China and Taiwan Meet: A Brief Opportunity for U.S. to Promote Peace?

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou recently met in Singapore. Never before has Beijing treated the island’s government as an equal. It was a small step for peace, but the circle remains to be squared.

China insists that Taiwan is a wayward province, while the vast majority of Taiwanese feel no allegiance to the People’s Republic of China. If, as expected, Taiwan’s opposition presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen wins in January, relations between the two states are likely to shift into reverse.

The island of Formosa, or Taiwan, separated from the mainland when the Kuomintang government relocated to Taipei following the triumph of the Chinese Communist Party. Taipei continues to promote a separate identity.

The PRC insists that the island should return to Beijing. China’s growing power has encouraged its leaders to press Taiwan to accept some form of “one country, two systems.”

The PRC has hoped that closer economic and cultural ties would move the two countries closer to union. Yet Taiwan is steadily moving away from the PRC. More than 80 percent of Taiwanese back independence—if it would not trigger Chinese military action.

Now the KMT is likely to lose the presidency and possibly the legislature. The opposition is unlikely to enter into serious negotiations leading to reunification.

Which leaves the PRC’s Taiwan strategy in ruins. This likely explains President Xi’s decision to meet with President Ma. The former presumably hoped the meeting would encourage Taiwanese to vote for the KMT in order to further reduce cross-strait tensions.

What happens next remains up to the PRC. It has much at stake in maintaining a peaceful and stable order in East Asia. Nevertheless, nationalism runs deep and Taiwan is seen as part of China by most Chinese.

Moreover, Taipei is a security concern for Beijing, especially if allied with America. This concern may grow as the United States increasingly confronts Beijing over its territorial claims elsewhere in the region.

Washington traditionally has responded to cross-strait relations with “strategic ambiguity,” refusing to spell out its commitment to Taipei. But this is a dangerous gamble.

In the past, Taipei assumed Washington was committed to its security and Beijing assumed that the United States wouldn’t risk war over a distant, peripheral interest. The result could be an unnecessary, inadvertent crisis in which American officials must choose between abandoning Taiwan and fighting China.

Now, during a period of quiet, the United States should reconsider its policy toward Taiwan. As I point out in National Interest: “The island is a worthy friend, but Washington cannot justify risking Los Angeles for Taipei, as one Chinese general bluntly warned. Beijing might be willing to make the risky wager but it would be irresponsible for Washington to raise the stakes.”

Instead, it is worth considering creative bargains which might ensure Taiwan’s independence while satisfying Chinese interests. For instance, Washington should warn Taipei that the United States will not go to war on the former’s behalf. Taiwan should invest in a military sufficient to force China to pay a high price for any attempt at coercion.

The United States should warn the PRC that engaging in coercion against the island would impose a high economic price on Beijing and reduce China’s chances of taking on a greater regional and global leadership role. Washington also should encourage its Asian and European allies to communicate a similar message: while no one wants war with the PRC, no one could ignore an attack on Taiwan.

Washington could propose a Taiwanese neutrality declaration along with an American promise to forswear any military commitment to or bases on the island. In return, Beijing would reduce its threatening missile deployments and forswear military action against Taiwan. The United States could follow reduced tensions by shrinking its force presence elsewhere in the region.

There is no easy way to square the Taiwan circle, but the Ma-Xi meeting has created a better atmosphere, however limited, in which to explore a broader agreement including America that could encourage longer-term peace and stability.