This week’s talks between Taipei and Beijing constitute a precedent and US policymakers should insist that China now work out its differences with Taiwan on a “government-to-government” basis, American Enterprise Institute (AEI) director of Asian studies Dan Blumenthal said.
“A key element of China’s Taiwan policy has been to isolate the island and get all countries to accept the Chinese position that Taiwan is not a country, but a province of China,” Blumenthal said in a new study.
However, now that Taiwan and China have conducted government-to-government talks, China has moved toward accepting Taiwan’s de facto independent status as a country with its own national government, Blumenthal said.
A former senior director for China and Taiwan at the US Department of Defense’s Office of International Security Affairs, Blumenthal said in his study that many widely held assumptions about Taiwan are faulty.
The first false assumption is that Taiwan and China are sure to unify at some point in the future, he said.
Far from it, Blumenthal said, Taiwan is “standing tall” as an independent democracy with an elected president, a legislature and a national military.
Nor will economics drive Taiwan into China’s arms, he added.
“As economic ties have expanded, Taiwanese feel an ever stronger sense of uniqueness,” Blumenthal said. “Close contact did not make the heart grow fonder.”
“The more contact the Taiwanese have with China, the more they feel different from the Chinese, including when it comes to the openness of their society and how modern and advanced Taiwan is compared with China,” Blumenthal said.
“The other issue is a generational shift as fewer Taiwanese feel a historical emotional attachment to China. Reunification is now only possible for Beijing if it chooses to start a war,” he added.
Taiwan is not dependent on China’s economy, Blumenthal said, adding that Taiwanese businesspeople are “arguably the most agile in Asia” who are quite capable of moving their investments to other countries such as Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia.
Another assumption that Blumenthal sought to dispel was that Taiwan would have the defense policy that Washington wants it to have.
“Actually, Taiwan will have the defense policy it wants,” he said. “If the US will not provide Taiwan with the defense capabilities it needs, it will likely develop more dangerous options [as it did in the 1980s].”
Lastly, Blumenthal said that it is a false assumption that the US would not act to help Taiwan.
“This may be the most dangerous assumption of all,” he said. “There is a sense of fatalism and defeatism combined with a notion that ‘unification is inevitable’ setting in among foreign and defense-policy observers in Washington and around the world.”
Some experts argue that Taiwan is indefensible and that the US will not risk its relations with China over Taiwan.
“But there is a credible argument that Washington gets into conflicts because potential adversaries underestimate US willingness to abide by its commitments,” he said.
Blumenthal concluded that if China started a war over Taiwan, all previous assumptions would be quickly dispatched, and fear, anxiety, emotion, a president’s calculation over vital interests and allied concern would set in.
“It would be a mistake for China in particular to read too much into seeming US complacency now,” he said. “If Taiwan is under coercive threat, all calculations change.”