On Friday, May 25, for the first time, the State Department quietly admitted “China is altering the status quo across the Taiwan Strait and undermining the framework that has enabled peace, stability, and development for decades.” This was in response to Burkina Faso’s diplomatic break with the “Republic of China.” For the first time ever, the State Department chided a third country for breaking with Taiwan. “We have a shared interest in international security stability and we are disappointed that Burkina Faso did not take these factors into consideration in its decision to cut ties with Taiwan.”
So, let’s talk about the “status quo,” a conceptual framework at the dead center of America’s policies toward Taiwan.
In contract law, unless there is a disagreement among litigants, maintaining the “status quo” signifies that all parties have accepted the current situation and concur that “changing” the “status quo” requires a consensus agreement. A “status quo” order from a judge prevents any parties in a dispute from taking any action until the underlying matter can be resolved.
In “Game Theory,” players rely on “capabilities” and “credibility” in their dynamic. The player defending the “status quo” therefore is always in a passive position with only the “status quo” as the desired outcome; while the “non-status quo” player always has the discretion to challenge the status quo at any time with limited possible negative outcomes because the outcome will never be worse than the “status quo.” Effectively, this means that the player challenging the “status quo” has more opportunities for the challenge and more possibilities of a favorable outcome.
At least, that’s how a normal diplomat should view “status quo” maintenance. And normal diplomats, on any side of a dispute, understand that preserving a “status quo” is unworkable unless two conditions obtain: 1) the parties have a shared understanding of precisely what the “status quo” is and 2) they are willing to maintain it.
This explains why US policy in the Taiwan Strait is untenable. Things as nebulous and viscous as the concept of “the status quo” are poor principles upon which to build any adversarial public policy or diplomatic strategy. I say “viscous” in the sense of “sticky” because over time the non-status quo side is always able to nudge events away from the “status quo,” thereby setting a “new status quo.” And insofar as the United States seeks to play the “impartial” arbiter of the Taiwan Strait “status quo,” the US must be in a position to prevent both Beijing and Taipei from taking any action until the underlying matter can be resolved. Are we beginning to see the problem?
Yet, about once a month, one concerned US government official or another points out that some new behavior by China gives fresh cause for anxiety about Beijing changing some “status quo.” At the beginning of May, an unnamed State Department official said noncommittally that the US government was aware of the termination of the diplomatic relations between Taiwan and the Dominican Republic, which it considered an alteration to the “status quo.”
In January of this year, a spokesperson for the American Institute in Taiwan dutifully recited the American government’s view that opposed any unilateral change in the cross-strait “status quo.” Yet in the intervening six months China has built artificial islands with 3,000-meter runways in the South China Sea, then deployed bombers, heavy weapons and guided missiles thither; China inaugurated a new civil aviation corridor up the Taiwan Strait, and last month China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force dispatched daily sorties of stealth jet fighters and long-range heavy bombers to circumnavigate Taiwan island itself.
Several times last month, responding to press queries about new Chinese military air operations around Taiwan, a US Department of State press officer e-mailed that “the United States remains concerned by China’s lack of transparency about its growing military capabilities and associated strategic intentions.” To this was added a cut-and-pasted reassurance that “the United States opposes unilateral actions by any party aimed at altering the status quo, including any resort to force or other forms of coercion.”
Amid all this “status quo,” in April, China again chipped away by presenting dozens of international airlines with a new Civil Aviation Administration of China regulation to change their websites, directing specifically that “Taiwan shall be called ‘Chinese Taiwan’ or ‘Taiwan, province/region of China.’” As I reported last month, the White House itself dismissed this latest Chinese peremptoriness as “Orwellian nonsense” and didn’t even bother with the “status quo” business. Perhaps it takes complete newcomers to the Washington diplomatic scene to see Beijing’s fulminations for the nonsense they are, because those of us who’ve been around too long tend to sooth ourselves by repeating the “status quo” mantra in hopes that Beijing’s latest outrage soon will blow over.
