For the first time in 40 years, a U.S. cabinet official has visited China. No, not that China, the other “China”—Taiwan. Two Chinas? Confusing, right? This is the problem.
For decades, the United States has maintained an ambiguous relationship concerning the defense of Taiwan. The intentional ambiguity of this bargain has outlived its usefulness, however, becoming a toxic threat to stability in the Eastern Pacific.
This was not always the case. Taiwan was the central sticking point in the negotiations that eventually re-established diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington. Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, insisted that Taiwan was a province of China, legally subject to mainland rule, and PRC authority. Washington, for its part, backed the Nationalist Kuomintang regime that retreated to Taiwan in 1949.
Decades later, in a brilliant bit of diplomatic finesse sponsored by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the United States and China agreed to maintain that Taiwan was part of China, though they agreed to disagree about what this actually meant in geo-strategic terms. Beijing could maintain that it had the right to govern Taiwan, while Washington could continue to assist Taiwan in practicing effective autonomy, if not de facto independence.
The military threat from the mainland, though consistently articulated in bombastic rhetoric, had never been very great. Mainland China was poor and chose not to invest in the specialized military equipment and training needed to mount a complex amphibious invasion of Taiwan.
In recent years, however, China has become a much more potent military threat. If war were to happen tomorrow, China would probably prevail over Taiwan. If instead the United States came to Taiwan's aid, this would most likely ensure an ignominious defeat for China. America's stance on intervention is thus pivotal; if Beijing believes that the United States will protect Taiwan, this could deter invasion. Conversely, if Taiwan knows it lacks U.S. protection, it will accommodate Beijing, avoiding triggers--such as moves toward independence--that would force China to act.
Taiwan's growing vulnerability could be construed as justification for formalizing Washington's commitment to the Island. However, such a measure would likely prove counterproductive. A firm security guarantee would tend to embolden the independence movement on the island, forcing the PRC to contemplate desperate action. Even if war were avoided, a formal alliance with Washington would almost certainly return relations with China to their state in the 1960s.
The same dilemma facing Nixon and Carter in the 1970s thus persists today. Washington cannot simultaneously recognize two "Chinas." Yet, regardless of one's preferences, prevaricating is no longer a responsible option, either. The ambiguous status of Taiwan could well trigger a tragic and costly war between the two most powerful nations on earth, one with no obvious resolution.
Ambiguity is bad. Not knowing what someone will do invites misperception and error. When the "someone" in question is a nation with nuclear weapons, ambiguity is no longer acceptable.
Students of international relations used to think war was caused by power, but this is silly. Power is relational (neither created nor destroyed). War can reassign power but the same can be done in peacetime, though diplomatic negotiations, which is of course common because it is cheaper and less risky. War requires a cause that cannot be addressed through diplomacy.
The most general explanation for war is that nations disagree about what war will eventually achieve. Two countries that differ in their expectations about which will win by how much must sometimes fight to determine a victor.
This is why the status of Taiwan is such a problem. On its own, Taiwan cannot resist a concerted invasion from the mainland. Since both Taiwan and the Mainland acknowledge this, there is no need to fight. If instead American forces intervene, then things will almost certainly go badly for Beijing. Again, because the result is predictable, China is not likely to trigger a fight over Taiwan if it knows that it is destined to defeat at the hands of the United States.
Real problems occur when no one really knows what war will bring, such as when observers on both sides can disagree about how Washington is likely to react in a crisis. American ambiguity about its stance on Taiwan introduces uncertainty, which makes the risk of miscalculation, and war, much more likely, especially in a period of heightening overall tensions.
Recent events, such as the protests in Hong Kong, further exacerbate these tensions, even as they introduce additional unknowns. Demonstrations for political autonomy in Hong Kong have reinforced similar instincts on Taiwan. A clear attempt by the island to formally divest itself from China could trigger a crisis, as it did in 1995. However, this time China can do more than just bluster. Even if unsuccessful, geography means that China can persist, and hold a grudge.
But not knowing for sure Washington's position on Taiwan, there is room to disagree on how aggression from the Mainland will play out. It is never easy to make a decision when all of one's options have downsides. Taiwan is certainly a tough call. But not making the call, is also an action with consequences, one that increases the risk of misperception and war.
Erik Gartzke is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies (cPASS) at the University of California, San Diego, where he has been a member of the research faculty since 2007. He has written on cyberwar, trade and conflict, and the effects of economic development, system structure and climate change on war. Dr. Gartzke’s research has been published in numerous academic journals and edited volumes. He received a PhD in Political Science from the University of Iowa in 1997.