October 9, 2002 | WebMemo on Asia
The Diplomatic and Political Dimension of U.S. Policy Toward Taiwan
A number of diplomatic and political factors influence the
U.S.-Taiwan-PRC relationship. I am going to talk about four:
1. The upcoming change of leadership in the PRC;
2. China's international acceptance or perception as an
increasingly credible great power and international
3. The blossoming of Taiwanese domestic democratic politics and
4. U.S. domestic politics.
But before I get into those, let me start with one general
principle to which I subscribe. I subscribe to the notion that
today there is no single organizing principle guiding U.S.-China
Unlike during the Cold War, where containing Communism and
balancing the power and influence of the Soviet Union guided the
Sino-American relationship, the current U.S.-China protocol for
handling bilateral issues is being written at every turn,
especially as China evolves. Despite this fact, I think that
bilateral relations are stable diplomatically.
But back to the factors.
First, the upcoming change of leadership in the PRC will be a
factor in the future of U.S.-Sino relations.
Likely presidential successor Hu Jintao's lack of international
experience makes the Chinese diplomatic agenda a bit uncharted.
Though Hu can be expected to have Jiang Zemin looking over his
shoulder, government policies in spite of the change in leadership
are likely to remain consistent with the recent past regarding the
Beijing's policy toward Taipei is likely to remain consistent as
well. I would characterize China's Taiwan policy as a
comprehensive, but possibly more nuanced and sophisticated,
approach of achieving unification on Beijing's terms while wielding
an ever-increasingly big stick-that is, the People's Liberation
Army (PLA)-and making use of economic leverage based on increasing
Taiwanese investment on the Mainland.
This brand of Taiwan policy will continue as long as Jiang and
other senior leaders remain on the scene. Indeed, cross-Strait
politics based upon economic realities may ensure continuity even
post-Jiang, just as internal Chinese economic realities may force
the fourth generation leaders to concentrate on the economy and not
Second, China's international acceptance or perception as an
increasingly credible great power and international competitor
could well lead to potential threats to U.S. interests, the
interests of friends and allies, and peace and stability in the
A rise in Chinese nationalism, aggressiveness, or assertiveness
toward the U.S., Japan, Taiwan, or Southeast Asia will not
contribute to constructive relationships and could undermine
stability in the region. This could certainly play out in the South
China Sea, as well as vis-à-vis Taiwan or Japan.
In addition, North Korea-heretofore an area for possible
cooperation between Washington and Beijing-could become a more
nettlesome issue in the bilateral relationship if Kim Jong-il
actually does move closer to Japan, or if prospects for
reunification on the peninsula improve and the future of peninsula
politics comes into question.
Moreover, Chinese perceptions of encirclement or even containment
will affect the Sino-U.S. relationship and China's international
behavior. Beijing will actively try to "outflank" or at least
compete diplomatically for relationships vis-à-vis the
United States with its neighbors, especially Russia, Central Asia,
Pakistan, India, Japan, Korea-and even Taiwan in the long term-to
assure China's ascendance and Beijing's perception of its proper
place on the world stage.
The War on Terror has brought closer U.S. diplomatic relations with
many of the countries of Asia. China's confidence in its political
influence and allure as a rising power has likely been shaken to a
certain extent as countries compete to bask in the glow of American
China is probably only confident of its influence over continental
Southeast Asia, and worries about the growth of American influence
in maritime Southeast Asia, South Asia, and current American basing
arrangements in Central Asia.
The third factor is a collective of the blossoming of Taiwanese
domestic democratic politics, a push for a unique "Taiwanese"
identity and the independence sentiment in Taiwan. These factors
will undoubtedly affect the future of bilateral and trilateral
Taiwan is a fully fledged democracy and the Democratic Progressive
Party (DPP) will continue to be a key political player, as
evidenced by recent elections. Whether the DPP continues to hold
the presidency after 2004 is a matter of conjecture, but
regardless, it is expected that Taiwanese government policies will
increasingly reflect the views of the populace.
The growth of a sense of a unique Taiwanese self-identity will
affect policymaking and relations with Washington and Beijing. It
appears that the time when "Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan
Strait say there is but one China of which Taiwan is a part" has
already passed. This sentiment will likely affect future events
across the Strait.
Taipei will continue to pursue greater diplomatic recognition and
participation in international organizations and perhaps even flirt
with a formal declaration of independence. But this is more likely
to be compelled by PRC behavior toward Taiwan than by some
Taiwanese government act of provocation, since most Taiwanese-by my
estimation-quite wisely see continuation of the status quo as in
their best interest.
U.S. domestic politics, especially in the U.S. Congress, among
national security elites and in the business community, will
continue to play a strong role in the formulation of U.S. policy
and the trilateral relationship.
These important and influential groups will insist that U.S. policy
support their perception of American interests on issues ranging
from trade to human rights to security and defense policy. This
could send mixed messages to both Beijing and Taipei and lead to
misperception and miscalculation across the Strait.
Diplomatic Trends and Developments
Let me say a few words about the diplomatic trends and developments
that will influence the future of these relationships
The first trend is increased Taiwanese international political
isolation, growing democratization, and an increasing sense of
If Taipei continues to lose formal diplomatic relations-for example
the recent loss of the Pacific island of Nauru-or if the PRC
continues to exert pressure to prevent even limited participation
in international organizations by Taiwan, there could be a
political reaction by the Taiwanese government that is
counterproductive to cross-Strait relations-or even U.S.-Taiwan
relations for that matter.
