Storm clouds continue to gather in East Asia and the South China Sea.
No one can be in any doubt now that China and the United States see each other as strategic rivals and are engaged in a geopolitical contest across the full spectrum of interstate relations. Whether the contest is viewed as one for primacy, parity or a new equilibrium of shared strategic space in the Pacific, the reality is the contest has been joined.
It is just as indisputable that the political, military, economic and even psychological balance of power has been shifting relentlessly to China’s net benefit and many Indo-Pacific countries have accommodated to this new normal.
The most recent consolidation by China was in asserting total control over Hong Kong. The next item on its geopolitical agenda is Taiwan. Beijing would like reunification to be achieved and the dust settled well before the centenary celebrations to mark the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. President Xi Jinping would like this to happen on his watch.
Beijing’s rule over Taiwan against its will would be a major strategic setback for the U.S. and its friends and allies in the region, and indeed for democracy in Asia. The shared commitment to democratic values, after all, is the primary justification for the Quadrilateral group, or the four major Indo-Pacific democracies that make up the informal grouping also known as the “Quad”: Japan, Australia, India and the United States.
How can China be deterred from using force to conquer and absorb Taiwan? Let’s look at two notable lessons of history.
Popular wisdom has it that the failure to include the Korean Peninsula in the Acheson Line contributed directly to the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. In his famous address at the National Press Club on Jan. 12, 1950, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson sketched the U.S. defense perimeter in the Pacific against the Sino-Soviet communist threat as running from the Aleutian Islands down to the Philippines and including Okinawa and Japan, but not Korea. This gave rise to the common, albeit contested, belief that Acheson effectively greenlighted the attack on South Korea.
Fast forward four decades and we have another example of the critical importance of accuracy and clarity in strategic signaling. In an interview on July 25, 1990, U.S. Ambassador April Gillespie told Iraqi President Saddam Hussein Washington had “no opinion” on “your border disagreement with Kuwait.” Regardless of whether Gillespie was conveying official policy or freelancing, the result was that instead of communicating an unambiguous deterrent threat against attacking Kuwait, Gillespie mistakenly signaled there would not be a strong U.S. military response if Iraq attacked its neighbor.
In recent times both Japan and the U.S. have signaled a determination to come to the defense of Taiwan if attacked. Richard Haass and David Sacks write in Foreign Affairs the time has come for the United States to embrace “strategic clarity” regarding Taiwan.
Ayumi Teraoka has argued that the changed historical and strategic contexts make it imperative for Japan and the U.S. to end ambiguity over Taiwan in order to bolster stability in the region. On July 5, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said Japan and the United States would have to help Taiwan in any serious contingency. Japan also broke from tradition in mentioning the importance of stability around Taiwan in its 2021 defense white paper.
Meanwhile, all persist with a “one China” policy that denies the empirical reality of Taiwan’s existence as an independent country. The legal fiction is buttressed with the pretense of maintaining only commercial relations with Taiwan as a province of China and excluding it from membership in key international organizations, including the United Nations.
The legal fiction may have passed its use-by date and become subject to the law of diminishing returns.
To start with, Taiwan’s history is one of mostly independent existence until the 15th century followed by episodic, periodic and extended periods of rule by a mainland dynasty interspersed, in the past 400 years, with the presence of Portuguese explorers, Spanish settlers, Dutch colonizers, Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945) and independent rule.
In 1945, defeated Japan ceded sovereignty over Taiwan, but to whom was not clarified and the U.S. has held Taiwan’s status as “undetermined.” Importantly, most countries at the 1951 San Francisco Peace Conference said its status was to be determined in accordance with the principles of self-determination enshrined in the U.N. Charter. Of course, Beijing has not exercised sovereignty over Taiwan in any form since the triumph of communism on the mainland in 1949.
The second important consideration is that Taiwan fully satisfies all criteria of a sovereign independent country with a government in effective control of territory, people and resources. Australia’s current population is around 26 million and Taiwan’s around 24 million. There are around 160 U.N. countries — over 80% of total membership — with a lower population.
The median population of U.N. member states is only around 6.5 million. Since the 1990s, Taiwan has been a vibrant democracy and an increasingly prosperous one. The IMF estimates Australia’s current GDP as $1.61 trillion, Japan’s as $5.37 trillion and Taiwan’s as $0.68 trillion (almost 20 times the world median). Using purchasing power parity (PPP) dollars, Taiwan’s GDP per capita ($56,959) is more than Australia ($54,891), the EU ($46,888) and Japan ($44,585).
Taiwan doesn’t help its cause by clinging to the “Republic of China” as its official name. It should formally call itself Taiwan. To prevent economic punishment of vulnerable single countries, the G7 collectively should grant it formal recognition and exchange full embassies.
Taiwan also qualifies for U.N. membership but unfortunately, a Security Council recommendation is required and China would veto any such effort. This does not preclude the General Assembly from adopting an annual resolution declaring that Taiwan is fully qualified to be a member state. Anything else is a stain on the U.N. and the longer the shameful status quo is allowed to continue the deeper the stain seeps into the U.N. body politic.
The word “timid” is embedded in “intimidation.” Countries have been timid and cowardly in being intimidated into a policy of appeasement. They worried that recognizing Taiwan would provoke an angry China into military action to invade and conquer Taiwan. The hope was that as China integrated into the global order, it would be socialized instead into the liberal norms and perhaps one day acknowledge Taiwan’s right to exist as an independent country if that was the people’s democratic choice.
Far from resolving Taiwan’s status, that has merely postponed the day of reckoning from the time when China was weak until it is formidably stronger. The price of any military confrontation will be correspondingly higher for outsiders today.
Paradoxically, however, China has much more to lose today from any military confrontation that would be a big setback to its economic stability and international reputation. The best way to raise the diplomatic costs of adventurism to China is to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state, grant it full diplomatic recognition and open full-fledged embassies on a reciprocal basis. Enough of equivocation and legal fictions.
Ramesh Thakur is an emeritus professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.
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