Making more explicit that which is viewed by many as an implicit understanding between China and the United States regarding the status of Taiwan would constitute a major step in defusing tensions between the two powers. The governments of both China and the United States have already shown considerable restraint in this matter, ignoring demands from Chinese who wish to use force to “reclaim” Taiwan as part of the mainland and from Americans who call for recognizing Taiwan as an independent nation. These measures of self-restraint should be made more explicit, by letting it be known that as long as China does not use force to coerce Taiwan to become part of the People’s Republic of China (as it did with Tibet), the United States will continue to refrain from treating Taiwan as an independent state.
True, the way Taiwan is treated is currently a much less pressing issue than settling the differences about the status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and other territorial matters concerning the South China Sea and the various re drawings of Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ) in the region. However, if one seeks to resolve simmering conflicts and to draw on such resolutions to build constructive relations between China and the United States based on mutually assured restraint – rather than containment or a Cold War-style arms race – clarifying the status of Taiwan could serve as a major step forward.
I recently asked eight experts on Taiwan whether there was an implicit understanding between China and the U.S. about the ways Taiwan should be treated. Five responded that there was no such understanding; two responded by saying that the answer to my question was not clear; and one held that indeed there was such an understanding. The range of their responses serves to verify that the issue surely could benefit from clarification. Indeed, it turns out that matter is far more complex than it may at first seem.
One scholar wrote, “You are correct that there is an implicit agreement between U.S. and China that China will not use military force to “reclaim” Taiwan. […] There is an implicit understanding between U.S. and Taiwan that should China invade Taiwan, the U.S. may intervene, partly to honor the fact that Taiwan has been an important ally in the Pacific Rim and partly to protect U.S. interests in the region.”
Another scholar, however, wrote, “I am not aware of any such implicit understanding. That is why the Taiwan issue remains such a sensitive issue in U.S.-China relations. Many assume that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if China attacked without provocation, but that it would not if Taiwan declared independence unilaterally. The U.S. [government] has never made clear what its policy actually is, if it indeed has a policy other than encouraging neither side to upset the status quo.” Note that after indicating that he is unaware of such an understanding, this expert outlines a key element of such an understanding. The fact that it is not “clear” and merely “many assume” is what others might view as an implicit understanding.
A third scholar’s response was still different. He held that “No, there is NO such implicit understanding on this between [China] and [the United States]. One wishes so, but it’s not the case. China has NEVER renounced the option of using force, if necessary, but in the 1982 Joint Communique did use language to the effect that it seeks ‘peaceful unification.’”
A fourth expert captured the ambiguities well, writing, “It is hard to say there is an implicit agreement because an agreement implies is it is more than just implicit! I think China would never acknowledge that there is such an agreement. They have not given up the right to use force to resolve the Taiwan problem. But since they have not used force to this end, you can argue that there is an implicit agreement. [It gets] rather circular[...] The position of the [United States] has always been that the Taiwan problem should be resolved peacefully with the consent of the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.” This scholar proceeded to note that “the United States ‘acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position’ [according to the Shanghai Communique]. This [is the] one China ‘principle’ in contrast to China’s one China ‘policy’ (more simply that Taiwan IS in fact part of ‘one China’). Implicit in this, though, is the understanding, expressed by various administrations[,] that the [United States] will not support a Taiwan declaration of independence.” He closed with the pregnant line, “So this might be seen as a basis for an implicit agreement. We oppose a declaration of independence; China forgoes the use of force.”
One may well ask whether it is not best to let sleeping dogs lie. One reason to clarify both sides’ policies is that hawks in both nations that use the cause of Taiwan to justify building up their respective military forces in an era in which capping these and focusing on economic, social, and environmental issues at home is needed by both nations. Thus, Daniel Twining from the Hoover Institution points out that aggressive Chinese military modernization is justified in part by the need to ready to reclaim Taiwan. A 2013 report to Congress from the Department of Defense concurs, stating, “Preparing for potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait appears to remain the principal focus and primary driver of China’s military investment.” In the same year China carried out a military exercise – Mission 2013B – in which the PLA simulated “a Normandy-style invasion” of Taiwan.”
In the United States, a leading expert of the Center for Naval Analysis Elbridge Colby warned that the not unfounded perception that the U.S. is becoming less capable of defending Taiwan is common in the U.S. as well as in Taiwan and China, and argues that maintaining a position of strength is critical to security for Taiwan and the region more broadly. A 2003 report from the Council on Foreign Relations examined China’s growing military power and held that “[minimizing the chances that a cross-strait crisis will occur] means maintaining the clear ability and willingness to counter any application of military force against Taiwan.”
True, even if the restraint both sides imposed on themselves (and on their respective hawks) is made more explicit, either side could violate it. However, the more explicit the agreement the less likely is that it will be subject to misunderstandings and the more likely it is to survive. It may well be impossible at this stage to turn the implicit understanding, such as there is – if there is one – into an explicit one; however, the more than it can be clarified and solidified, the more this important simmering point of conflict can be assuaged.
I am quite aware of the theories of the merits of “creative ambiguities”; they can enable one to squeeze extra leverage out of the relatively small amounts of power. In East Asia, however, they are much more likely to produce miscalculations and conflicts than significant gains.
Finally, reducing the tension on this issue would help to narrow the differences between the U.S. and China, especially if integrated into a more general policy of mutually assured restraint. That would encourage both states to focus on the many issues in which they have shared or complementary interests.
Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. He served as a senior adviser to the Carter White House and taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.