Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

Democratic Party’s Platform Omits “One-China Policy” in Reference to Taiwan

In a sign of the changing political winds in Washington, DC, the Democratic Party’s 2020 platform made a not so subtle and significant adjustment in the party’s policy towards Taiwan—bringing it more into alignment with the Republican Party’s position on the island-democracy. A party platform encapsulates the view of mainstream members of the party’s principles, goals, and positions on domestic and foreign affairs. In the paragraph underscoring the “China challenge” facing the United States, the Democratic Party’s 2020 platform, adopted on August 18, states:

Democrats believe the China challenge is not primarily a military one, but we will deter and respond to aggression. We will underscore our global commitment to freedom of navigation and resist the Chinese military’s intimidation in the South China Sea. Democrats are committed to the Taiwan Relations Act and will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan.

For the first time since 1996—at the height of cross-Strait tension during the 1995-96 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis—the Democratic Party conspicuously omitted reference to a “One-China Policy” in reference to Taiwan in its party platform. Indeed, in all the platforms adopted between 1996 and 2016 (2012, 2008, 2004, 2000), the party’s platform included reference to a “One-China Policy” in sections referring to its approach to China and Taiwan. For example, the 2016 platform stated:

We are committed to a “One China” policy and the Taiwan Relations Act and will continue to support a peaceful resolution of Cross-Strait issues that is consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan.

As noted earlier, this shift in the Democratic Party’s platform brings it more in line with mainstream Republican views on Taiwan policy. As the Republican Party’s 2020 platform—which is identical to the 2016 platform—states:

We salute the people of Taiwan, with whom we share the values of democracy, human rights, a free market economy, and the rule of law. Our relations will continue to be based upon the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act, and we affirm the Six Assurances given to Taiwan in 1982 by President Reagan.

Like the Democratic Party’s 2020 platform, there was no mention of a “One-China Policy.” The closest a Republican Party platform has come to implying a “One-China Policy” was in its 2004 platform, which stated: “The United States government’s policy is that there is one China, as reflected in the Three Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act.” On the contrary, in perhaps the strongest language adopted by the Republican Party, the 2000 platform stated: “If China violates these principles and attacks Taiwan, then the United States will respond appropriately in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act. America will help Taiwan defend itself.”

While party platforms are largely symbolic and non-binding for whoever is elected to hold the top executive office in the world’s most powerful democracy, they nevertheless influence the framing of the issues that are addressed during presidential debates. Although foreign policy is generally not a priority issue in most presidential elections, the focus on Russian interference over the past four years, the ongoing US-China trade war, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic could all help to position China policy as an issue in the national dialogue. In turn, this could—and perhaps should—make Taiwan policy a matter of presidential debate. As the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal argued: “The candidates should be pressed to explain their views on Taiwan beyond platitudes about warm feelings. The island is at the center of a great-power rivalry, and voters deserve to hear how the next president would handle it.”

Despite its non-binding function, a radical departure from the party’s platform could also result in some political costs for the elected president. This is especially true in the case of Taiwan policy, as the prevailing views of both major political parties seem to align on the issue. As noted earlier, the platforms do reflect broader sentiments within the party towards these issues. It is worth noting how, after being elected into office in 2000, then-President George W. Bush said that the United States would do “whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself” in the event of attack by China. This was very much in line with the strong language used in the 2000 Republican Party platform.

These changes to the party’s platform do not occur in isolation; indeed, they also seem reflective of deeper changes in American society, which have been accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis. While the change in the party’s platform may only reflect a certain segment of the broader population, the shift is also consistent with a deeper souring of American attitudes toward China. In an April 2020 survey of public attitudes in the United States toward China conducted by the Pew Research Center, the number of people with unfavorable views toward China reached a new high of 66 percent, increasing six points from 60 percent just the year before. This marks the second consecutive year of increases in the percentage of people who see China as unfavorable, rising from 47 percent in 2018. Simultaneously, the proportion of those with favorable views of China dropped from 38 percent in 2018 to 26 percent in 2020.

To be fair, the US “One-China Policy” is not codified in law, nor has it ever been clearly defined. Furthermore, it wouldn’t be precisely clear what it would mean in terms of both the substance and conduct of US informal relations with Taiwan if an administration were to dispense with a “One-China Policy” while still maintaining the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA)—which legally governs relations with Taiwan in the absence of diplomatic recognition.

