Mon, Jul 09, 2018 - Page 6 News List

John J. Tkacik, Jr. on Taiwan: The status quo as we define it

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.

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