Taiwan: Peace, Stability, and the Status Quo
World politics dances to a three-step waltz: War, Peace, and Revolution; repeat. Wars are fought to create a better world for the victors. An improvement substantial enough to justify the cost of conflict, a calculation fraught with unknowns and subjective values. Peace then protects this new world order. The most prominent example was the creation of the United Nations to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Yet, this was to be accomplished through a Security Council dominated by the five victorious powers in World War II. From the U.S. perspective, this created a “liberal rules-based order” as the basis for prosperity and freedom around the globe. However, the victors did not stay united. A Cold War broke out between the Western democracies (America, United Kingdom, and France) and the Soviet Union. The government in China was changed by revolution and its new Communist regime entered an uneasy alignment with the USSR. The ambitions of other nations also sparked conflict as prosperity improved capabilities and freedom allowed those capabilities to be used to support expansionary policies. Attempts to overturn the status quo sparked many wars.
The Cold War ended with the status quo mostly defended. The attempted global Communist Revolution failed despite several local triumphs as the European empires decolonized. The USSR disintegrated and China dropped much of its communist ideology to gain the benefits of capitalism, albeit state capitalism within a one-party regime. Beijing dropped Marxism but kept Leninism. This new post-Cold War status quo was different, but the victory of the Western alliance supposedly created an even better global order. The strength of capitalism and democracy had been proven. All wise leaders were expected to embrace these principles to advance their people in peace and harmony. The hubris in the West was so great that it seemed that the claim of the early 19th-century British Radical Richard Cobden was finally within reach. Under his "grand panacea" of free trade "the motive for large and mighty empires, for gigantic armies and great fleets would die away." The West could safely disarm, both militarily and economically.
But this status quo does not suit everyone, and Revolution is in the wind again. Russia follows a revanchist policy. President Vladimir Putin wants to restore the territory of the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. His invasion of Ukraine marked an escalation of his efforts against the defenders of the status quo he assessed were too weak to resist.
Beijing under President Xi Jinping also has a revolutionary policy. He wants China to displace the United States as the world’s leading power. His goals are both revanchist and imperialist. In the latter category are the Belt and Road Initiative to control infrastructure and raw materials far beyond China’s borders, and expansion into the Arctic. Its revanchist focus is on Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and the South China Sea where he seeks a return to the regional dominance of Imperial China.
The current hotspot is Taiwan. In the heated battle of propaganda and diplomatic verbiage, the issue has been raised as to what constitutes the status quo, and, thus, who is the revolutionary power that is fomenting war to overturn it.
On August 28, the U.S. Navy sailed two guided-missile cruisers through the Taiwan Strait on the first freedom-of-navigation mission since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a congressional delegation to Taiwan. Her visit provoked a Chinese show of force around the self-governing island. On June 13, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared, “There is no such thing as international waters in international maritime law. Relevant countries claim that the Taiwan Strait is in international waters with the aim to manipulate the Taiwan question and threaten China’s sovereignty.” The Taiwan Strait is 100 miles across and territorial waters only extend 12 miles from shore. The two USN warships sailed down the center of the strait in what is recognized as international waters everywhere except in Beijing, where Taiwan is considered a renegade province with all the waters between it and the mainland being called an internal waterway of China.
On August 30, state media giant China Daily stated, “Such provocative moves show that the US continues to hollow out the one-China principle, and thus risks triggering a conflict. Especially because the Chinese military is on high alert and ready to thwart any US move to change the status quo across the Straits.” But is this claim to the status quo accurate? In diplomatic language, the U.S. accepts the One China policy which includes Beijing’s claim to Taiwan. This is one of those niceties meant to paper over differences and maintain stability. It does not, however, represent reality.
Taiwan has been de facto independent since 1949. It has only been ruled from Beijing during four years (1945-49) since 1894 when Taiwan was ceded to Japan after the Sino-Japanese War. Relations between the Taiwanese and Japanese are warmer than what either has with the Chinese. The term “self-governing” is used to avoid “independent”, but the practical meaning is the same. The Taiwanese people feel independent with a strong self-identity and a record of success as a Tiger economy and a democracy. Its society is more advanced than China.
A simple question tells us what is the real status quo. Who would have to resort to violence to turn their claims into reality? Peace protects the status quo; revolution requires war to overturn it. President Xi knows he does not rule Taiwan. He speaks of “reunification” which is an acknowledgement that Taiwan is currently separate from the mainland. China’s official position is that it wants a peaceful reunification, but will use force if it must to gain control. With polls showing less than 2 percent of Taiwanese want to unify with the mainland, the chances of Taipei choosing to join is nil, and Xi knows it. The only power with a motive for war across the Taiwan Strait is China to overturn the real status quo of a self-governing (independent) Taiwan.
Beneath the U.S. diplomatic language, the core American position has always been that the issue of Taiwan should not be settled by force. Washington backs the status quo. Beijing’s constant attempt to claim that defending the status quo is “provocative” only further exposes its role as a revolutionary power looking for an excuse to strike. In such a strategic situation, peace can only be protected by deterrence. The core U.S. commitment to oppose aggression must be backed by credible force. President Xi must never believe that the defenders of the status quo are weak or unwilling to carry out their duties.
Fortunately, the U.S. is still stronger than China, though it must use the techno-industrial part of that equation to build up its military capabilities to stay ahead in the arms race. The U.S. also has an array of allies that a nearly isolated China cannot match. President Trump rallied the Quad (India, Japan, and Australia aligned with America) and gave NATO a global vision to contain China. President Biden has followed Trump’s initiatives in Asia after his own approach failed to deter Putin in Europe. Cold War II can be won like Cold War I without becoming World War III if deterrence maintains the peace that protects the status quo.
William R. Hawkins is a former economics professor who served on the professional staff of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. He has written widely on international economics and national security issues for both professional and popular publications.