It is perhaps worth remembering how then-President-elect Donald Trump stirred a hornet’s nest in December 2016 when he stated: “I don’t know why we [the United States] have to be bound by a ‘One-China Policy’ unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.” Similar to reactions to the president-elect’s brief phone conversation with the democratically elected president of Taiwan, most responses to this statement ranged from fear, to disbelief, to contempt. Some observers were shocked that President Trump had the audacity to question the seemingly sacrosanct “One-China Policy.”

This is to say that, in spite of the Democratic Party’s subtle but significant adjustment of its policy towards Taiwan, this does not mean that the Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph Biden, would discard the “One-China Policy” if he were to win the presidency. Indeed, such an event is very unlikely. And, to be clear, President Donald Trump, a Republican, did not discard the “One-China Policy,” even after winning the presidency running on a pro-Taiwan Republican platform.

While hyper-partisanship continues to consume the broader policy ecosystem in the United States, Taiwan policy remains a bright spot, allowing for a strong demonstration of bipartisanship. This political consensus appears to be growing stronger as Beijing intensifies its pressure on the island-democracy. This bipartisanship was clearly reflected when Congress unanimously passed legislation in support of Taiwan, such as the Taiwan Travel Act and the TAIPEI Act. It will become increasingly difficult for Beijing to define the US’ “One-China Policy” as closely aligned with its own anachronistic “One-China Principle.”

There is politics and then there is policy—the two are different but not mutually exclusive. Especially during an election year, politics are not always reflective of policy, while politics are a necessary but insufficient component of policy change. The two are hard to align, and rarely do, especially across the political aisle. But now, for once in a long time—at least since the last Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996—the political and policy stars seem to be aligning between the two major political parties on US policy towards Taiwan.

The main point: In the first time since 1996, the Democratic Party conspicuously omitted reference to a “One-China Policy” in reference to Taiwan in its party platform, making it more aligned with the Republican Party’s platform.

Former Senior US National Security Officials Imagine a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan in 2021

As the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) approaches in July 2021, a cautionary tale penned by two former top American intelligence and defense officials has re-ignited an ongoing debate among Taiwan watchers about the possible timeline for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. In a think piece for the US Naval Institute imagining a hypothetical conflict scenario titled “The War that Never Was?”, former Acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Michael Morell and former Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral (ret.) James Winnefeld imagined how a Chinese invasion of Taiwan that could take place as early as in January 2021 could unfold.

Morrell and Winnefeld envision a Chinese invasion of Taiwan that exploits the distraction caused by the turmoil of a disruptive political transition in the United States in January 2021, quickly resulting in a successful Chinese conquest (due in large part to the non-response of the United States) of the island. The piece ostensibly serves to underscore the United States’ lack of political and military preparedness as well as readiness to respond to a surprise crisis scenario in the Taiwan Strait. A summation of the authors’ warning to current policymakers can be found in the article’s closing line: “In the end, the conflict for which the United States, and in particular the American military, prepared for so long and for which it provided billions of dollars in military hardware to Taiwan, had been lost before it started.”

Setting aside the glaring assumptions that the two former officials made in the efficacy of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) ability to execute a complex amphibious invasion of Taiwan, the willingness of Taiwanese forces and population to grind out the fight, and the United States and other allies’ (lack of) resolve to become involved in the conflict, the authors essentially imagine a scenario in which a surprise Chinese attack catches everyone politically and militarily off-guard—thus creating a fait accompli.

The imagination that went into creating the whole scenario of course begs another question: Why would China want to invade Taiwan in 2021?

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” once said American professional baseball player Yogi Berra. So why 2021? Interestingly, this is not the first time that the year has been put forward as a possibility. Besides Chinese propagandists, Ambassador (ret.) Chas Freeman, who served as the principal interpreter during the late President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, wrote as recently as 2017:

President Xi has not publicly set a deadline for formalizing Taiwan’s reunification [sic] with the rest of China. It’s doubtful that he will. But vanity, in the form of the search for a historical legacy, and national pride, in the ramp up to the July 1, 2021, hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, provide ample motivation for China’s current leadership to adopt this as a goal.

