The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on September 27, 1994 on the findings of the Clinton Administration’s Taiwan Policy Review. The Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Winston Lord testified on behalf of the executive branch and defined its results as “strik(ing) the right balance between Taipei and Beijing, laying the basis for further expanding relations with both while ensuring continued peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” Today, 22 years removed from Secretary Lord’s remarks, both Taiwan and US-China relations have undergone remarkable change – change that must be better reflected in US policy towards Taiwan.
Taiwan is now a democratic republic. In 2000, 2008, and 2016, it experienced transfers of power between its two major parties. There has also been a shift in its identity. The number of people who identify as “Taiwanese” has tripled, while the number of those identifying as “Chinese” has collapsed. With regard to what this means for the future of cross-Strait relations, more than half of Taiwanese prefer the status quo, either indefinitely or to be decided at a later date. When grouped according to the choice between autonomy and unification with China, the numbers preferring autonomy today dwarf the numbers preferring unification 8 to 1. In 1994, the ratio was 3 to 1.
Another thing that has changed is the cross-Strait economic relationship. To say that trade between Taiwan and China has “boomed” since 1994 is an understatement. Today, 40 percent of Taiwan’s exports go to China. Taiwan’s investments there have also expanded exponentially.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with the economic ties between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Companies from all over the world are trying to make money in China. Why shouldn’t Taiwanese companies? The problem is that political constraints on Taiwan’s interaction with the rest of the world prevents its economic relationship with China from finding its natural, market-determined place in Taiwan’s economic life. Taiwan has an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with China. But although free trade agreements have blossomed all across the region, Taiwan is unable to negotiate its own agreements in the region without the blessing of Beijing. And although, the United States, and to some extent, Japan, are exceptions to this rule, if and when the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) is fully agreed upon, Taiwan will face a similar problem being admitted.
This points to a major constraint on Washington’s Taiwan policy, which is not created in a diplomatic vacuum. The United States requires an active, serviceable relationship with China. Yet, the maintenance of that relationship is a factor, whether justly or not, in the development of America’s relationship with Taiwan.
Except for its founding documents, the US-China relationship has changed beyond recognition since 1994. The two are one another’s largest trading partners. They are involved in dozens of bilateral official dialogues, including the Strategic & Economic Dialogue, the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, and the Defense Consultative Talks. They are engaged in addressing global issues, such as climate change and nuclear non-proliferation, and threats such as North Korea and Iran. A few years ago, a cottage industry emerged, devoted to speculation about the development of a “G-2,” stipulating spheres of influence and responsibilities in the Pacific. In the end, the idea fizzled. But it would have been inconceivable in 1994.
At the same time, the United States and China are potential adversaries. China’s decades-long, double-digit growth in defense spending, and increasingly aggressive assertion of its interests, particularly at sea, have introduced an element of risk to several aspects of the relationship, where there are now conflicting sets of interests. This and the equities discussed above have raised the premium on conflict avoidance and created a knee-jerk reaction in the US government to prevent anything that might increase tensions.
In 1994, Assistant Secretary Lord described the Taiwan Policy Review as a “lengthy … first of its kind … detailed interagency policy review … examining every facet of our unofficial ties, with a view to correcting their anomalies and strengthening their sinews.” Given the complexity of US-China relations today, that sort of re-evaluation would not be wise.
China occupies far too much mind-share among leaders in the US government and its bureaucracy to assure a favorable outcome for Taiwan. What the next US administration should do is conduct a much narrower review of the guidelines for unofficial interaction. This would mean taking a fresh look at the red tape that binds what should be routine contact with the Taiwanese government. The review should look at matters such as how, where, at what level and under what circumstances State Department officials may interact with representatives of the Taiwanese government, and the level of military officers and department of defense officials permitted to visit Taiwan.
More than simply matters of protocol, greater interaction between the US and Taiwanese foreign and defense ministries get at the capacity of the United States to effectively execute its commitments under the TRA. Issues that get at Taiwan’s autonomous identity and dignity – such as the circumstances under which it may display its flag – should also be addressed by the review.
Bigger issues should not be part of this formal review, but should be priority action items for the incoming administration. The new Asia team should hit the ground running with plans to make a cabinet level visit to Taiwan, help expand its participation in international organizations, make necessary arms sales – e.g., new fighter jets and assistance with a feasible domestic diesel submarine program – and get Taiwan into the TPP. Failing passage of a TPP, the United States should open negotiations for a bilateral FTA with Taiwan. In terms of policy doctrine, the administration should also make clear from the start that the Six Assurances are an explicit, core element of its Taiwan policy.
None of this is to advocate that America change its stance on the one-China policy, as founded on the three joint communiques. That policy has served well as a framework for peaceful development of US-China relations, as well as the security and liberty of Taiwan. US policy toward Taiwan, however, must be adjusted to account for how Taiwanese themselves see their identity and their future, and to account for the real circumstances Taiwan faces today in maintaining its autonomy.
The main point: US policy toward Taiwan must be adjusted to account for how Taiwanese themselves see their identity and their future, and the real circumstances Taiwan faces today in maintaining its autonomy.
 Syaru Shirley Lin, Taiwan’s China Dilemma: Contested Identities and Multiple Interests in Taiwan’s Cross-Strait Economic Policy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), 32.