“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man,” ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said. Heraclitus was explaining how everything constantly changes. US and Taiwan officials often underscore the importance of maintaining the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait. Yet, considering Heraclitus’ insight, is there really a “status quo” after a moment in time has passed? Official US State Department policy “insists on peaceful resolution of cross-Strait differences, [and] opposes unilateral changes to the status quo by either side.” Along these lines, President Tsai has expressed a commitment to maintaining the status quo of peace and stability in cross-strait relations. Closer examination reveals three key interpretations of the term “status quo.” First, “status quo” as the existing state of affairs as Heraclitus meant it; second, as an academic concept of a “status quo” tied to a country’s identity; and third, as what US and Taiwan officials reiterate as maintaining peace and security in the region. “Status quo” is related to all three of these interpretations–state of affairs, identity, and peace and security—with the third as the most consequential among the three.
”Status Quo” as a Current State of Affairs in Politics and Security
In Plato’s Cratylus, Socrates explains Heraclitus’ quote about crossing a river: “Heraclitus is supposed to say that all things are in motion and nothing at rest; he compares them to a stream of a river, and says that you cannot go into the same river twice” . Along the same lines, Merriam Webster’s dictionary definition of “status quo” is “the existing state of affairs.” At policy conferences, this is the perspective of the cross-Strait “status quo” that comes up most often, as speakers and audience members unanimously point out that “status quo” appears to refer to the current state of affairs, and summarily dismiss this as unrealistic because of continuous changes.
Politically, the current state of affairs is shifting on both sides of the Strait. China is becoming increasingly bold in changing the current state of affairs with Xi’s calls for Taiwan’s “reunification” with China in his January 2019 speech, the growing numbers of China’s short range CSS-6 and CSS-7 missiles capable of striking Taiwan, China’s island building in the South China Sea, and numerous other examples. The current state of affairs is also potentially shifting in Taiwan’s political sphere, with heated debates leading up to Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election, and Taiwan’s future policy toward China and the United States could potentially shift. Changes are on the horizon either during Tsai’s second term, or during the presidency of one of her challengers (including former Premier William Lai, Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, Kaohsiung Mayor Han, and Taipei Mayor Ko), or another dark horse presidential candidate that could rise up.
In the security realm, the “status quo” defined as a “current state of affairs” is also constantly shifting. As one side strengthens its military, the other side also strengthens its military as well because it finds that threatening. This dynamic leads to the classic security dilemma at work in the region: each side devotes great efforts and money to improve its security, but neither becomes more secure through this process since their efforts simply maintain a relative balance of power. Even though their absolute levels of military power have increased—meaning they each devoted more resources to improve their militaries—their relative balance of power remains the same.
On this point, while there is no longer a semblance of a cross-Strait balance of power between China and Taiwan due to China’s military modernization, there is still a relative balance of power between in the region. In the midst of the constantly shifting regional environment, the United States is devoting greater attention to the region through the new US Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy along with its allies and partners. Even while China’s military is continuing to improve, the United States is regularizing its freedom of navigation operations in the region, Japan is strengthening its military to include acquiring new stealth fighter aircraft, as is South Korea, and Taiwan has requested new F-16V advanced fighter aircraft—along with other ways to improve each of their militaries.
Indeed, the political and security situation in the Western Pacific is constantly shifting like the waves of Heraclitus’ river analogy.
“Status Quo” as Identity
When academics write about the “status quo”, they refer to it as an identity and not a country’s actions, with identity defined as a fact of being of what a country is. In the academic literature, “status quo” is “who you are” as a country, not “what you do.” This is different from motive, which is a reason for doing something; and different from intent, which is an aim or plan. A “status quo” country supports the current international system, particularly by adhering to international norms and playing by international rules. In a 2003 International Security journal article titled: Is China a Status Quo Power?, Harvard Professor Alastair Iain Johnston asked this question about China. Johnston explained that those who are pro-engagement with China argue that it is being socialized mainly in the sphere of economic norms of free trade and domestic marketization. He also noted that skeptics argue that China cannot be a “status quo” country because of the nature of the Chinese communist regime that is dissatisfied with a US-led global order.
In this framework, countries are either “status quo” or “revisionist,” and the classic example of a revisionist power in the academic literature is Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany was featured prominently in Randall Schweller’s classic journal article of 1994, Bandwagoning for Profit: Bringing the Revisionist State Back In. Schweller explains how contrary to international norms and rules at the time, “[u]nlike Britain and France, Nazi Germany supported Mussolini’s goal of turning the Mediterranean into an ‘Italian Lake.’” Nazi Germany, along with Mussolini’s Italy, wanted to revise and overturn the international system at the time.
This is very relevant to the current developments in the Western Pacific as the US government officially labeled China as a “revisionist” power. Specifically, the White House’s National Security Strategy published in December 2017 states: “Three main sets of challengers—the revisionist powers of China and Russia, the rogue states of Iran and North Korea, and transnational threat organizations, particularly jihadist terrorist groups—are actively competing against the United States and our allies and partners.”
The implication of “status quo” as identity is that if a country is not a “status quo” power and is therefore revisionist (with a desire to overturn the current rules and norms of the international system) then it is difficult—if not impossible—to expect such country to work toward preserving regional peace and stability. By definition, peace and stability are incompatible with revisionist identity and intentions.
“Status Quo” as Maintaining Peace and Stability
A third key interpretation is “status quo” as a term describing maintaining peace and stability in the region, which is a strategy along the lines of policy statements by US and Taiwan officials. As mentioned earlier, official US State Department policy “insists on peaceful resolution of cross-Strait differences, [and] opposes unilateral changes to the status quo by either side.” Taiwan officials voice similar policies.
Yet, this interpretation of “status quo” as maintaining peace and stability is inherently derived by the day-to day-actions in the region and “status quo”/revisionist identities of partners versus potential threats. Essentially, “status quo” as actions and “status quo” as identity drive the region toward “status quo” as peace and stability, or the alternative.
In contrast from aforementioned US and Taiwan perspectives, China’s officials refer to the concept of a “status quo” far more sparingly than their US and Taiwan counterparts. When Chinese diplomats discuss “status quo,” it is used instrumentally to oppose Taiwan independence. In September 2018, PRC State Counselor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi (Chinese name) said that Taiwan’s government was undermining the “status quo,” which is understood by the PRC as both sides of the Strait belonging to the same country and cross-Strait relations not being country-to-country relations.
Exploring the three key US and Taiwan interpretations of the “status quo” reveal how daily events and a country’s identity come together to determine the existence of peace and stability in the Western Pacific region. Day-to-day actions by each side move the region toward peace and stability, or conflict as an alternative. In addition, “status quo”/revisionism as a country’s identity refers to its willingness to operate within international rules and norms or to overturn them. While these are several different key interpretations of what the term “status quo” means for the region, the desired outcome for the United States and Taiwan is the “status quo” of peace and stability in the region.
The main point: Three key US and Taiwan interpretations of the term “status quo” involve “status quo” as the current state of affairs, “status quo” as identity, and “status quo” as maintaining peace and stability in the region. These relate to one another since the daily state of affairs combined with “status quo”/revisionist identity lead to an outcome of peace and stability, or instead toward conflict.
 D. N. Sedley, Plato’s Cratylus (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), Stephanus references number 402a.