While Washington argues for the sanctity of the Taiwan Strait’s “status quo,” there is nothing sacred in it for Beijing. Quite the contrary. For Beijing, the supreme principle is preservation of the ancestral legacy, or as Chinese Chairman of State Xi Jinping (習近平) declaimed last week to visiting US Defense Secretary James Mattis: “Not one inch of the territory left by our ancestors can be lost.” This is no Chinese version of the “status quo.” Instead, China defines the ancestral legacy as anything the State and Party want it to be. It is, alas, all fraudulent; claims to the South China Sea, to Taiwan and the Senkakus, even Japan’s Ryukyus; to India’s Arunachal Pradesh; to a third of tiny Bhutan’s entire land area; all proclaimed to be “territory left by our ancestors.” All except Outer Mongolia, of course (but please, don’t mention “Mongolia” to your Chinese friends, lest they respond “soon, very soon”).
But when it comes to America’s version of the “status quo,” it’s all subterfuge. In May, Beijing’s China Daily published a compilation of scholarly views on the new US “Taiwan Travel Act” which was passed unanimously by the House and Senate and was signed by President Donald Trump on March 16. In the article, a PLA officer at the Academy of Military Sciences complained that the American law merely “serves the US’ strategy of containing China’s rise and maintaining the status quo across the Straits,” a “status quo,” he pointed out, which was very much at odds with “reunification of the island with the motherland.”
When American officials first dreamt up the “status quo in the Taiwan Strait” as the organizing principle of Washington’s Taiwan policy, I was convinced they had no idea what the term “status quo” meant.
So, I set about researching the “status quo” as it is defined for Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait. And I happened upon this congressional testimony by then-assistant secretary of state James Kelly in 2004, who reiterated what he said were “the core principles of our [Taiwan] policy.” He said: “The US does not support independence for Taiwan or unilateral moves that would change the status quo as we define it.”
And he asserted, “For Beijing, this means no use of force or threat to use force against Taiwan. For Taipei, it means exercising prudence in managing all aspects of cross-strait relations. For both sides, it means no statements or actions that would unilaterally alter Taiwan’s status.” What “status”?
Nowhere could I find a definition of “the status quo as we define it.”
I know how it’s defined in the Taiwan Relations Act: “Whenever the laws of the United States refer or relate to foreign countries, nations, states, governments, or similar entities, such terms shall include and such laws shall apply with respect to Taiwan.” And then-president Jimmy Carter preserved the “status quo” on the last day that the US recognized the “Republic of China” by issuing an executive order that “Existing international agreements and arrangements in force between the United States and Taiwan shall continue in force and shall be performed and enforced by departments and agencies beginning January 1, 1979.”
But I am pretty sure that’s not what Mr. Kelly meant. He seemed to mean that Taiwan should not claim to be an independent country and that China should not attack it — or threaten to attack it. Yet, Taiwan could never function if it didn’t claim to be an independent country, and China wouldn’t be China if it didn’t threaten to attack Taiwan. And besides, it’s not really what one would think of as “the status quo as we define it.”
I applaud America’s constructive Taiwan policies, and the Taiwan Relations Act in particular, that support and promote extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan. And I support the idea that there is a “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait that is worth maintaining. But it is difficult, because, frankly, we don’t know what it is. And without some leadership from President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo, when a crisis erupts, Americans will draw the conclusion that neither our representatives in Congress nor key policymakers in the executive branch know what it is either.
For now, it would seem fair that the executive branch hold China to account just as much, if not more, for violating whatever the “status quo” is, as it does Taiwan. Given China’s repeated encroachment on the military “status quo” in the Strait, in the South and East China Seas, and along the Himalayan borders, the executive branch must surely adopt broader latitude in Taiwan relations. Congress has envisioned far more useful executive branch support for Taiwan on international organization participation, defense cooperation, and now, with the Taiwan Travel Act out of Senate committee, the level of official US government interactions with Taiwan.
The United States can hardly hope to maintain whatever it defines as the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait if it does not balance China’s attacks on it with countervailing increases of support for Taiwan. Otherwise, all hopes of “maintaining the status quo” will collapse.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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