The Trust Factor in the Taiwan Issue

The trust factor in the Taiwan issue in Sino-American relations is vitally important, even though it is intangible, sensitive, and rarely discussed. The reason for its importance is that none of the governments involved in the issue is fully aware of the others’ intentions. Neither the two Chinese governments nor the American know for certain what the other governments are likely to do under all circumstances, and that causes more than a little anxiety in Washington, Beijing, and Taipei because the stakes involved in the Taiwan issue are very substantial in terms of fundamental national interests.

The policy of the United States toward the Taiwan issue has been accurately described as strategic ambiguity, meaning that Washington deliberately keeps Beijing and Taipei uncertain as to the U.S. response in the event of possible military confrontation between the PRC and Taiwan. The PRC, while clear that it will not tolerate Taiwan independence, is not fully transparent on where its red lines are; and Taiwan, while obvious under DPP control that it wants to be an independent country, is not openly committed to that course of action in an overt way. To avoid miscalculation of intent, all three governments are cautious in how they handle the Taiwan issue so as not to precipitate an unnecessary and avoidable crisis in the Taiwan Strait. 

Since Taiwan is a hot spot in the Western Pacific widely seen as a precipitating event possibly leading to a military conflict between China and the United States — with all the costs and risks involved — the three governments pursue complicated strategies to avoid conflict if possible, to find a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue eventually,  and to prepare for war just in case. To keep everything under control, the three governments look carefully at each other’s intentions and capabilities. Whereas capabilities are largely measurable, intentions are not, and it is therein that the trust factor becomes crucial.

Each of the three governments continuously uses all available means to read the others’ minds in terms of what their true intentions are for the future of Taiwan and how they intend to pursue those objectives. As long as the status quo is maintained in the Taiwan Strait, the situation is fairly stable and can be managed in a way that is at least minimally acceptable to all sides — at least for the foreseeable future. The trust that the three governments have in one another that the status quo will not be deliberately disturbed is deemed sufficient to maintain the peace.

However, if that trust is eroded to a great extent, then the three governments tend to prepare for the worst, including building their militaries and strategies around scenarios involving a conflict in and around Taiwan. Taiwan’s military capabilities and strategic options are fairly limited, but the military capabilities and strategies of the United States and China are regionally and even globally significant. If these two countries come into conflict in modern times, the consequences can have historic impact. 

Unfortunately, the level of trust Washington, Beijing, and Taipei have in each other over the future of Taiwan is getting weaker at this point (December 2020). The reasons for this are many, but two of the most important are Taipei’s distancing itself from the possibility of eventual reunification with mainland China, and Washington and Beijing viewing each other as a growing existential threat to their national security interests in the Western Pacific. The net result of these trends are that China is growing impatient with Taiwan over the reunification  issue, Taiwan and Washington are strengthening their military relationship, Washington is reinforcing  its military presence and alliance structure in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China, the PRC is actively seeking to create alternatives to the US-led international order in the Indo-Pacific, and both China and the United States are hardening their positions on a wide range of  issues in their bilateral relationship.

This is not a good situation in terms of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits or in the Asia-Pacific region in general. If at all possible, it would be helpful if the three governments made a coordinated effort to rebuild the trust that once existed in the trilateral relationship. If things continue the way they are, a tipping point may be reached where trust cannot be restored and the chances of conflict in the region will become much more likely.