There’s no relationship between two countries on Earth quite like that between the United States and Taiwan. The island nation is America’s ninth-largest trading partner and one of the main global customers for U.S. arms exports. As containing China’s regional ambitions has become a guiding aim of U.S. policy in East Asia, the defense of Taiwan, with its strategically vital location, has only grown in importance. As a now-consolidated democracy, Taiwan enjoys strong bipartisan support in Washington, and its remarkably successful handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has only boosted its public image.
But for all that support, official U.S. policy does not recognize Taiwan as an independent nation.
The Chinese government in Beijing considers the island part of its own territory and does not recognize the legitimacy of the modern nation of Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China. The nation dates back to 1949, when Chinese nationalists fled the mainland after losing a war with Mao Zedong’s communists.For decades after its founding, the Taiwanese government was recognized by the U.S. as the legitimate government of all of China, and it held China’s seat on the U.N. Security Council. That changed in 1979, when Jimmy Carter’s administration normalized relations with the People’s Republic of China and severed diplomatic ties with the Taiwanese government.
That year, it became the official U.S. position that “the Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” Every administration has nominally adhered to the so-called one China policy since then. Rather than an official embassy, a nonprofit known as the American Institute in Taiwan represents U.S. interests in Taipei. This is a strange and hypocritical arrangement, but one that has benefited both the U.S. and Taiwan. Taiwan has maintained its de facto independence—unlike in Hong Kong or Macao, Taiwanese citizens and institutions are mostly free from Beijing’s influence—and recent decades have brought a transition to democracy and rising prosperity. The U.S., meanwhile, has been able to maintain a valuable alliance while avoiding a military confrontation with another nuclear-armed superpower. The question is how long this unusual arrangement can last.
Last week brought an alarming reminder of the stakes. On two consecutive days, 15 Chinese warplanes, including eight bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons, entered Taiwan’s air defense identification area, a no-go zone that, while not recognized by international law, the Chinese military had respected for years. Taiwan’s air force responded on Tuesday by scrambling jets for a simulated war scenario. A spokesman for China’s ministry of defense issued a sharp statement, declaring, “We warn those ‘Taiwan independence’ elements: those who play with fire will burn themselves, and ‘Taiwan independence’ means war.”
“This was a way to intentionally provoke the security situation,” says Tan Sun Chen, a former foreign minister of Taiwan. “China is trying to test the waters of the real intentions of the U.S. government, to see how strongly they support Taiwan.”
The Trump administration broke from the status quo on Taiwan early on. During the previous presidential transition in 2016, Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen—the first direct conversations between the leaders of the two countries since the 1970s. (More problematic than the call itself was the fact that Trump seemed to have gone into it with no preparation or awareness of the risks involved.) Over the years, the Trump administration approved major arms sales to Taiwan, including missile systems that pushed the long-standing policy of selling the island “defensive” weapons to the limit. Senior administration officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, visited Taipei in a show of support at a time when the U.S. was casting blame for the global pandemic on the Chinese government. In his final days in office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lifted long-standing restrictions on contact between officials of the two governments. A long-touted trip by Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft had been scheduled for Trump’s final weeks in office but was ultimately canceled amid the chaos of the Biden-Trump transition. All in all, the Trump administration worked out well for Taipei’s aspirations to normalize its ties to Washington. As with much of the administration’s policy, the president himself was probably less interested in the issue than his advisers. According to former National Security Adviser and staunch Taiwan backer John Bolton, Trump would frequently point to the tip of one of his Sharpies and say, “This is Taiwan,” then point to the Resolute Desk and say, “This is China.”
Pompeo’s moves “pushed Taiwan to the top of the agenda Beijing will want to raise with the new administration,” says Ryan Hass, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Chinese leaders presumably want Biden to reverse Pompeo’s move to loosen the restrictions on U.S.-Taiwan official contacts. Hass suspects the new administration is more likely to seek a middle ground. “Countermanding or disavowing Pompeo’s announcements would set the U.S.-Taiwan relationship off on an uncomfortable footing. Fully embracing them invites a fair bit of risk for managing the most sensitive issue in America’s foreign policy portfolio,” he says. This could mean a review of current policy and perhaps some changes around the edges.
There are already some signs the new administration will be a tad bolder on Taiwan than previous administrations. While Biden himself did not speak with Tsai during his transition, Secretary of State Antony Blinken did shortly after the election. Taiwan’s de facto ambassador in Washington was also invited to Biden’s inauguration, the first time this has happened since 1979. Biden himself is a long-standing Taiwan backer—he voted for the Taiwan Relations Act, which defines U.S. support for the country, all the way back in 1979.
In response to China’s aerial incursion last week, State Department spokesperson Ned Price issued a statement urging China to “cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan” and affirming that “our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.”
The dark question hanging over U.S. Taiwan policy is the question of what the U.S. would do if China actually tried to take over Taiwan by force. While Taiwan has gotten less media attention than other Asian flashpoints like North Korea and the South China Sea in recent years, an invasion could be a nightmare scenario that should be taken seriously, if only because it’s the most likely place where the two most powerful countries in the world would go to war.
