The US has gone on record as saying that it is in favor of a solution to the complex relationship between Taiwan and China that has the assent of the Taiwanese people, which would represent a change in the "status quo."
One problem is that US policymakers themselves often do not seem to know or remember what US policy is.
As a case in point, in the Shanghai Communique, the US simply acknowledged the People's Republic of China's (PRC) claim that all Chinese people on either side of the Taiwan Strait believe that there is only "one China," of which Taiwan is a part.
In addition to acknowledging -- rather than accepting the PRC's claim -- the phrase contains another bit of verbal evasion: It said nothing about the views of many Taiwanese who don't believe that they are Chinese, but whose existence the US drafters were well aware of.
However, in September 1994, Mike McCurry, who served as State Department spokesperson during the administration of former US president Bill Clinton, was asked if he considered Taiwan a part of China.
He replied: "Absolutely. That's been a consistent feature of our `one China' policy."
There was an uproar. The statement was retracted and replaced with a statement that the US acknowledged the PRC's position that there was only "one China."
A decade and a change in administration later, in October 2004, US President George W. Bush's Secretary of State Colin Powell said that Taiwan did not have sovereignty and spoke of the US desire for reunification.
Again there was an uproar.
Chagrined State Department officials explained that a jet-lagged Powell had "misspoken" and quickly replaced a revised transcript of his remarks on the department's Web site.
In other contexts, Powell misspoke differently: He referred to Taiwan as a state twice in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March 2001.
Amusingly, even former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, the architect of the "one China" policy, has sometimes slipped.
In a 1995 debate on William Buckley's Firing Line with Jason Hu (
Some US policymakers also seem confused by another bit of verbal trickery: The US position is that it does not support Taiwan independence. This is very different from saying that the US opposes independence. When verbal trickery tricks one's own officials, it may be time for clarification -- or at least better briefing.
The differences among joint communiques and documents allow a great deal of leeway in interpretation, creating opportunities for acrimonious reactions and dangerous situations.
For example, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently said that the three communiques which the US has signed with China acknowledge China's position that Taiwan is part of China, but added that the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) pledges the US to maintain Taiwan's capability to defend itself against a Chinese military attack.
"I say to the Chinese all the time, those are a package, they cannot be separated," Rice said.
Although these documents do not say the same things, Rice nonetheless admonished that "we must all abide by the package and not try to change the status quo."
The danger is that one side or another, acting on its understanding of the status quo, may decide on an action that is incendiary to another.
Within Taiwan, there are concerns that politicians may be manipulating the status quo's ambiguities for domestic political advantage in ways that could injure the country's international standing.
For example, the apparent frontrunner in Taiwan's 2008 presidential election, Ma Ying-jeou (
According to Ma, this would maintain the status quo and show Taiwan to be a responsible stakeholder.
An incensed ruling party spokesman then accused Ma of turning Taiwan's right to democratic self-determination into a bargaining chip.
He argued that the right of Taiwan's people to decide what political affiliation they want is not something that any politician can trade away, and that if, even worse, Ma and the KMT were to agree to this proposition, then nothing except an actual military attack against Taiwan could be interpreted as changing the status quo, no matter what kinds of pressure China put on Taiwan.
Taiwanese bloggers became similarly angry over a previous Ma use, or, as they felt, misuse, of the term "status quo."
One of them complained that it was just a trick to appeal to moderate voters who were opposed to the KMT's previously stated position of eventual unification, and to distance himself from the KMT's hard core, some of whom cling to the hope that their party will be able to take back the "mainland."
Another said: "Who knows what this [status quo] means?"
The answer sounds damn good as an excuse for doing what you want while sounding moderate.
This blogger may have arrived at a good definition for the "status quo" policy in general: It is an excuse for a country to do what it wants and sound moderate.
If the term "status quo" means so many things to so many people, maybe the US, Japan and the EU could agree that the term means "no use of force."
