Ever since the US ended diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC) and recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1979, a move followed by the passage of the US’ Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) in April that year, Washington’s policy on Taiwan has consistently been that its future cannot be determined through the use of force by China.
The diplomatic relationship with Beijing, the TRA reads, “rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means [and that] any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes” would be “of grave concern” to the US.
This remains Washington’s official line on the Taiwan Strait, which was reinforced by the fifth article of the “Six Assurances” to Taiwan issued in July 1982, stating: “The United States would not alter its position about the sovereignty of Taiwan … that the question was one to be decided peacefully.”
Attendant to this formulation has been Washington’s reliance on ambiguity through the so-called “status quo,” which on the one hand is contingent on Beijing not using force against Taiwan, and on the other on Taipei refraining from doing anything — adopting a new Constitution, moving toward de jure independence, and so on — that would undermine that stability.
For three decades, this strategy appears to have been wise, for aside from the Missile Crisis of 1995 and 1996 and occasional violations of Taiwanese airspace by Chinese military aircraft, the Taiwan Strait has not descended into war and both sides remain de facto separate entities.
Despite this, however, the Taiwan problem has not disappeared. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the “status quo” is dynamic, which undeniably works in Beijing’s favor. Not coincidentally, Beijing has adopted a course of non-confrontation with the US, knowing full well that even after a decade of double-digit investment in its military, it could not wage war against the US and expect to win.
Rather than escalate military tensions in the Taiwan Strait, therefore, Beijing has sought rapprochement with Washington and is biding its time with Taiwan while adopting an asymmetrical approach to its annexation.
As stated earlier, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), though far more formidable today than it was a decade ago, is no match for the US military and will not be for some time. As scenarios involving the invasion of Taiwan would invite US intervention on Taiwan’s side, PLA demonstrations of force in the past decade have mostly emphasized political maneuvering and avoided actions that risk escalating tensions with the US.
Rather than seeking unification with Taiwan through force, therefore, Beijing has avoided crossing the red lines drawn by the TRA and other agreements with the US, instead embarking on a strategy that, in the past year in particular, has proven most successful.
In financial terms, it is a strategy that can be likened to a hostile takeover.
The US — which has set its red lines in military terms — has been caught wrong-footed, because Beijing is exploiting a weakness in the TRA. It states: “Nothing … shall contravene the interest of the United States in human rights, especially with respect to the human rights of all the approximately eighteen million [now 23 million] inhabitants of Taiwan. The preservation and enhancement of the human rights of all the people on Taiwan are hereby reaffirmed as objectives of the United States.”
What happens if China’s absorption of Taiwan by economic means — a prospect that gained considerable momentum after President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) came into office in May last year — becomes the determinant of Taiwan’s future?
This strategy is “peaceful” inasmuch as it does not involve the use of military force. But by relying on a pliant KMT that has been unresponsive to public fears about the wisdom and rapidity of its cross-strait policies, does this approach not deprive Taiwanese of their most fundamental right to self-determination? This is the desired outcome for top Chinese officials, who have openly admitted that cross-strait economic liberalization is a stepping-stone to unification — rhetoric that has not disappeared despite warmer relations between Taipei and Beijing.
There are clear indications that the proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA), which could be signed as early as next year, together with memorandums of understanding on financial matters, would make Taiwan dependent on China for its economic survival. It is a view that is shared by both the pro-independence pan-green camp and a growing number of moderates in the pan-blue camp.
Furthermore, even if critical sectors such as telecommunications and defense remain off-limits for the time being, by opening up to Chinese institutional investment, the Ma administration is making it possible for China — with its vast economic resources, most of which remain under state control — to elbow local rivals out of key sectors such as real estate, banking, manufacturing and agriculture. If, as is often the case, Chinese firms are controlled by — or receive financial backing from — the state, then their entering the Taiwanese market will create a situation in which Taiwanese firms will be simply unable to compete.
The more Taiwanese lose control of their financial institutions and companies, and the more dependent Taiwan becomes on China for trade, the less power Taiwanese will have to determine their future. Yet this is occurring as opposition to unification and support for the “status quo” steadily rises, together with the public’s identification as “Taiwanese” or “Taiwanese first and Chinese second.” It is a juxtaposition that sows the seeds of conflict.
While it could be argued that Taiwanese voted Ma into office on his pro-China platform, few predicted that he would proceed to liberalize cross-strait trade so quickly, or act like a dictator when it comes to dissenting views or calls for caution on cross-strait policy.
Perhaps this gradual shift in the “status quo” was what Washington hoped for all along: a means to avoid getting involved in a costly war with China. Others saw the US’ embrace of the “status quo” as a way of maintaining Washington’s image as a champion of democracy while sweeping the Taiwan problem under the carpet.
More likely, however, is the possibility that China has outwitted the drafters of the TRA and subsequent US policies on the Taiwan Strait by employing an asymmetrical approach that skirts the military content embedded in the document altogether.
If the US remains committed to democracy and to the spirit of the values enshrined in the TRA, a re-evaluation of the meaning of “status quo” and of the implications of “non-violent” developments that threaten to deprive Taiwanese of their rights would be in order.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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