The Taiwan Relations Act states that any threat to Taiwan is a “grave concern to the United States” and that in the event of such a threat, “The President and the Congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States.” This is pretty vague, and some say it doesn’t go far enough.
In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and research fellow David Sacks called for the U.S. to abandon its long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to Taiwan’s defense and explicitly state that it would come to Taiwan’s defense, in order to deter any thoughts from China of launching an attack.
The problem with such a policy of “strategic clarity” is that it would put Tsai in a position of having to pursue independence more aggressively. Tsai is a member of the Democratic Progressive Party, which is often referred to as the more “pro-independence” of the country’s two main political parties. Taiwan is already de facto independent, but it has not formally declared independence under the name Taiwan, which would likely provoke an aggressive response from China. The convenient fiction that the Taiwanese government is the “Republic of China” allows Taiwan to have its cake and eat it too: It’s for all intents and purposes a separate country but doesn’t call itself one.
This delicate state of affairs means that seemingly inconsequential matters such as whether “Republic of China” or “Taiwan” is printed larger on the country’s passports draws intense global scrutiny.
“The thing about Tsai Ing-wen is that she’s very moderate when it comes to issues of sovereignty,” says Margaret Lewis, a professor of law and China specialist at Seton Hall University and visiting scholar at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica. “Taiwan is in a challenging position because it doesn’t want to end up as a pawn between Beijing and D.C.”
Tsai has sought to bolster Taiwan’s global profile, maintain its few remaining formal diplomatic relationships, and seek membership in multilateral organizations. And she certainly sought to press Taiwan’s advantage as far as possible during the Trump years. But she’s also carefully avoided doing anything that could be seen as a move toward full independence.
A formal defense pact with the U.S. could raise pressure on her from her party’s nationalist base to be bolder. A future president, such as Tsai’s rival-turned–Vice President William Lai, could take a more aggressive approach toward independence.
What are China’s actual future intentions for Taiwan? “The goal is really to convince the people of Taiwan that they have no choice but to unify with China and that the United States can’t save them. It’s part of a psychological campaign,” says Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Unfortunately for Beijing, the political trends are headed in the wrong direction for them. About two-thirds of Taiwanese no longer identify as Chinese, according to a recent poll. China’s recent crackdown on dissents in Hong Kong only solidified Taiwanese opposition to rule from Beijing under a “one country, two systems” arrangement. Tsai even used footage from Hong Kong in her campaign ads.
If China’s carrots don’t work, the stick may eventually become inevitable, though likely not in the short term. While sources like the ultranationalist state-run tabloid Global Times often threaten Taiwan with violence, Xi Jinping himself has been slightly more cryptic. In a 2019 speech, Xi said that the Taiwan conflict “cannot be dragged on generation after generation” and that resolving it is “a must for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Since Xi has said this great rejuvenation should be achieved by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, some have interpreted that as a deadline for reunification. That doesn’t necessarily mean it would happen by force—Xi said that “peaceful unification” was still the preferred option—and he can afford to bide his time as long as Taiwan refrains from pursuing full-fledged independence.
But you don’t have to look very far to see how these tensions can quickly escalate into a crisis. It’s happened before. In 1995, against the wishes of the Bill Clinton administration but with strong support from Congress, Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui traveled to the United States to attend a reunion at his alma mater, Cornell, where he made a speech using the politically fraught term “Republic of China on Taiwan.” China responded with two days of missile tests just 100 miles north of Taiwan and by redeploying forces to coastal areas facing the island. More military drills and test firings followed, with China hoping to influence the 1996 Taiwanese election. The U.S. then sent an aircraft carrier group through the Taiwan strait in December 1995 and deployed a second one to the area in 1996—at the time, the biggest display of U.S. military power in Asia since the Vietnam War. While the situation eventually quieted down, Secretary of State Warren Christopher later recalled feeling that “a simple miscalculation or misstep could lead to unintended war.”
The White House declined to comment for this article, but in all likelihood, the Biden administration will continue to quietly back Taiwan without the fireworks of the Trump years. There are even some opportunities to go further: Haass notes that “The Trump administration for all their enthusiastic support of Taiwan, moved the ball forward absolutely zero on trade.” Politically, we’re likely to see the administration continue arms sales and statements of support while carefully monitoring and controlling official contacts between the two governments. The administration may also continue to lobby other countries and organizations to maintain ties with Taiwan in spite of Beijing’s pressure campaign, though those entities could say they are making the same calculation the U.S. made in 1979. The administration will seek to preserve the ambiguity—hypocrisy if you’re feeling ungenerous—that has long characterized U.S.-Taiwan relations.
Geopolitics abhors ambiguity and sooner or later the U.S. position will stop being sustainable. If the Biden team is lucky, it won’t happen on their watch.
Update, Feb. 4, 2021: This article has been updated to clarify the origins of Taiwan.