The Crossroads in the Cross-Strait Relationship
September 2021 | Jonathan Banishan
The tripartite relationship between the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, and the United States has undergone considerable transformation since the Taiwan Relations Act was signed in 1979. Over the last decade, deteriorating relations between mainland China and the United States, coupled with growing alignment between the United States and democratic Taiwan, has brought the long-smoldering struggle between Beijing and Taipei to the brink of conflagration. The annual Preventive Priorities Survey, conducted by the Council on Foreign Relations, lists Taiwan as a “Tier 1” conflict at risk of escalation in 2021.
Even as the United States formalized ties with the PRC in 1979, strong bipartisan Congressional support ensured lasting commercial and security aid to the ruling authority in Taiwan that endures to this day. However, Beijing continues to define Taiwan as part of its territory and a “core interest.” In Taiwan, the mainland’s recent exertion of control over Hong Kong through a new national security law has led to the forceful rejection by the Taiwanese of a similar unification arrangement. This impasse leaves international intervention as one of the few remaining options to maintain Taiwan’s autonomy and prevent forced reunification into the PRC.
The Trump administration intensified outreach to Taiwan, but remained largely within the limits set by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act - part of the policy corpus that established America’s flexibility in engaging with both the PRC and Taiwan. While still too early to determine, indications from the Biden administration signal commitment to a fundamental realignment of the United States’ relationship vis-à-vis Taiwan and the PRC. It seems likely that this realignment will follow in the spirit, if not the substance, of the Trump administration’s efforts. Implementation of such a policy shift will lock the United States and PRC into competition for the foreseeable future. Answering the question of Taiwan’s sovereignty, peacefully or otherwise, is a potential consequence. The interaction of all these factors creates an atmosphere of uncertainty in the Taiwan Strait. Considerable effort will be required to prevent the worst outcomes.
THE VIEW FROM THE STRAITS
The cross-Strait relationship between the PRC and Taiwan is anchored by a question of authority. Following defeat in 1949 to the Chinese Communist Party and the establishment of the PRC, the U.S.-backed Republic of China (ROC) retreated to Taiwan. While neither side could make meaningful gains to take back territory, both considered themselves the legitimate authority over all of China. This dynamic established the status quo.
While both Taipei and Beijing remain firmly entrenched in their positions, periods of détente have occasionally bloomed. The most recent highwater mark was the 2015 Ma-Xi meeting between President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan and President Xi Jinping of the PRC. It was the first such meeting between the PRC and ROC leadership since the end of the Chinese Civil War. Each maintained that a peaceful resolution to shared problems and the continued development of cross-Strait peace were mutual priorities. However, this placatory approach toward the mainland by President Ma contributed to his growing unpopularity, along with that of his party, the Kuomintang. In Taiwan’s 2016 presidential election, independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ing-Wen won the presidency, and her party control of the legislature.
Since the election, PRC rhetoric and actions toward Taiwan have sharpened. In his January 2019 address commemorating the 40th anniversary of the PRC’s shift to peaceful attempts at reconciliation, President Xi explicitly reserved the right to use force, if necessary, to prevent Taiwanese independence and ensure reunification with the PRC. Militarily, the PRC has increasingly engaged in signaling actions that reinforce its position on reunification.
In the past, Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) has been observed by the PRC. ADIZ refers to an unofficial international practice of creating buffer airspace regions that allow countries to manage air traffic before entering territorial airspace.. Until recently, Taiwan’s ADIZ had not been penetrated intentionally by PRC air forces since 1999. However, in 2019, an intentional crossing was recorded. These intentional penetrations then increased dramatically throughout 2020, with intrusions in June occurring “almost every day.” This trend continues in early 2021, a concerning development.
China’s actions in Hong Kong have also fueled mistrust in Taiwan. Previously governed under the “one country, two systems” model, China’s crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong has fueled a drastic decline in public support in Taiwan. Pew Research polling from 2019 shows that 61 percent of respondents have unfavorable views of mainland China, with 60 percent opposed to closer political relations. Between political realignments and security concerns, the cross-Strait relationship has deteriorated precipitously, bringing increased risk to the region.
AMERICA-TAIWAN RENEWAL UNDER PRESIDENT TRUMP
When the United States switched diplomatic recognition to the PRC in 1979, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, providing for continued U.S. support to Taiwan’s security needs and allowing for the possibility of U.S. intervention in the event of forced reunification. President Reagan’s Six Assurances in 1982 provided guidelines for conducting relations with Taiwan on an unofficial basis. Taken as a whole, these constitute the Taiwanese elements of the U.S.’ ‘One China’ policy. Defined by strategic ambiguity, this approach supports a de facto independent Taiwan while maintaining normalized relations with the PRC.
While the ‘One China’ policy has served as the foundation of U.S. engagement, President Trump’s administration made substantive moves that indicated a shift before he even assumed office. One of the first calls the President-elect received was on December 2, 2016 from ROC President Tsai, the first engagement at that level since the United States ended diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. In a subsequent interview with Fox News, President-elect Trump even questioned whether to observe the ‘One China’ policy at all. This incident presaged the Trump administration’s realignment toward greater support for Taiwan and a hardening against China.
