Commentary

Conflicting Conceptions of the Taiwan Status Quo

China reacted with anger and dismay when the U.S. State Department criticized the anti-secession law recently passed by the National People’s Congress. Chinese officials protested that, contrary to U.S. complaints, the new law did not change the status quo regarding Taiwan. Indeed, they insisted that the legislation reinforced the status quo.

The Chinese are probably sincere. Yet that sincerity underscores a larger — and potentially very dangerous — problem regarding the Taiwan issue. Beijing, Taipei, and Washington all insist that they oppose any unilateral action that alters the status quo, but the three capitals interpret the status quo in vastly different ways. That creates considerable potential for misunderstanding and mutual recrimination — or worse.

When U.S. officials speak of the status quo, they mean a willingness by all parties to tolerate indefinitely Taiwan’s ambiguous political status. In other words, the island should continue to enjoy its de facto independence (but not internationally recognized legal independence) until Taipei and Beijing can agree on a peaceful resolution of the dispute.

That rationale enables Washington to acknowledge Beijing’s position that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China while continuing to sell arms to Taiwan and maintain an implicit commitment to defend the island against a Chinese military assault. Taiwan’s attempts to push the envelope regarding independence are considered disruptive and undesirable, but so too is any attempt by China to compel reunification. That is why the United States has explicitly admonished both capitals in the past year about their behavior.

The People’s Republic of China has a radically different definition of the status quo. As one Chinese official put it, “the status quo of the cross-straits relations is that both sides of the [Taiwan] Straits belong to one and the same China.” He added that it is “a status quo not defined by other countries such as the United States, nor by the Taiwan leaders.”

To Beijing, the status quo is a synonym for a one-China policy and Taiwan’s eventual reunification with the mainland. Anything that challenges the concept of one China is, therefore, an unacceptable attempt to alter the status quo. Thus, from the perspective of Chinese leaders, the anti-secession law is not disruptive; it merely re-emphasizes the only acceptable political outcome: reunification. Conversely, even the mildest actions by Taiwan to gain international recognition for the Republic of China (the official name of the Taiwanese government) are a threat to the status quo and must be resisted at all costs.

Taiwan’s concept of the status quo is exactly the opposite of the PRC’s. Taiwanese officials routinely argue that the status quo means Taiwan’s independence. They point out that the Republic of China has been in existence since 1912, and that at least some countries in the world (at present, fewer than 30 mostly small nations) still recognize the ROC as an independent state.

As supporting evidence for the proposition that the status quo means an independent Taiwan, one official stressed that since 1996, Taiwan has held fully democratic elections “within specified boundaries by specified citizens for a government exercising exclusive control over a territory.”

Reunification with China, according to Taipei, is only one possible outcome among many to be negotiated by the governments of two independent and equal states. From Taiwan’s perspective, the new anti-secession law is an aggressive and threatening attempt by Beijing to alter the status quo, while Taiwanese efforts to secure international recognition by joining the United Nations and other international organizations are consistent with the status quo.

Unfortunately, officials in Beijing, Taipei, and Washington do not seem to grasp that they have very different concepts in mind when they all speak of preserving the status quo. Serious diplomatic quarrels and even armed conflicts have begun over less significant misunderstandings. That danger is becoming acute with regard to the Taiwan issue.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author or editor of 17 books on international affairs. His next book, America’s Coming War With China: A Collision Course Over Taiwan, is forthcoming from Palgrave/Macmillan later this year.