To make sense of these events, here’s what you need to know about U.S.-China-Taiwan relations:
1) Taiwan’s sovereign status is the big issue — but the issue has evolved.
In 1949, at the end of the Chinese civil war, the losing Nationalists (and their government, the Republic of China) retreated to Taiwan. The victorious Communists established the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. Each government viewed itself as the legitimate government of China, each viewed Taiwan as a part of China, and each viewed national unification as an important goal.
Beijing’s bottom line in 2018 remains unchanged: Taiwan is a part of China and must be unified with the rest of the country.
In Taiwan, reestablishing Republic of China authority over all of China long remained a Nationalist goal and questioning this aspiration was strictly off-limits under the martial law in place until 1987.
Today, however, the Republic of China has evolved into a full-fledged democracy, and the idea that Taiwan is a part of China is openly contested on the island. Most residents currently self-identify as Taiwanese rather than as Chinese. While the Nationalist Party still pays lip service (via the “1992 consensus”) to the idea of Taiwan belonging to a greater “one China,” the ruling Democratic Progressive Party does not.
2) The United States does not recognize the ROC government — but also doesn’t recognize Taiwan as a part of China.
For decades after 1949, the United States recognized the Republic of China, not the People’s Republic of China, as the government of China. This changed in 1979, when Washington and Beijing established official diplomatic relations and the United States broke ties with the Republic of China. The United States today maintains extensive — but unofficial — ties with Taiwan.
Although the United States recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, Washington does not accept the view of the People’s Republic of China that Taiwan is a part of China. Rather, the United States merely “acknowledges” the Chinese position on this issue.
3) Chinese leaders face difficult trade-offs in their Taiwan policy.
The People’s Republic of China uses both carrots and sticks to deal with Taiwan. Beijing sometimes uses threats and coercion to deter Taiwan independence and to advance the goal of unification. The recent strategic bomber missions, along with increased efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally, are in part meant to punish Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen for not accepting that Taiwan is a part of China.
More generally, China doesn’t want Taiwan to feel comfortable with a status quo where progress isn’t being made on unification. Beijing hopes to convince Taiwanese voters that they’d be better off supporting the Nationalist Party, whose position on Taiwan’s status is more palatable to China. Tough actions also reassure nationalists in China that their government remains resolute on the Taiwan issue.
These tough measures have effectively deterred Taiwan from pursuing formal independence, but they also undercut the image of the People’s Republic of China in Taiwan, where support for unification is already limited. So the People’s Republic of China also uses carrots, including new measures to attract Taiwanese talent to China.
Such measures are consistent with long-standing “United Front” activities, where Beijing uses inducements to win supporters in Taiwan while trying to isolate perceived enemies. Some recent studies, however, suggest that past efforts to build support via economic inducements were only partly successful — and may even backfire.
This means Beijing has few good options to advance unification. Inducements appear somewhat ineffectual, and coercion alienates the Taiwan people. Meanwhile, extreme steps like going to war would be extremely costly, with uncertain prospects for success, even if the United States were to stay out.
4) The U.S. faces its own Taiwan dilemmas.
The United States retains an interest in Taiwan’s security because of Taiwan’s vibrant democracy as well as strategic concerns in the region. Accordingly, the United States wishes to deter Beijing from attacking Taiwan, and some high-ranking officials in the Trump administration have in the past called for stepped-up efforts in this regard.
U.S. deterrence in the Taiwan Strait used to resemble U.S. deterrence elsewhere: Washington had a formal alliance with the Republic of China and stationed troops in Taiwan. But the United States abrogated the alliance treaty when it broke official ties with the Republic of China in 1979.
U.S. deterrence today is more indirect, including selling weapons to Taiwan and undertaking symbolic actions, such as the Taiwan Travel Act, to signal continued U.S. interest.
But Beijing sometimes retaliates when the United States signals support for Taiwan. Although it is doubtful that naval port calls would trigger an actual military attack, as one senior People’s Republic of China diplomat suggested, Beijing would likely react strongly.
So when U.S. officials make decisions about the rank of officials allowed to visit Taiwan, or which weapons to sell to Taiwan, or whether naval port calls to Taiwan are a good idea, they must weigh improved deterrence against possible damage to U.S.-China relations.
5) A bad U.S.-China relationship isn’t necessarily good for Taiwan.
A final point is that Taiwan itself benefits from a stable U.S.-China relationship. As I argue in a recent International Security article, good U.S.-China relations give Beijing a stake in a stable status quo. Even if the United States were to stay out of a cross-Strait military conflict, such a conflict would be disastrous for the U.S.-China relationship. Good relations with Washington, then, give Beijing more to lose by initiating war in the Taiwan Strait — and that’s a good thing for Taiwan.
Scott L. Kastner is a professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is author of “Is the Taiwan Strait Still a Flash Point? Rethinking the Prospects for Armed Conflict between China and Taiwan” (International Security, Vol. 40, issue 3).