I was a bit startled last week when Legislative Yuan Speaker You Si-kun (游錫堃) suggested that the United States could extend official recognition to an independent Taiwan if China were to launch an invasion. While I think Speaker You is correct, I am not sure it is a helpful point of view. Naturally, there are contingency plans in Washington on diplomatic actions that could deter Chinese military action, but they contemplate the continuity of a democratic Taiwanese government that could survive offshore in exile if part or all of Taiwan is occupied by communist Chinese forces. China’s threat that “Taiwan independence means war” must, as Speaker You clearly argues, be confronted with the consensus of the international community that “War means Taiwan Independence.” He also correctly understands that creating such an international consensus relies on the diplomatic leadership of the United States. What Speaker You is not arguing is: “Hey, guys! I have an easy way to achieve independence.”
During the 1990s and the 2000s, the Clinton and Bush foreign policy teams were convinced that Taiwan’s leaders were trying to get the United States into a war with China in order to gain recognition of Taiwan’s independence. The Chinese secret services also effectively spread disinformation about Taiwan independence fanatics to sour President George W. Bush’s sentiments toward Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). This resulted in the so-called “strategic ambiguity” policy which supposedly left both Beijing and Taipei uncertain of America’s commitment to Taiwan. President Obama was never worried about President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) because Ma’s policies favored close ties with China. President Trump never worried about President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) because China’s behavior toward the US had become aggressive and hostile. President Tsai understands that the Biden Administration China strategy is still nascent and she values the trust the new administration has in her leadership.
That said, a military occupation of Taiwan by the People’s Liberation Army and various secret police arms — or the destruction of Taiwan’s infrastructure in a war — would be an unacceptable price to pay for “independence.” But if China precipitates a war, far better that an internationally recognized independent Taiwan become an expensive price China must pay for waging war.
Short of war, there are steps that the international community can take to bolster Taiwan’s international personality. The first is a consensus on Taiwan’s “unsettled” international status. The longer that consensus endures, the more likely a global consensus on “Taiwan’s sovereignty springs from its people” will emerge.
For the past seventy years, there has been a significant consensus among major players in the Indo-Pacific on Taiwan’s “unsettled” international legal status; unsettled in the sense that while the treaty of Shimonoseki confirmed the Manchu dynasty’s cession of Formosa to the Japanese Empire in 1895, no subsequent instrument of international law ever recognized Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. Just the opposite.
In 1945, Japan’s surrender, solemnized in a formal peace treaty, was intended to be that instrument. But when it finally emerged in the heat of the Korean War, the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 decided Taiwan must not be ceded to China. As British delegate Sir Kenneth Younger summarized the treaty: “We … came to the conclusion that the proper treatment of Formosa in the context of the Japanese peace treaty was for the treaty to provide only for renunciation of Japanese sovereignty.” The Treaty, he said, explicitly “provides for Japan to renounce its sovereignty over Formosa and the Pescadores Islands. The Treaty does not determine the future of these islands.”
This fact was at the base of a legal consensus among the Americans, Canadians, British, Australians and Japanese that Taiwan’s sovereignty remains unsettled and, moreover, that China cannot claim sovereignty over the Island or its people without their consent.
Fifty-six years later (and fourteen years ago) the issue came to a head. On August 13, 2007, the United States ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad met quietly with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to discuss several issues, one of which was “UN language on the status of Taiwan.”
Earlier in 2007, without consulting with the United States or any other Security Council members — except presumably China — Secretary General Ban issued a letter asserting under the terms of UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 of 1971 that “the United Nations considers Taiwan for all purposes to be an integral part of the People’s Republic of China.”
Alarmed, the US mission in New York promptly reminded Mr. Ban that the US had not voted for Resolution 2758 back in October 1971 and, further, that the resolution makes no mention at all of China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan.
The US mission delivered an ultimatum. If the UN “insists on describing Taiwan as a part of the PRC, or on using nomenclature for Taiwan that implies such status, the United States will be obliged to disassociate itself on a national basis from such position.” That threat meant that the United States was prepared to make public statements that formally repudiated any UN assertion that “Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China.”
Ambassador Khalilzad reported to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on August 14, 2007, that “Ban said he realized he had gone too far in his recent public statements, and confirmed that the UN would no longer use the phrase ‘Taiwan is a part of China’.” Khalilzad reported that, following the American lead, “Canada, too, demarched the UN and received the same commitment that the UN would no longer use this phrase. Australia had a similar low-level exchange with the UN’s Office of Legal Affairs (OLA).” Khalilzad noted also that “Japan met August 15 with OLA Assistant Secretary-General Larry Johnson, who confirmed that in his most recent correspondence on this matter replying to the correspondence from the Solomon Islands and Swaziland he had dropped the unhelpful phrase.”
In 2021, Taiwan’s “unsettled” international status remains at the center of Washington’s Taiwan policy.
Last November, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo explained to a radio audience, “it’s always important to get the language right. Taiwan has not been a part of China, and that was recognized with the work that the Reagan administration did to lay out the policies that the United States has adhered to now for three and a half decades...” One of the last acts of Pompeo’s State Department was to be the dispatch to Taipei of the US ambassador to the United Nations as a gesture of American support for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, but the transition to the Biden administration imposed budgetary and travel restraints and the ambassador’s visit was sidetracked.
This is not to say that the Biden Administration opposed Secretary Pompeo’s initiative. Just the contrary — a similar mission remains in the State Department’s toolbox of moves that could discourage Beijing aggressiveness. But the most optimistic scenario is that preserving a consensus that “Taiwan’s international status is unsettled” will deter the communist Chinese from actual attacks in the Taiwan Strait until such time as they establish military supremacy in the region.
Any international consensus that Taiwan’s “sovereignty belongs with the people of Taiwan,” as Speaker You Si-kun suggests, will not emerge until it is too late; until a war has already erupted. After that, it will depend on the durability of a legitimate Taiwanese government in exile offshore, and on the determination of the world’s democracies to keep that government alive until China itself is defeated. It is a strategy that worked for the occupied nations of World War II; for the Baltic States which emerged after fifty years of both World War II and the Cold War; and even for Timor-Leste, which survived for 25 years from the Indonesian occupation of 1975 through the collapse of the Indonesian dictatorship in 1999.
But for the Taiwanese people, the optimum outcome is to avoid a war with China until the Indo-Pacific community of democracies can re-establish sufficient regional military-naval supremacy to deter such a war. In the meantime, Taiwan must work to ensure that the international consensus on its “unsettled” status endures.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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