Ever since the US ended diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC) and recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1979, a move followed by the passage of the US’ Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) in April that year, Washington’s policy on Taiwan has consistently been that its future cannot be determined through the use of force by China.
The diplomatic relationship with Beijing, the TRA reads, “rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means [and that] any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes” would be “of grave concern” to the US.
This remains Washington’s official line on the Taiwan Strait, which was reinforced by the fifth article of the “Six Assurances” to Taiwan issued in July 1982, stating: “The United States would not alter its position about the sovereignty of Taiwan … that the question was one to be decided peacefully.”
Attendant to this formulation has been Washington’s reliance on ambiguity through the so-called “status quo,” which on the one hand is contingent on Beijing not using force against Taiwan, and on the other on Taipei refraining from doing anything — adopting a new Constitution, moving toward de jure independence, and so on — that would undermine that stability.
For three decades, this strategy appears to have been wise, for aside from the Missile Crisis of 1995 and 1996 and occasional violations of Taiwanese airspace by Chinese military aircraft, the Taiwan Strait has not descended into war and both sides remain de facto separate entities.
Despite this, however, the Taiwan problem has not disappeared. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the “status quo” is dynamic, which undeniably works in Beijing’s favor. Not coincidentally, Beijing has adopted a course of non-confrontation with the US, knowing full well that even after a decade of double-digit investment in its military, it could not wage war against the US and expect to win.
Rather than escalate military tensions in the Taiwan Strait, therefore, Beijing has sought rapprochement with Washington and is biding its time with Taiwan while adopting an asymmetrical approach to its annexation.
As stated earlier, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), though far more formidable today than it was a decade ago, is no match for the US military and will not be for some time. As scenarios involving the invasion of Taiwan would invite US intervention on Taiwan’s side, PLA demonstrations of force in the past decade have mostly emphasized political maneuvering and avoided actions that risk escalating tensions with the US.
Rather than seeking unification with Taiwan through force, therefore, Beijing has avoided crossing the red lines drawn by the TRA and other agreements with the US, instead embarking on a strategy that, in the past year in particular, has proven most successful.
In financial terms, it is a strategy that can be likened to a hostile takeover.
The US — which has set its red lines in military terms — has been caught wrong-footed, because Beijing is exploiting a weakness in the TRA. It states: “Nothing … shall contravene the interest of the United States in human rights, especially with respect to the human rights of all the approximately eighteen million [now 23 million] inhabitants of Taiwan. The preservation and enhancement of the human rights of all the people on Taiwan are hereby reaffirmed as objectives of the United States.”