After more than a dozen years of free elections, including popular
choice of the head of state, democracy, freedom, and rule of law
are now ingrained in Taiwan's political culture. These values are
here to stay.
Taiwanese policies could cause friction with the Mainland, and
even with the United States, as Taiwanese increasingly decide what
is in Taiwan's interest-and not that of others-and Taipei pursues a
more independent foreign policy based on Taiwan's perception of its
own national interest.
Taiwanese movement towards a distinct Taiwanese identity over time
could lead to an overwhelming insistence upon de jure independence.
At the moment, this is contained by the knowledge that this would
provoke a crisis-and probably a military crisis at that-with China.
I think this is very frightening to most Taiwanese. But
heavy-handed PRC behavior could push Taiwan in that
The second trend is China's increasing international political and
diplomatic clout. This is an undeniable dynamic that will drive and
shape future relations and events with Taiwan, the U.S., and the
Clearly, China's increasing influence can play a positive-or
negative-role in the trilateral relationship. If China plays by
international standards and norms of conduct and contributes
positively to peace, stability, and prosperity, this is obviously
But if China puts undue pressure on the regional political system
in a quest to further isolate Taiwan or pressure unification, the
use of coercive diplomacy could be destabilizing.
Chinese saber rattling or a propensity for the use of force
against Taiwan may increase as China perceives that it need not pay
due regard to the concerns of others as a result of its increasing
national power, especially military power.
Let me say a word about developments. I am only going to talk about
one but it is quite current, I think. I see Chinese support-or
non-support-for U.S. or coalition actions against Iraq and the war
on terror as an important development for the bilateral
Chinese support-direct, implied, or tacit-for the U.S. in the U.N.
Security Council and afterwards in military action in Iraq, if that
becomes necessary, could be an important litmus test for the
Chinese failure to support the U.S. on Iraqi disarmament-extending
to the principles of non- or counterproliferation and
counterterrorism-or the use of force, if required, could lead to a
chilly period in U.S.-Sino relations.
The Chinese may try to extract some sort of concession from the
United States as a quid pro quo for its vote or abstention in the
U.N. Security Council on Iraq. I would suggest that support for the
United States in the war on terrorism, perhaps including Iraq, will
be a requirement for constructive and productive relations with the
Let me say a few words about alternative scenarios of foreign
policy or diplomatic behavior arising from these trends and
developments. First, China could attempt to make political or
diplomatic arrangements exclusive of the U.S., such as a serious,
substantive diplomatic rapprochement or partnerships with Russia,
Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN, or reinvigorate the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization (SCO) to counter growing U.S. influence in
Second, Beijing could take a hard line on U.S.-Taiwan-China
relations, forging a confrontational atmosphere, imposing
sanctions, or coercing countries that still recognize Taipei.
Third, Taiwan could feel increasingly isolated diplomatically and
decide to go its own way and declare independence.
Fourth, China could ask for some sort of diplomatic quid pro quo
for support in the war on terror and/or Iraq in order to influence
U.S.-Taiwan policy-for example, the PRC could demand the U.S.
adhere strictly to the 1982 communiqué and reduce arms sales
in exchange for China's support.
My guess is that none of these are likely to happen in the short
term due to the value that both Taipei and Beijing place on
relations with Washington. Nevertheless, we must continue to watch
them, considering these trends and the new security
Elements of a Successful China-Taiwan Policy
As the last part of this exercise, let me talk a little about
policy. I believe that current U.S.-China-Taiwan policy best
supports American interests and is capable of addressing the
potential vagaries in the cross-Strait and the trilateral
relationship. Long-standing U.S. policy is flexible and durable
enough to manage the challenges that we face and withstand the
trends we are seeing.
These are the elements I see as aspects of a successful
A One China policy in the context of the three communiqués.
Adherence to the Taiwan Relations Act, especially maintaining the
military balance across the Strait through arms sales, military
services, and training. Respecting Reagan's 1982 Six Assurances Not
setting a date for the ending of arms sales to Taiwan; Not
consulting with China on arms sales; Not playing a mediation role
between the PRC and Taiwan; Not revising the Taiwan Relations Act;
Not changing the U.S. position on the sovereignty of Taiwan; and
Not exerting pressure on Taipei to enter into negotiations with
In addition, declaratory policy should be that there should be no
unilateral change in the status quo by either party. There should
be no use of force by either side. Washington should maintain
robust diplomatic relations with Taipei, because Taiwanese actions
affect American interests. We should encourage dialogue across the
Strait. There should be no U.S. government support for Taiwanese
independence. There should be the expectation that Taiwan will act
responsibly. Further, we should assist in finding opportunities for
greater international representation for the Taiwanese people. And
finally, we should encourage political liberalization on the
In conclusion, the United States has a very strong interest in the
security of Taiwan's democracy and in having a constructive
relationship with China.
We are seeing dynamics on both sides of the Strait that seemed
inconceivable a little more than 10 years ago. It is going to take
a steady hand on the helm of State-which we thankfully have-to
navigate these increasingly challenging waters.
But I believe as long as policymakers look to the past with a
weather eye to the future, peace and stability in the
U.S.-China-Taiwan relationship is possible.
Brookes is Senior Research Fellow for Homeland Defense and
National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute
for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. He spoke at a
panel on "Taiwan and U.S. Policy: Toward Stability or Crisis,"
hosted by Senator Joseph R. Biden, Chairman of the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee, at the Russell Senate Office Building on
October 9, 2002. The panel was organized by the Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace, the Asia/Pacific Research Center of
Stanford University, the National Committee on United States-China
Relations, and the Center for Strategic and International