The April standoff on Hainan Island following the collision of a U.S. spy plane with a Chinese fighter jet was a striking reminder of how troubled the relationship remains between the world's most powerful country and its most populous one. The sources of contention in that standoff—the purpose of reconnaissance flights, the interpretation of national sovereignty, and the handling of public diplomacy—could provoke a future standoff on another, more critical island: Taiwan. Although the spy-plane drama ended happily with the homecoming of the detained American crew, unresolved military and diplomatic issues promise greater discord to come in the U.S.-China relationship—a simmering conflict that could soon explode over the status of Taiwan.

Washington's official relationship with Beijing on the one hand and its unofficial relationship with Taipei on the other represent perhaps the most complex foreign-policy balancing act in the world today. At stake are a number of core U.S. foreign policy goals: the promotion of democracy, the preservation of U.S. credibility, loyalty to traditional allies and friends, the engagement and integration of an emerging power into the international system, and the maintenance of peace and stability in Asia as a whole. The interplay and clash among these various goals make the Taiwan Strait an unpredictable and therefore dangerous place. Moreover, Taiwan's recent democratization has undermined the "one-China" policy and made the prospect of conflict increasingly likely. Compounding the problem is the deep division within the U.S. foreign policy elite over how to maintain the increasingly fragile peace there. Perhaps nowhere else on the globe is the situation so seemingly intractable and the prospect of a major war involving the United States so real.


When Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek ruled the mainland and Taiwan, respectively, the issue at stake was not whether there was only one China, but who its legitimate ruler was. Chiang sought to retake the mainland for the Republic of China (ROC), while the People's Republic of China (PRC) sought (and continues to seek) to bring the "renegade province" of Taiwan back into the fold, thus completing the Chinese communist revolution.

The one-China concept, however, has become increasingly blurred in recent years. The PRC has modernized its economy, but its political system remains very similar to the one Mao created more than 50 years ago. Over the same period, Taiwan has developed from an authoritarian state with a primitive economy into a prosperous free-market democracy. Although many observers in the PRC and some in the United States may still view the dispute over Taiwan's status as the last manifestation of a decades-old civil war, developments on the island over the past decade have changed the essential character of the divide.

In 1991, Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui officially recognized the ROC's lack of authority on the mainland—stating the obvious while effectively severing the lingering political bond between Taipei and Beijing. Then, last year, the Taiwanese people elected President Chen Shui-bian, who has advocated formal independence and whose party has had no ties and little contact with the mainland. Since taking power, Chen's government has questioned the PRC's 1992 declaration of a "consensus" on the one-China principle and has rejected Beijing's requirement that Taipei accept the principle as a prerequisite for dialogue, preferring instead to put the principle itself up for discussion.

After 50 years of de facto independence (not to mention a previous 50 years of Japanese colonialism), Taiwanese citizens have developed a cultural identity distinct from that of their mainland counterparts. The island's mainstream culture is becoming more and more Taiwanese, with the Taiwanese dialect gaining currency over the official Mandarin Chinese dialect, and with Taiwan's indigenous history increasingly being taught in schools. As time passes, the political, cultural, and emotional divide between Taiwan and the mainland will only widen further, even as economic and commercial ties continue to develop.

So far, however, the PRC seems unable to understand and deal effectively with Taiwan's changing political climate. The rise of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party has challenged the mainland's Chinese Communist Party to consider a new paradigm for its relations with the island, but the CCP has yet to implement one. Instead, it continues to develop its ties with the formerly ruling Kuomintang Party through public and private meetings in Beijing and Hong Kong. The PRC's determination to deal with only those Taiwanese who agree with its interpretation of the one-China policy has exacerbated the cross-strait divide.

Moreover, the PRC does not seem to understand that threats more often repel than compel democracies—and that Taiwan is no exception. Instead of offering incentives for Taipei to consider reconciliation, Beijing continues to practice intimidation tactics, including the rapid deployment of missiles across the strait. This coercive policy has proven counterproductive, reducing rather than enhancing the confidence and trust needed for dialogue.

At the same time, Taiwan's transition to democracy has changed the way it manages domestic issues and popular opinion. In the past, the ROC's authoritarian regime could ruthlessly impose its decisions on its people without regard to their will. Today, public attitudes and sentiments play a significant role in shaping government initiatives. Such democratic accountability may moderate the zeal of pro-independence leaders such as Chen, since any elected official must maintain cross-strait stability to stay in office. At the same time, however, democratic accountability will also prevent any dramatic moves toward the PRC, given the Taiwanese people's preference for the status quo.

Fundamentally, the CCP sees Taiwan's democratic developments as an implicit challenge to its own authority and legitimacy. Last year's ROC presidential election, which led to the first peaceful democratic transition of power in Chinese history (on the mainland or in Taiwan), undercut the CCP's long-standing contention that democracy is not consistent with Chinese, or Asian, values. Thus the longer Taiwanese democracy continues to thrive, the more the CCP fears it may serve as a model for disgruntled segments of its own populace.

Moreover, the defeat of the Kuomintang in last year's ROC election represents a passing of the old guard in Taiwan, implicitly challenging the legitimacy of the old guard within the CCP as well. Indeed, the recently published Tiananmen Papers, detailing the regime's deliberations during the 1989 student uprising in Beijing, portrays a party elite deeply concerned about its political legitimacy and control.


Over the last 50 years, the Taiwan Strait has been the site of an almost ritualistic pattern of military conflict. The ROC-controlled islands of Quemoy and Matsu, for example, were the scene of a tense Cold War standoff during the 1950s; beginning later that decade and continuing for two more decades, the PRC regularly shelled these islands according to an announced schedule.