This stance was clearly articulated in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. The Department of Defense’s periodic assessment reoriented priorities from terrorism to great power competition, with China as a principal competitor. This message was reinforced in a State Department document that articulated America’s position regarding a free and open Indo-Pacific where Chinese actions were characterized as repressive, brutal, aggressive, and toward Taiwan, bullying.
Support for Taiwan’s material defense dovetailed closely with this new vision. Previous administrations sought minimal visibility and attempted to avoid particularly sensitive sales. Under both the Bush and Obama administrations, Taiwan attempted to procure new F-16 C/D aircraft in order to replace their aging A/B inventory. Throughout both administrations, the request was never explicitly rejected, but also never approved. President Obama’s best offer in 2011 included only upgrades to Taiwan’s existing inventory.
The Trump administration approved the sale of 66 F-16 C/D aircraft in 2019 for USD 8 billion, one of the largest to Taiwan in the history of Foreign Military Sales (FMS). Overall, FMS to Taiwan in the Trump administration provided more than USD 16 billion of high-end equipment. In comparison, USD 14 billion was provided during the Obama administration. With more than USD 11 billion in sales in Fiscal Year 2020, Taiwan was the recipient of the largest amount of FMS among all FMS partners. Additionally, Taiwan will be among the first recipients of the MQ-9 unmanned aircraft system after the administration’s reinterpretation of the Missile Technology Control Regime. Thus, the Trump administration showed a strong willingness to flout the measured approach that was the hallmark of prior administrations.
Efforts to intensify U.S.-Taiwan relations persisted into the final days of the Trump administration. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar conducted a visit to Taiwan in August 2020, becoming the highest-level visit by a U.S. cabinet official since the end of diplomatic recognition. On January 9, 2021, Secretary of State Pompeo summarily lifted self-imposed contact restrictions on meeting with Taiwanese counterparts, erasing decades of guidelines that previously regulated the State Department’s interactions with Taiwan.
The end result of the significant ramping up of relations with the United States has been an increase in Taiwanese expectations of U.S. involvement. The 2020 Taiwan National Security Survey, conducted 13 times since 2002 by the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University, under the auspices of the Asian Security Studies Program at Duke University, highlights this particular trend. Notably, 53.2 percent of respondents in Taiwan now believe that the United States would come to Taiwan’s protection in the event of a declaration of independence, and 60 percent in the event of an unprovoked attack. The enhanced ties have fed increasing expectations for U.S. intervention in the event of a crisis.
PRESIDENT BIDEN AT THE CROSSROADS
While many in Taiwan anticipated slight distancing with the United States as a result of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, it appears that President Biden will retain the previous administration’s approach to confrontation with the PRC and engagement with Taiwan. For his part, President Biden broke a norm established following the severing of U.S.-Taiwan ties in 1979 by inviting the head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office to his inauguration. In his first telephone call with President Xi, he emphasized the preservation of a free and open Indo-Pacific and raised concerns about China’s actions around Taiwan.
President Biden’s Cabinet appointments have exemplified this continuation. During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that Trump was fundamentally right in his approach to China, though not his methods, and that support for Taiwan would continue. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin emphasized during his confirmation that China was a primary threat to American security interests in the region and that he would continue to support Taiwan’s defense capabilities.
The most visible of the Biden administration’s foreign policy commitments to Taiwan is its inclusion in the Summit of Democracies, a call for a gathering to “renew the spirt and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” During his confirmation hearing, Secretary Blinken gave a ringing endorsement of Taiwan and called it a “model of democracy.” In his first hearing with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, he promised Taiwan’s inclusion in the summit along with a bilateral trade agreement. Conversely, the U.S. relationship with the PRC shows continued degradation. In what may be a prescient moment, acrimony was on public display in the recently concluded Anchorage summit. In their opening remarks, the American and Chinese delegations took turns excoriating each other. The blistering exchanges indicate that competitiveness and confrontation remain the operative approaches.
The Biden administration inherited strategic ambiguity with sharpened edges defined by worsening conditions in the cross-Strait relationship, strategic realignment against mainland China, and an amplification of ties with Taiwan. It seems poised to retain those edges. Ultimately, President Trump’s administration reoriented U.S. policy towards competitive alignment against China. One of the primary drivers was strengthened ties with Taiwan. While there will be opportunities to cooperatively engage with the mainland, a competitive approach seems to be the default. As a result, the Biden administration’s approach to the tripartite relationship will not be a difference of posture, but process.
It is still too early to determine whether or not strategic ambiguity is no longer in the United States’ interest. A more defined policy means fewer options and increased risk of confrontation without careful stewardship. If trends continue, there may be a time soon approaching when the cross-Strait conflict will blaze anew.
Jonathan Banasihan is a recent graduate of American University's School of International Service. His research interests include U.S. national security and foreign policy in East Asia.
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