Maybe we could say that "status quo" has that minimal base or core meaning, so that, although the cross-strait problem has not been solved, adherence to even differentially defined concepts of the status quo could allow cross-Strait disputes to be managed.
I would argue that this wouldn't work because Beijing has a different strategy.
Beijing clearly sees that such international opposition to unification as exists states only that it is opposed to the actual use of force, and moreover says very little about what the consequences would be if force were used.
As a case in point, the European Commission report to the European Parliament in October said that policy should take account of the EU's opposition to any measure which would amount to a unilateral change of the status quo and its strong opposition to the use of force.
After the report was issued, I asked two questions of two European Commission specialists on east Asia.
First, I asked whether they saw the PRC's rapid military buildup as a violation of the status quo.
Their answer: China is prospering economically. Its natural that the PRC should want a more powerful military.
A reasonable translation of the gentlemen's statement would be that the commission does not think the arms buildup is anything to worry about.
My second question was that, given this military buildup and the PRC's various threats that it might have to effect unification by force, what would the EU's "strong opposition to force" mean in concrete terms?
The EU has no army and, given its many members, has had difficulty coming to any form of consensus on foreign policy and defense issues.
Would this "strong response" simply be a strongly worded statement saying "we are critical of Beijing's actions?"
The answer was noncommittal: "We would respond strongly."
WHAT IF ...
If I were the Beijing leadership, I would conclude that as long as the status quo seems to be interpreted as "no use of force," and that even if it used force, the consequences would be mild.
If I were the PRC's leaders, I would do more or less what they are doing now: continue the impressive military buildup that began in fiscal year 1989, further constrict Taiwan's international living space by wooing away its allies and refuse to allow it to participate in international organizations, even where sovereignty is not a prerequisite, such as the World Health Organization.
I would use the PRC's economy as a bargaining chip to persuade countries to agree to these and other further constraints on Taiwan's international activities, thereby allowing China to set the terms of discourse on Taiwan.
For example, when I suggested in Berlin recently that Germany might allow Taiwanese citizens to enter without visas, as Japan has already done, a horrified German employee of the US embassy replied: "But that might make China angry."
I would employ united-front techniques, such as inviting Taiwanese opposition politicians to visit and promising economic benefits to the people of Taiwan.
Most recently, Beijing has offered to purchase Taiwan's bananas, prompting the Taiwanese press to respond with sarcastic remarks about banana republics.
Certain Taiwan politicians could quietly be promised -- and perhaps already have been -- high-ranking positions within a Taiwan that is unified with the "mainland" in exchange for their cooperation.
A WEAK HAND
If these trends continue, at some point, faced with a hopeless military imbalance across the Strait, with its international presence dwindling to insignificance and a significant number of its politicians suborned, Taiwan would have to bargain for peace, and from a very weak hand.
This might be called the T.S. Eliot strategy: obtaining unification not with a bang, but a whimper. International admonitions to observe the status quo will not have been violated, since there will have been no use of force.
But a thriving democracy will have been delivered to a corrupt autocracy.
As Edmund Burke, a British philosopher much admired in the US, said: "All that is required for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing."
To briefly address the second point mentioned above, about the inevitability of change, it is generally understood that people and nations have to make changes or pass away. They must be able to adapt to both internal changes and those imposed by the external environment.
To quote Burke again: "A state without the means of some change is without the means of its own conservation."
As long as the international community chooses to allow the PRC to define unacceptable change, so that Taiwan is warned about holding a referendum, or to change a Constitution written in the mid-1940s for a government on the "mainland," while at the same time the PRC is given to understand that an arms buildup is natural and that fear of China's anger is sufficient reason for the global community's acquiescence in continuing restrictions on Taiwan's ability to function internationally, good men are doing nothing.
In essence, the status quo is being used as a pretext for a return to the "decent interval" that Henry Kissinger seems to have envisioned.
June Teufel Dreyer is a professor of political science at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida (this is part 2 of a two-part article. Part 1 appeared yesterday).
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