Navigating the Taiwan Strait

January 2, 2011

The situation in the Taiwan Strait has been a central point of disagreement in relations between the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) and the United States of America (U.S.), for which the U.S. has had to clarify its position numerous times since the civil war between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang in 1949. International relations have dramatically changed since the Communiqué between the P.R.C. and the U.S. of 1972, 1979, and 1982 were released. The Cold War is at an end and the ideology and tensions that arose because of it are no longer relevant in relations between these two nations and thus, foreign policy from the U.S. should reflect these changes and its attitude to the Taiwan Strait issue should be adapted.

Crucial to the P.R.C. is the acceptance of “one China and that Taiwan is a part of China” as stated in 1972. At that time and since, the U.S. has not challenged this position of the P.R.C. and indeed reaffirmed the position in 1982. However, it was reiterated that the U.S. would “maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations” with the Taiwanese people. Since both the P.R.C. and the Taiwanese people are still in agreement on the principle of “One China” it is advisable that the U.S. continue with this policy. In previous years, Hong Kong and Macau have been returned to P.R.C. administration as special administrative regions. Such events follow a similar path to Taiwanese reunification with the mainland, although it will have to be handled very delicately considering the history of the civil war between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang Party who fled to Taiwan in 1949.

While the U.S. has maintained a similar position since the 1970s they have at times contradicted it in their relations with Taiwan which has caused recent strains with the P.R.C. and prompted the Communist Government to seek clarification from the U.S. administration. Relations became delicate during the rule of the Democratic Progressive Party (D.D.P.) in Taiwan under President Chen Shubian from 2000-2008, who made clear his agenda to declare an independent Taiwan. The leadership has since been handed back to the Kuomintang Party in 2008 and the move towards independence has waned. Nevertheless, there is the possibility that a government such as the D.D.P. will win the popular vote once more in Taiwan and prompt the issue once again. For this reason, the U.S. must make clear their position so as to allay P.R.C. fears of future tensions with the U.S. over the issue of Taiwan.

Of paramount importance in resolving such confusion in relations with the P.R.C. is the military aid provided to Taiwan since the 1950s. It was highlighted in the original communiqué of 1972 that the U.S. would aim to scale down military involvement and installations in Taiwan in years to come. However, the U.S. also made it clear in the Taiwan Relations Act that it would “maintain a sufficient self-defense capability” to Taiwanese authorities. While U.S. military aid to Taiwan may have been scaled down it still exists and is grounds for the P.R.C. to challenge us on past promises of scaling down military relations with Taiwan. As recently as 2010 the U.S. Congress has promised to send Patriot Missiles to Taiwan as part of their defense strategy in the region. If the U.S. is truly committed to improving relations with the P.R.C. and eliminating tensions in the Taiwan Straight then we could take advantage of our military relations with Taiwan and scale back military aid. Such leverage could produce the necessary impetus to push to the Taiwanese government to open further relations with the P.R.C. and negotiate a suitable settlement. While ever Taiwan feels it has the U.S. to defend its wishes militarily it is unlikely that it will take steps forward to move towards reunification with the mainland.

Although the U.S. has made it clear that they support the “One China” policy, it seems that it is less clear as to whether we would be willing to go to war if the P.R.C. or Taiwan were to declare war on one another. Therefore, our intentions must be spelled out clearly in order to avert any potential for war. As in past statements, the U.S. has indicated that it supports one China and therefore wishes to see Taiwan reunified with the mainland and thus, resolved in direct negotiations with the P.R.C. However, while the U.S. does not wish to see conflict in the Taiwan Strait, it is willing to defend Taiwan if the P.R.C. military attacks Taiwan without provocation and to force its own terms on the Taiwanese people. The U.S. also does not wish to see Taiwan attack or provoke the P.R.C. on this issue. It instead wishes that the situation be handled peacefully and diplomatically, and preferably without U.S. interference.

However, given previous history, we understand that relations between Taiwan and the P.R.C. will have to be carefully mended on both economic and diplomatic levels. It is clear that economic relations have been dramatically improving between these two regions and given the preceding relations between the U.S. and these two areas and our own economic and political clout, we have an opportune moment to help mend tensions that have survived for decades. Economic relations are currently very strong with East Asian nations and so channels are open to discuss future direction with trade and commercial development in the region. While economic embargoes may be too harsh and unnecessary, there is still room for us to negotiate terms with both parties to provide incentive to come to some sort of agreement. Both have significant economic ties with the U.S. and so it is only in their interests to listen to our advice.

Diplomacy has also become increasingly important between our three nations and other nations in the region and has come to dominate economic discussion. There are many issues beyond economics that affect our interests on a regional and international level that could be used as rallying points to bring our three groups together. Security, health, and other issues imperative to national welfare have entered discussion in previous years and we should continue to move forward on these issues. Such consensus should also be extended to negotiating the dispute with Taiwan and the U.S. could initiate a forum in which these negotiations could be facilitated rather than sitting idly by and waiting for these two groups to come to their own agreement. Tension has existed for decades and without some prompting from an external nation such tension could continue for many decades without resolution.

One particular point of contention is the U.S. contribution to Taiwan in military aid and intelligence. In Section 3302 of the Taiwan Relations Act, it is stated the U.S. will make aid available to Taiwan to “maintain sufficient self-defense capability”. These terms seem to directly contradict the promise to the P.R.C. that it will not interfere in its territorial sovereignty and its aims to reunify Taiwan with the mainland. In addition, since President Ma Ying-jeou of the K.M.T. was elected in Taiwan, the Taiwanese government has significantly scaled back its military budge making it clear they are not interested in declaring independence for Taiwan. If the U.S. truly hopes to see progress in the Taiwan Straight then it will have to scale back its commitment to Taiwan and begin to listen to the P.R.C. and the K.M.T. who are now in power. Although it is not advisable to submit to all P.R.C. requests, it is time to consider resolving this issue and this cannot be achieved while ever the U.S. provides weapons and military aid to Taiwan.

Although it is clear the Taiwan Straight issue is complex, the current economic and diplomatic situation lends itself to a lasting resolution. The People’s Republic of China, the United States of America, and the Republic of China (Taiwan) are all in agreement that there is one China of which Taiwan is a part. Therefore, we need to move forward to establish and strengthen economic and diplomatic relations to ensure that Taiwan is peacefully and successfully reunified with mainland China. In order to do this, the United States must make clear that it will not interfere militarily in the situation as long as Taiwan does not declare independence and the P.R.C. does not attack Taiwan unnecessarily. We must show our commitment by scaling back military aid to Taiwan and initiating further dialogue between the two groups on diplomatic levels. Given the Unites States’ economic, security, and international interests in the region, it is imperative that we take proactive action in resolving this ongoing dispute.