To be clear, the PLA’s principal objective is to conquer Taiwan while deterring, delaying, or destroying US military actions to assist in the defense of the island-nation. This is what China refers to as its “Main Strategic Direction” (主要戰略方向). And, indeed, even General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) has sounded the alarm about the need to bring Taiwan into the fold of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—sooner rather than later. However, while the Chinese leadership has had the motivation to subdue Taiwan since as far back as 1949, an actual decision to use military force would require far more than the mere existence of motivations to act. Rather, any such decision must include consideration of the enormous risks involved—as Ian Easton, senior director at the Project 2049 Institute, meticulously documented in his namesake book “The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia.” [1]

Motivations tell us nothing about the decision-making process that the CCP would have to necessarily go through prior to launching an invasion. Chinese leaders would need to consider whether they think they have the capability to succeed under current conditions, and whether a failure would increase the probability of an accelerated collapse of the CCP, as well as many other political-military variables. As Allison Kauffman, the principal research scientist at the federally funded CNA, testifying before the US-China Security and Economic Review Commission, stated: “[…] at present, the potential costs to China of setting off such a conflict are very high without a guarantee of success.”

Taking a forgiving view of Morrell’s and Winnefeld’s underlying motivations for writing the article, as well as the timing of its publication, it is possible that the two former senior national security officials are trying to warn the US government about the dangers of complacency. Specifically, they seem concerned about possibility of a fait accompli—a done deal in the Taiwan Strait—should elected leaders and military planners take their eyes off the ball. For all their warnings about the possibility of an imminent conflict in the Taiwan Strait, the former officials suggested that, given the current level of political turmoil, the US government may find itself in a state of paralysis, impairing its ability to respond to the crisis. From a more cynical view, the authors are inadvertently signaling what they read as a lack of US resolve to come to the defense of Taiwan should the Chinese invade in 2021, which could invite the adventurism by China that they seem to be warning about.

While it seems unlikely that China would take on the enormous costs and risks of initiating a full-scale conflict in the near term, as Dr. Kauffman argues, that is not to say of course that consideration of the possibility is not warranted. The failure to imagine unreasonable risks would be a strategic mistake. Indeed, China has been ratcheting up tensions in the Taiwan Strait in recent years, while members of Congress have proposed several pieces of legislation that seek to address this behavior vis-à-vis Taiwan and improve the ability of the US to respond to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, as GTI Senior Non-Resident Fellow Mike Mazza argued in his Global Taiwan Brief piece “Congressional Initiatives Shifting US Towards Strategic Clarity.”

To be sure, the Chinese military will want to have the element of surprise during a Taiwan contingency. However, the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities that Taiwan and the United States have penetrating China’s land, air, and coastal borders have ensured that this is a critical advantage that the PLA does not currently enjoy. Moreover, barring a dramatic turn of events accelerating Beijing’s timeline for unification, there will be likely more (non-military) signals to come before China decides to act on its desire to take Taiwan. Most likely—and perhaps in the near future—there will probably be a tightening of the 2005 Anti-Secession Law (反分裂國家法) that Chinese leaders could use as a legal pretext for the invasion of Taiwan. Indeed, as recently as the 2020 National People’s Congress, there were murmurs of a revision to the language of the law to more precisely capture what China sees as Taiwanese moves toward de jure independence. Indeed, Beijing may think that it could deter such behavior by adding specific language to the legislation.

Although a full-scale war between China and Taiwan seems unlikely in the near future despite the scenario presented by the two former senior national security officials, the possibility of a more limited conflict is growing. Ultimately, Beijing does seem to have a deadline for the unification of Taiwan. However, it is likely not 2021, as Ambassador Freeman suggested, but sometime before 2049, the centennial of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and, more importantly, the year that Xi has set as his deadline for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation—for which the unification of Taiwan with China is a necessary prerequisite.

The main point: The article by two former senior national security officials presenting a hypothetical scenario in which China invades Taiwan as soon as in January 2021 should be read as a cautionary tale rather than a forecast of things to come.

[1] Ian Easton, The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia (United Kingdom: Eastbridge Books, 2019)