US-China-Taiwan Relations
The Intractable Taiwan Issue

And what of the Taiwan issue?

China has considerable confidence in its political encirclement of Taiwan. The island would have great difficulty garnering sufficient international support for a recognized status of independent nationhood. On the other hand, the majority of the people of Taiwan do not appear to want political unification with the mainland – and absolutely not under the Chinese Communist Party.

Rash, unilateral action from Taipei precipitating a crisis is highly unlikely, even from a DPP government. However, if given an opportunity, the people of Taiwan or a DPP government might seek independence from a China severely weakened or preoccupied by a major domestic or international challenge. Depending upon the circumstances, the United States, Japan, and other democracies might support Taiwan’s bid for independence, despite prior agreements with the PRC not to do so. This possibility, while very remote, is something that Beijing’s leaders cannot ignore and – because Taiwan is an issue of vital importance to the Chinese nation – that Beijing must be prepared to counter should it occur.

Given that Taiwan is assuming greater strategic importance to China, and given that the United States does not want to see Chinese power dramatically increase in the Western Pacific, there is a very high likelihood that the Taiwan issue will not be resolved through additional communiques between Beijing and Washington. On Taiwan itself, there is increased economic dependence on the mainland; but there is also growing reluctance to reach cross-Strait political accommodation as long as Beijing is controlled by the CCP. From Beijing’s point of view, this presents a dilemma as to how much pressure should be exerted on Taiwan to “push” it toward a political settlement. And for Washington, this presents a dilemma on how much support should be given to democratic Taiwan to enable it to withstand absorption by its powerful communist neighbor.

Recently, a shift in attention in East Asia has been toward other unresolved territorial issues in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. There is a possibility that these areas, rather than Taiwan, will become a point of crisis in Sino-American relations, with China asserting what it views as traditional claims and the United States asserting its responsibility to support allies and to maintain regional stability. Still, these issues are but prologue to the determination of Taiwan's future.

August 26, 2012