Commentary

Talking Past One Another: Taiwan, China, America and the “Status Quo”

The cornerstone of Washington’s policy on the contentious relationship between Taiwan and China is that neither side should upset the status quo. Both Taipei and Beijing insist that they, too, share this commitment. The trouble is that each party defines the status quo differently, and the Taiwan government in particular is taking increasingly bold actions to challenge it.

The Democratic Progressive Party government headed by Chen Shui-bian continues its campaign to establish a distinct “Taiwanese identity.” Chen’s latest initiative is to hold a national referendum on whether Taiwan should keep applying for UN membership — under the name “Taiwan,” not the Republic of China. This comes on the heels of attempts to gain membership in the World Health Organization and measures to substitute “Taiwan” for “China” in the names of state corporations.

Frank Hsieh, the DPP’s presidential candidate in the 2008 elections is likely to go even further than Chen. Hsieh has indicated that he will not even provide the modest reassurances Chen offered Beijing when he took office in 2000. Indeed, Hsieh told the Taipei Times last week that he will amend the constitution and change the name of the country — measures that Chen promised he would not do.

During a speech in Washington in late July, Hsieh disputed U.S. allegations that Taiwan was threatening the status quo, but made a blunt assertion: “I believe Taiwan is already an independent country.”

At the same time, he charged that China’s deployment of missiles across the strait from Taiwan was an act of provocation. He admitted, though, that Taipei and Washington held different conceptions of the status quo and that this difference was something that Taiwan badly needed to “explore with the Americans.”

Hsieh’s attitude underscores the danger. When U.S. officials speak of the status quo, they mean a willingness by all parties to tolerate Taiwan’s ambiguous political status indefinitely. 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.

This rationale enables U.S. policymakers to acknowledge Beijing’s position that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of it while continuing to sell arms to Taiwan and maintaining an implicit commitment to defend the island. Taiwan’s attempts to push the envelope on independence are considered undesirable, but so too is any attempt by China to compel reunification.

Beijing 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 the National People’s Congress passed in early 2005 — which threatened to use military force against Taiwan under certain circumstances — was not disruptive, it merely re-emphasized the only acceptable political outcome: reunification. Conversely, even Taiwan’s mildest actions to gain international diplomatic recognition are a threat to the status quo and must be resisted at all costs.

Taiwan’s concept of the status quo is the opposite of the PRC’s. Taiwanese officials routinely argue, as Hsieh did in Washington, that it means Taiwan as a sovereign state. Taipei points out that the ROC has existed since 1912, and that at least some countries (at present, 25 mostly small nations) have diplomatic relations with it.

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, Beijing’s anti-secession law and missile deployments are aggressive attempts to alter the status quo, while Taiwanese efforts to secure international recognition are perfectly legitimate.

Even though they use the same terminology, officials in Beijing, Taipei, and Washington talk past one another when they speak of preserving the status quo. Serious diplomatic quarrels, and even armed conflicts, have begun over smaller misunderstandings.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of seven books on international affairs including America’s Coming War With China: A Collision Course over Taiwan (Palgrave/Macmillan 2006).