korean provocations on the Peninsula while reacting far more strongly to the joint US-ROK military exercises carried out in response. None of this was well received abroad. In 201, there have been indications—from President Hu’s state visit to the US and other sources—that the negative international reaction to this brand of Chinese assertiveness has been taken to heart in Beijing, but in practice we have no guarantees that it will not head down that road again.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, Taiwan and the Taiwanese government largely avoided this wave of bellicosity from Beijing, and in the short term Taiwan does not appear to be a likely flashpoint of military conflict. In fact, since the KMT regained control of the government from the more pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2008, prevailing trends in cross-Strait relations have undergone a significant reversal and are now better than ever before. Direct flights between Taiwan and the mainland resumed in the summer of 2008, the landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement that dramatically lowered barriers between the two economies was signed two years later, and this past November the KMT mayor of Taipei rode to victory over his DPP opponent in an election that was widely seen as a referendum on the KMT’s strategy of engagement with the mainland. At this point, even if the DPP returned to power they would likely have to moderate their tone and accept many of these KMT initiatives as entrenched features of the political landscape.
All that said, the sweeping shifts in policy and rhetoric coming out of both capitals over the last few years and the persistent obstacles to a long-term negotiated solution indicate that it remains a little early to put this conflict to bed. And yet, there is reason for optimism in the recent turmoil in China’s foreign policy. The PRC’s missteps are an indication that it is finding its feet as an emerging power. These are formative years in which China is feeling out its place on the international stage, and while there is no reason to believe that the political, economic, and territorial interests China has recently expressed are going to change, the strategies they will employ to serve them are still highly malleable. Last year China tried to project power in the region by bullying its neighbors, and its actions were roundly rejected. Chinese leaders are going to go back to the drawing board and try to find a more efficient and effective way to get what they want. America’s preeminent position in the East Asian security structure is an invaluable tool to shape the character of Chinese foreign policy by ensuring that force and intimidation remain undesirable means to achieve China’s ends. In time, China’s need to find other avenues to serve its interests will ideally drive it towards greater participation in existing regional diplomatic organizations and the formation of new ones with greater capabilities. Though for a variety of reasons—historical, cultural, political—these institutions will differ markedly from their Western analogs, they still carry the promise of mutual benefits to all participating countries. However in the interim, while there are ongoing changes in the region’s political structure, American relationships with Taiwan and other regional actors will remain relevant as a means of deterring aggression and stimulating cooperation.
In sum, Taiwan matters, but not for the reasons it used to. Ongoing improvements in cross-Strait relations are making military confrontation between the PRC and its “wayward province” increasingly implausible. Today, the US defensive relationship with Taiwan is substantially weaker than in the past, but its value persists as a reminder of the dangers Beijing would face in pursuing an overzealous foreign policy. Additionally, it is a powerful excuse to continue Seventh Fleet operations off the southern coast of Asia, which many states in the area support, though some may be loath to admit it. Were the US to withdraw its support for Taiwan, it would lose a great deal of prestige and influence in the Pacific, with remarkably little gain. Further, Taiwan could not realistically defend itself against the full might of the People’s Liberation Army, and all parties know that. While in the event of American withdrawal of support Taiwan-PRC military confrontation would remain unlikely, this retraction would still greatly limit the Taiwanese options in bilateral negotiations and allow Beijing to commit its military resources elsewhere, better positioning it to pursue a more belligerent vein of diplomacy if it so chose. Maintaining the current American position on Taiwan buys time for other processes of regional integration to operate in an environment already favorable to stability and the interests of the United States.