“We are very much interested in the continued stability and peace in the cross-Strait area,” said Susan Thornton, acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs at the US State Department. She continued with her remarks, which were made ahead of the recent US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue held on June 21, 2017: “We also think it’s very important to have open lines of communication.” She added that the United States does not want to see either side of the Strait do anything that would be considered destabilizing.
My previous Global Taiwan Brief article noted that it is in Beijing’s interests to resume cross-Strait dialogues, and here I will suggest that the most constructive US role would be one that continues to strengthen diplomatic ties with both sides of the Strait, encourages cross-Strait communication and cooperation, continues to be a third-party guarantor of peace, but does not mediate the dispute, so that both sides can take the lead on their own political, economic and security issues. These are the practical action items that derive from the US government’s official policy statements.
Indeed, the United States faces its own policy constraints that prevent it from playing a more direct role in cross-Strait relations. It is constrained by two of its own Six Assurances, offered by President Reagan to Taipei on July 14, 1982. Specifically, one of the assurances states that “the United States will not play any mediation role between Taipei and Beijing.” Another of the assurances states that “the United States will not exert pressure on Taiwan to negotiate with the PRC.” While these points contained in the Six Assurances were designed to protect Taiwan by preventing Taipei from being politically forced into an agreement that it was not willing to make, it also limits the US’ actions to some extent.
Yet, maintaining and even strengthening diplomatic ties with both sides of the Strait will enable the United States to sustain its influence on both China and Taiwan, which is essential for the United States, as it uses political means to ensure peace while not technically mediating the dispute. The use of diplomatic and political tools is preferable to economic or even military action.
When it comes to US involvement in cross-Strait issues, it is important for Washington to be cautious because each side will want the United States to do more to benefit its side. However, pleasing one party often means displeasing the other. Any drastic political moves can have unintended consequences. When the United States welcomes China to participate in military exercises, such as Rim of the Pacific, it raises the question of why a previous US mutual defense treaty ally such as Taiwan is not also a participant. When the United States approves an arms sale to Taiwan—and it has sold over $46 billion US dollars in arms to Taiwan since 1990—it simultaneously draws Beijing’s ire.
Even the seemingly benign statement from acting Assistant Secretary Thornton, “we are very much interested in the continued stability and peace in the cross-Strait area,” can be problematic considering that one side has not renounced the use of force. Acting as a third party guarantor of peace allows the United States to play a helpful role in preventing conflict, without playing a mediating role. However, if one side is bent on exercising a military option to achieve its goals across the Strait, it would put itself on a collision course with the United States military, which is just as determined to maintain stability and peace, potentially also by military means. Unless one or both sides back down, the result could be a serious clash.
Two decades ago scholars from China, Taiwan and the United States held a conference in Washington, DC, and their findings are astute even today. They were quick to suggest that the US’ tacit framework in the Taiwan Strait simply be “no unification, no independence, no war.” This is a simpler rendition of acting Assistant Secretary Thornton’s statement of US preferences in cross-Strait relations, and lends brevity to nuanced policy documents on US policy toward China and Taiwan. Such US preferences set the direction of US actions regarding cross-Strait relations, even short of playing a mediating role.
The concern with any new US policies on cross-Strait matters is high political sensitivity in that the scholars attending the conference from each side of the Strait tended to see their government as tolerant and flexible, while blaming mistrust and tense relations on the other side. According to Chinese scholars at the conference, and in line with China’s particular interests, the PRC does not see a dispute over the “One-China” principle, but only over US arms sales to Taiwan and US missile defense in Asia. US and Taiwan scholars would argue the opposite, which is to say, they question the “One-China” principle, while reaffirming arms sales to Taiwan and the need for missile defense. A similar sentiment supporting Taiwan arms sales and missile defense carries over to today, especially with the growing cross-Strait military imbalance as a rationale for continued US arms sales to Taiwan, and North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches as justification for expanding missile defense. What helpful actions can the US take to play a greater role in improving cross-Strait relations in such a hyper-sensitive political context?
One way for the United States to be more assertive on cross-Strait relations in a way that is acceptable to all sides is to use its direct diplomatic influence on each party to persuade them to improve communication with the other: not just between the PRC and Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT), but also with the Democratic People’s Party (DPP). Communication channels between China and the DPP currently appear to be a missing link in the relationship, which is concerning because the DPP is currently the incumbent party that has been elected to the Presidential Office.
As recently as August 20, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office at the State Council reiterated the assertions contained in the document “Common Aspirations and Prospects of Cross-Strait Peace and Development” (兩岸和平發展共同願景) that it first issued jointly with the KMT in 2005. It restated that the theme of peace and development is fully in line with the interests of China, Taiwan, and also with US policy statements; unfortunately, China also states that it purposefully excludes the DPP from cross-Strait overtures due to the DPP’s stance on the “One-China” principle” and the so-called “1992 Consensus.” The United States should encourage both sides to expand communication and cooperation among all political groups; this is the low hanging fruit of US diplomatic engagement with both sides of the Strait, considering it is constrained by the politically sensitive environment and by its own policies.
The main point: The United States can play a greater role in cross-Strait relations by diplomatically and politically influencing both sides to strengthen communication and cooperation across the Taiwan Strait, especially between China and both the KMT the DPP; yet the United States is also constrained by its own policies and the strategic circumstances of the fragile politics across the Strait.