Commentary |
29 October 2021

What Taiwan really wants

Originally published in The New York Times.

Natasha Kassam
Natasha Kassam

It started with an innocuous question from a town hall audience: A student asked President Biden whether he would vow to protect Taiwan from China.

Mr. Biden’s response — a quick “yes,” then “yes” again when pressed by a CNN anchor — was instant breaking news globally. The White House almost immediately moved to walk back the comments.

The foreign policy kerfuffle was brief but underscored the high stakes when it comes to Taiwan.

Relations between China and Taiwan are at their worst point in decades. Military provocations are rising: Record numbers of Chinese warplanes have crossed into Taiwan’s air defense zone in recent weeks, a stark reminder of Beijing’s desire to absorb Taiwan.

Some U.S. lawmakers — in both parties, echoed by former officials and commentators — have been calling for Washington to commit to a firm security guarantee toward Taipei and ditch the longstanding U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity, or at least to seriously consider doing so, which leaves open the question of whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an attack from China.

So when Mr. Biden unambiguously said the United States was committed to defending Taiwan, the White House quickly clarified there was “no change” in its policy.

Whether Biden simply misspoke or was signaling his resolve to China, the suggestion of a shift to strategic clarity prompted a cautious response from Taiwan: The president’s office cautioned Taiwan would not “rashly advance” when it receives support.

That should not come as a surprise. But lost in the Beltway rhetoric is the will of Taiwan’s people. Many outsiders — myself included — are weighing in on what should be done about Taiwan. Few appear to be listening to what Taiwan is actually saying.

I study public opinion and foreign policy, specializing in China and Taiwan, and have watched anxiety over the Taiwan Strait reach a fever pitch. Decades of polling and heated debate in Taiwan’s democracy offer insight into what Taiwan really wants.

It is clear that almost all of Taiwan’s people do not want to unify with China. They want to continue living their lives as they see fit, under a democratically elected government.

In fact, most in Taiwan — 87 percent, according to a recent poll — want to maintain some form of the status quo.

The status quo means maintaining de facto independence but avoiding retaliation from China. And the percentage of Taiwan’s people who want to maintain the status quo indefinitely is growing. It is the best-case scenario in a sea of unenviable options.

To be sure, if there were no risk of invasion from China, the majority would choose independence.

But China’s President Xi Jinping has made clear that such a declaration is not available to Taiwan. So the status quo is pragmatic — and preferable.

Taipei’s responses to Beijing’s threats have been resolute, but the island nation has warned against unilateral changes to the status quo. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen called for “maintaining” it in her recent National Day address, saying “we will do our utmost to prevent the status quo from being unilaterally altered.” While “status quo” for Taiwan is not a static idea, the broad contours of Chinese, U.S. and Taiwanese policy roughly define what has been acceptable as the status quo.

Taiwan can exist as an independent state, with its own elections, judiciary, currency and military. China doesn’t relinquish its claim to Taiwan, and other countries avoid recognizing Taiwan as a sovereign state, instead pursuing informal relations with it. The United States sells Taiwan arms for self-defense and does not clarify whether the United States will defend Taiwan if China invades. This serves to deter Beijing while not provoking it.

That works for Taiwan.

“Tsai has set the tone,” read a recent editorial in The Taipei Times. “There is no need for Taiwan to declare independence.”

Like Ms. Tsai, senior figures across parties in Taiwan are calling for international support while urging caution against escalation. Influential Taiwanese have been warning against warmongering and saber-rattling. That all helps explain why Mr. Biden’s remarks last week raised such alarm. A Beijing official warned that the United States should “be cautious with its words.”

A shift to strategic clarity from strategic ambiguity would likely be interpreted by China as a sign that Washington intends to support a formal declaration of Taiwanese independence. Then Mr. Xi could claim he had no choice but to act militarily. The lives of millions of Taiwan residents would be at stake.

To be clear, it is China’s aggression that is threatening lives in Taiwan. Increased aerial incursions are a challenge to the status quo.

In response, Taiwan’s leaders have stressed domestic resilience while asking partners to advocate on its behalf in international institutions. Rather than calling for an explicit mutual defense guarantee, Taipei is seeking further security cooperationeconomic links and opportunities to join regional trade initiatives.

These moves are not an attempt to change the status quo but rather a response to China’s efforts to tip the balance. Taiwan’s requests are measured and moderate, designed to create more space for it to exist without crossing Beijing’s red lines.

The United States has an important role to play in communicating that China’s threats will not be tolerated without cost. Closer Taiwan-U.S. relations can help to keep the peace and are supported by most people in Taiwan. Three-quarters of them want the United States to help Taiwan participate in international organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

Signals from Washington to Tokyo, Canberra and Seoul show Beijing that Taipei is not isolated. But the risk of miscalculation is high. In this fraught moment, the United States’ response must be to follow Taiwan’s lead.

Otherwise, the risk is that various nations will act with urgency to suit their own domestic settings — inching closer to a catastrophic war, without reference to Taiwan’s people, or viewing Taiwan as a problem to be solved, a flashpoint or the most dangerous place on earth, not a peaceful democracy of 24 million people.

Of course, if Beijing does take hostile action, all bets are off. Ms. Tsai’s moderate path would no longer be tenable, and Taipei would need to look to Washington for unambiguous support.

But this is unlikely to happen in the short term. U.S. and Taiwan defense officials agree that China could be several years away from having the capability to invade Taiwan.

Helping Taiwan requires understanding the history and political aspirations of the people of Taiwan. Yes, measured responses are needed to Beijing’s provocative actions. But those wanting to help should take their cues from the people they claim to defend.