Taiwan's Fate Is Sealed

Taiwan will become a de facto (and not just de jure) part of China--the only question is how

Taiwan's chances of becoming a fully independent state are essentially nill. The island is currently only recognized by a very few countries as an independent state. For most of the world, then, Taiwan is already a de jure (by law) part of China. Taiwan is de facto sovereign, however, deciding over all its own affairs. The United States has taken it upon itself to protect this state of affairs. In a series of communiques during the 1970s, the United States agreed that there was only one China and that Taiwan was part of China. The catch for China is that both it and the US agreed that neither Taiwan nor China was to decide on a change in the status quo between Taiwan and China unilaterally or by force. This means that the US cannot support Taiwanese de jure independence, but that China would theoretically be barred from "reunifying" Taiwan with the mainland by force. As long as everyone sticks to the bargain, things are OK, even if they are quite messy from an international relations or international law viewpoint.

The thing is, China expects unification with Taiwan to occur eventually and does not seem willing to wait forever for this to happen: "In 2005 China passed the Taiwan Anti-Secession Law, which commits it to a military response should Taiwan ever declare independence or even if the government in Beijing thinks all possibility of peaceful unification has been lost" (The Economist, Apr 7 2012). This seems to be rather close to violating those communiques, since the latter part, at least, would be a unilateral Chinese move toward unification. On the other hand, the US was supposed to slowly reduce its arms sales to Taiwan over time--it has not. As is distressingly often the case in international politics, a tiny political entity has the power to set a frightening chain of events into motion.

What if Taiwan were to declare independence? This came close to happening under Taiwan's President Chen in 2002, when he declared that there was "one country on either side of the Taiwan Strait."1 Disaster was averted, however, when US President Bush began to reign Chen in, making it clear that the US's stance on unilateral changes to Taiwan's status applied to Taiwan as well as China.

The people of Taiwan eventually voted Chen out, partly out of fear that his loose talk could prompt a Chinese attack. Fear that China would attack and clear signals from Washington that the US would not back Taiwan if it declared independence should be enough to prevent it from doing so. (At least, I hope those signals from Washington are clear!)

But what happens if China decides that "all possibility of peaceful unification has been lost" and decides to forcefully annex Taiwan? At the moment, this still seems unlikely due to the US's power in the region. But China is increasing its capabilities in its backyard quite quickly. It's not a case of China needing to achieve military parity with the US. It's only a case of being able to defend itself against a US attack on its immediate coastal area including Taiwan. That is considerably easier than achieving parity. Would the US really be able, or willing, to stand up against China for the sake of Taiwan?

The US policy on the topic is "strategic ambiguity," which basically means it says it could get pissed off about a number of things, it just won't tell anyone what things would lead to which responses. The advantage of this is flexibility and the belief that this uncertainty will make the Chinese wary of provoking the US. What it actually is, in my view, is a way for the US to prevent admitting that it could not stop China from taking Taiwan if the former really wanted to, especially if China decides to do this in, say, 10 years or so when its capabilities will have grown much greater. The US is a long way from Taiwan, but China's entire military force could easily and quickly be brought to bear on the island. Over the medium to long term, there is little the US could do to stop such an occurrence. "Strategic ambiguity" is a sponginess that allows the US to convince all parties that they will get what they want and deserve, while knowing full well that this is impossible.

1.Dumbaugh, Kerry. “CRS Report for Congress.” Federation of American Scientists. 20 April 2007. 14 Jun. 2008 <http://ftp.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33684.pdf> cited in Kirchofer, Charles. “U.S. Foreign Policy and Interests Reharding Tensions in the Taiwan Strait”. Webster University, Vienna, July 10, 2008. http://www.english4you.biz/papers/taiwan.pdf.


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