The fictional 'status quo,' Part 1

By June Teufel Dreyer  / 

Wed, Dec 20, 2006 - Page 8

To put the matter bluntly, there is no status quo on the issue of China and Taiwan, nor has one ever existed.

Moreover, no status quo, even where one can be said to exist, is ever static, either in biological terms or in international relations.

Organisms and countries change, as does the environment in which they exist.

With regard to the first point, "status quo" is a largely meaningless phrase and a dangerous ambiguity that has evolved to extend the existence of another dangerous ambiguity: the "one China" policy.

When diplomats cannot agree on something they feel they must reach a consensus on, they have a tendency to resort to circumlocution, and this is a case in point.

The "one China" policy was set out in the Shanghai Communique of 1972, in which the US found that Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait agreed that there was but one China, and that the US acknowledged the People's Republic of China's (PRC's) position that it was that China.

But the "one China" policy set out in the Shanghai Communique was meant to be temporary.

As stated at the time by several senators who were friendly toward Taiwan, what former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger had in mind was not the maintenance of any existing situation, but what they called "a decent interval," after which the nation would be absorbed into the PRC through some unspecified mechanism.

What Kissinger thought privately is known only to himself, but declassified records indicate that he gave his Chinese interlocutors the impression that in due course, support for Taiwan in the US would erode and the PRC would be able to gain control.

Various factors conspired to prevent this.

First came the US' decision to abandon South Vietnam in 1975.

After the Vietnam debacle, Washington thought that it would profoundly upset its system of alliances if it abandoned Taiwan as well.

As one policymaker somewhat crudely put it: "We can only afford to kiss off one small ally at a time."

Also, Taiwan proved to have strong support in Congress, which, among other things, passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).

This document stipulated, among other safeguards, that the US would provide Taiwan with defensive arms and that the US would oppose any coercion to achieve unification.

Soon after, president Ronald Reagan, who was very favorably disposed to Taiwan and very popular with US voters, was elected president of the US.

At the same time, Taiwan was evolving into a democracy.

The "decent interval" looked like it might extend indefinitely, and Taiwan was proving rather difficult for the US to let go of, much to Beijing's annoyance.

Hence, the term "status quo" began to be used.

From Washington's point of view, this meant maintaining a balance between the two sides because the US had important interests in both.

In April 1999, at a conference held at the Fletcher School to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the TRA, Richard Bush, then the head of the American Institute in Taiwan, mentioned the US commitment to the status quo.

When I asked him for a definition of the term, Bush replied with a self-deprecating smile: "We haven't yet figured out how to operationalize the status quo."

In addition to US' inability to operationalize the status quo, even for itself, another fundamental problem is that at least three different opinions exist on the meaning of the status quo, one for each of the three main parties involved in the "Taiwan issue," which, as Taiwan sources frequently point out, really ought to be called the China issue.

For Beijing, the US defines the status quo as no use of force or threat to use force against Taiwan.

For Taipei, the US defines it as exercising prudence in managing all aspects of cross-strait relations.

For both China and Taiwan, the US defines the status quo as avoiding statements and actions that would unilaterally alter Taiwan's status.

The US does not support independence for Taiwan or unilateral moves that would change the status quo as Washington defines it.

Beijing defines the status quo as the existence of "one China" in the world, with Taiwan as part of it, with the capital in Beijing.

According to official Chinese sources, "reunification has not taken place yet" because of historical reasons, but this doesn't change, and will never change, the fact that both sides are part of China.

Taiwan's definition of the status quo is that the nation is a democratic and sovereign country that has the right to participate in international organizations such as the WHO and the UN.

The fact that Taiwan is a sovereign country is not negotiable for Taipei, which has its own opinions and will not compromise on some issues.

Hence there are three very different opinions on the status quo from three different entities, all of whom are plainly unhappy with the current situation.

The US is concerned because there is constant tension over the issue that complicates its relations with both sides and may lead it into war.

China is annoyed because it does not actually control Taiwan.

Taiwan is apprehensive because, although it can claim it has the right to participate in international organizations and enjoy the other attributes of sovereignty, it has proven very difficult to actually exercise many of these rights.

Because each of the three parties is unhappy to a greater or lesser degree with the current situation, each side keeps pushing unilaterally for changes.

The side that feels disadvantaged by these changes complains loudly that the status quo is being changed while the accused party replies that it has done nothing to change the status quo.

For example, the US' interactions with Taiwan are guided by an act of Congress, the aforementioned Taiwan Relations Act.

But this did not prevent the executive branch of the government from signing agreements with China that significantly differ from the TRA.

The most salient example is the Aug. 17, 1982, communique that, among other things, agreed to reduce the quantity and quality of arms sold to Taiwan.

The TRA, by contrast, had mandated that the US supply Taiwan with such defensive weapons as it needed to maintain a balance of power in the Taiwan Strait.

Another example is the 1994 review of policy toward Taiwan undertaken by the administration of former US president Bill Clinton.

It specifically excluded Taiwan's highest ranking officials, such as the president and vice president, from visiting the US except on transit stops that would have to be approved on a case-by-case basis.

This was definitely a change from the TRA.

So was the policy review's statement that the US would support Taiwan's membership in international organizations that do not require statehood: Section 4(d) of the TRA says "nothing in this act may be construed as a basis for supporting the exclusion or expulsion of Taiwan from membership in any international financial institution or any other international organization."

It mentions nothing about sovereignty as a precondition.

In the case of China, it has changed the status quo by, among other actions, carrying out a military modernization program that seems specifically targeted at an invasion of Taiwan.

This includes, among other things, deploying massive numbers of short-range missiles that are pointed at Taiwan, initiating an ambitious submarine enhancement program and significantly expanding its sea mining assets.

Beijing also passed an anti-secession law in March last year.

China said that this did not change the status quo and, given that Beijing has consistently refused to foreswear the use of force as a means to its goal of unifying with Taiwan, the PRC has a plausible case.

But Taiwan did not agree, and the US and the EU concurred with Taipei.

But the law was enacted anyway, with little consequence to China save that the EU postponed lifting the quasi-arms embargo it imposed after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.

As for Taiwan, President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) made a number of promises in his first inaugural address, one of which was that he would not abolish the National Unification Council.

However, in February, he announced that the Council's functions would cease.

There was a brief but heated debate about what ceasing the functions of the council meant. Analysts agreed this was weaker than "abolishing" the council but stronger than "freezing" or "suspending" it.

China and the US protested that this constituted a change in the status quo.

Chen said it was because the opposition party had cut the council's budget to such a low level that the organization could not afford to meet, and in fact it had not met in several years.

Therefore ceasing the council's functions could not be construed as a change in the status quo.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Chen's interpretation, the council has not met since his declaration.

Perhaps it has not quite been abolished, but neither is it quite in existence.

Moreover, none of the parties involved seems concerned when the status quo gets changed in a direction it likes.

There were no cries of protest from Beijing when the Taiwanese government, in 1991, gave up its claim to the right to administer the "mainland" or have the Chinese provinces represented in the Legislative Yuan in Taipei.

Also, in May last year, following statements by some Taiwan opposition party figures who said positive things about unification during meetings in Beijing, the Beijing Review observed that changes in the status quo in the direction of unification are actually a good thing.

June Teufel Dreyer is professor of political science at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida (this is part one of a two-part article. Part two will appear tomorrow).