Evan Medeiros, Wang Jisi, and Michael Green | April 26, 2020
Responding To: COVID-19 and the Future of U.S.-China Relations
The Taiwan Issue in U.S.-China Relations: Cause for Concern
Wang Jisi, Evan Medeiros, Michael Green, and Wu Xinbo
I think there is a potential flash point in Taiwan. Tsai Ing-wen will be inaugurated on May 20 as the Taiwanese leader. The kind of gesture the United States makes around her inauguration will have some implications for China-U.S. relations. I would suggest a careful gesture.
Of course I know that some people will go there and congratulate her and observe the inauguration, but the United States should also be mindful of China's reaction. It’s possible that the mainland will do some military exercises or so-called saber-rattling in the Taiwan Strait around that time, to warn the pro-separatist movement. So the two governments should notify each other about what they might do for political purposes.
I don’t think the conflict over Taiwan is on the table right now simply because one of the unique aspects of this COVID-19 crisis is how it is fundamentally debilitating to the national capacities of both countries. Neither country has the ability or the inclination to start an armed conflict.
But I do want to make one additional point about Taiwan. Now is the time for Xi Jinping to show a little bit of flexibility and confidence on the question of Taiwan, simply because Taiwan has handled the pandemic so well. It identified the disease very early on and enacted widespread testing. It has scientists working on a vaccine. There are a lot of things that we can learn from Taiwan's experience. It makes sense to avoid seeing everything Taiwan's doing as part of the geopolitical competition between America and China. For example, I recommend that Xi Jinping re-allow Taiwan to join the annual World Health Assembly. I think that would be a fantastic gesture going forward.
I would say that on the Chinese side the feelings are somewhat different. I think I hear many voices in China–netizens and even some policy advisers–suggesting that U.S. preoccupation in the election year and over the pandemic provides a good opportunity to solve the Taiwan issue by forceful means once and for all. Whenever I give a speech on U.S.-China relations, I'm always asked the same question: that is, whether this is a good opportunity for us to solve the Taiwan issue, an armed liberation of Taiwan. Of course I'm somewhat concerned about this. I hope Chinese and U.S. officials will have a serious dialogue to draw a red line to avoid military conflict over Taiwan. What Evan mentioned about what Taiwan is doing about the pandemic is not that widely reported on the mainland.
Of course the American and Chinese governments have some kind of tacit understanding–that is, the United States discourages Taiwan from declaring de jure independence and on condition China does not use force. But it is not well known in China that there's such a tacit understanding, and some Chinese are even proposing that we should amend the anti-secession law to make room for us to move on to the military solution to the Taiwan issue. This is our concern and I don't want that to happen, but both sides should talk to each other to ensure that kind of thing is not going to happen.
Sympathy for Taiwan in the United States, in the Congress, and in the public and media among think tanks and experts is quite high compared to 15 years ago when Chen Shui-bian was in charge. In part because there's more confidence that Tsai Ing-wen is being careful about de jure or de facto independence than Chen Shui-bian was, and in part there’s sympathy because of what happened in Hong Kong and because of the Taiwan authorities’ capable handling of the current COVID-19 crisis. In the U.S. there is a higher sympathy for Taiwan, and I think a broader consensus that Taiwan is coming under unfair pressures in recent years. So it is not a static situation, it is moving, and this crisis makes the lack of dialogue and lack of trust all the more problematic as a result. I agree with you all–I think conflict is very unlikely, but it is a more unsettling issue because we are both reading developments quite differently, and it’s not just the administration. I think it’s on a bipartisan basis.
My concern is that this year we are going to see some kind of crisis in the Taiwan Strait. One reason is that we have seen the escalation of the U.S. support for Taiwan under the Trump administration, and some of the actions they have taken have been unprecedented. A second reason is that we have witnessed in the last one year and a half, actually starting from early this year, that the leader in Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, has become very provocative vis-à-vis the mainland. I think these two factors–the growing U.S. support of Taiwan as well as more and more provocative stance by Tsai Ing-wen toward the mainland–have somehow provoked a much stronger response from the mainland. So if in May, Washington takes some major step in extending further support for Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan, and then Tsai will take this as a very encouraging message for getting even more provocative towards Beijing. So you can see this kind of vicious cycle continuing down the road. In this regard, I wouldn’t rule out some kind of crisis occurred in the Taiwan Strait. Will that lead to immediate conflict? I hope not, but in today’s world, there are many things we cannot anticipate. They occurred as unintended.
You know previous U.S. governments, including the ones we worked for, Evan, and previous Chinese governments have been able to talk about Taiwan and add some context and reassurance, and we were able to do it on the U.S. side without violating the so-called six assurances. We never negotiated Taiwan's future with Beijing, but we were able to explain how we saw the situation, our red lines, our intentions. I suspect that is not happening right now, that on a whole range of issues, particularly Taiwan, there’s not a very constructive strategic dialogue between Beijing and Washington.
These reflections, drawn from an online dialogue, have been edited for length and clarity.
Evan Medeiros, Wang Jisi, and Wu Xinbo | April 26, 2020