After a brief thaw in relations during the 1980s and early 1990s, the Taiwan Strait has been remilitarized over the past five years. The origin of this military escalation is a matter of continuing dispute. Beijing argues the process began in 1992 with the U.S. sale of F-16 fighter aircraft to Taiwan. The Taiwanese counter that they bought the F-16s only in reaction to the PRC's acquisition of a squadron of SU-27 fighter aircraft from Russia. Whatever its origin, this "action-reaction" cycle has led both sides to intensify their military preparations.

The PRC has dusted off war plans previously left on the shelf. Over the last several years, the training regimen, doctrine, writings, weapons procurement, and rhetoric of the People's Liberation Army have all turned to focus on a Taiwan attack scenario. An entire generation of PLA officers has been trained to plan and execute a military invasion of the island. Top generals have been acquiring military support from Russia and Israel to create armaments designed specifically to combat Taiwan (and potential U.S. intervention on the island's behalf), including sophisticated aircraft, missiles, destroyers, and other advanced military technologies. The military systems that Beijing has fielded over the past five years look less like heavily armored bargaining chips and more like true military capabilities that could be used on the battlefield.

In response, Taiwan has started to modify its military institutions, capabilities, and strategies to combat a growing threat from the mainland. The ROC military, for instance, has sought to instill greater professionalism in its ranks and adopt more modern modes of warfare. Taiwan has traditionally taken a purely defensive approach to a potential military conflict with the PRC. But today's strategists suggest that claiming an advantage at an early stage in a clash may be essential for the island's survival, leading ROC military officials to think more in terms of quick strikes and rapid escalation.

Taiwan has also purchased a wide array of advanced defensive weapons, largely from the United States, which is currently its only reliable provider of military assistance. In the past, the ROC had focused on acquiring weapons to counter the growing numbers of ballistic missiles being deployed across the strait by the PRC. This year Taiwan's wish list concentrated on naval weaponry intended to combat any threat of a blockade by the mainland. During the annual arms-sales negotiations this April, Washington agreed to sell Taipei a robust package of naval systems, including diesel submarines, Kidd-class destroyers, P-3C antisubmarine aircraft, advanced torpedoes, and minesweeping helicopters.

Taiwan had also sought to purchase advanced Arleigh Burke-class destroyers equipped with AEGIS air-defense radar—a request that took on deep symbolic meaning for both sides of the strait. Beijing viewed the AEGIS system not only as a potential element of a future missile defense, but also as a harbinger of greater U.S.-Taiwan defense cooperation, which could embolden independence advocates on the island. At the same time, Taipei viewed the AEGIS technology not only as a necessary defense against a growing air threat from the PRC, but also as a comforting signal that the United States would maintain its commitment to the island's defense. In April, President George W. Bush deferred the AEGIS decision, partly to avoid a dramatic rift in U.S.-China relations so early in his administration. This deferral does not end the controversy, however; it merely postpones it until his administration is more firmly in place. In fact, Bush's decision later that month to end the annual arms-sales negotiation process suggests that he could change his position on the AEGIS issue at any time.

The AEGIS controversy is just one example of how discussions among Washington, Beijing, and Taipei have shifted toward military issues and away from the more promising commercial and economic ones long favored by moderates in all three capitals. During the April arms-sales talks, both sides of the strait placed disproportionate weight on a particular arms sale (the AEGIS system), thus framing the dispute in military rather than political terms. Such a mindset allows both sides to ignore the political issues involved and may unleash a destructive dynamic of military action and reaction.

Exacerbating the problem is the lack of military and political communication between Beijing and Taipei. The assumptions that animate policies in both capitals are often drawn from misleading and contradictory information about the other side. The potential for miscalculation resulting from a lack of understanding and direct contact has grown substantially in recent years. Last year, for example, fighter aircraft from both sides flew perilously close to one another around the arbitrary line that separates the operational training areas of the two armed forces. On several instances, the military aircraft were loaded with live ordnance. As cross-strait flights and military exercises increase, misunderstandings and miscalculations that could escalate into real military conflict will also increase. In today's militarized Taiwan Strait, inadvertence is as dangerous as premeditation.

In an attempt to remedy this situation, the United States has tried over the last several years (albeit mostly at the semi-official level) to encourage both sides to contemplate a host of measures aimed at building trust and improving communication. A number of Cold War models have been suggested, including a hot line, exercise notification, and a joint air-traffic-control center. These suggestions, coming mostly from the American academic community, have been met with stony silence, particularly from the PRC. After all, the Chinese goal is to erode confidence and security in Taiwan, not enhance it. For its part, the ROC has traditionally rejected confidence-building arrangements for fear that the United States might step back from its defense commitments as a result. Although Taiwan has demonstrated more interest in such measures in recent years, it is unclear whether that interest is genuine or whether it is just a way to distinguish the ROC position from the mainland one.

Not only do the PRC and Taiwan lack military communication, but they also lack political dialogue. Normally such a situation would invite outside mediation to help break the stalemate. However, no such international efforts are underway, either in the United Nations or in Asia's security talk shop, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' Regional Forum. Although Asian leaders recognize that a cross-strait conflict would be detrimental to regional peace, stability, and development, no one wants to get involved for fear of angering the PRC. Even those Asian leaders who could counsel restraint and mount regional pressure on Beijing have remained silent.

Likewise, the United States has avoided stepping in, despite its important diplomatic role in virtually every other hot spot around the world. Even though the Taiwan Strait is one of the few places in the world where U.S. forces may be drawn into a major conflict at a moment's notice, Washington has refrained from actively helping to ease tensions or to facilitate a resolution of the dispute. This state of affairs strikes many in the security community as particularly curious, if not dangerous.


U.S. policy toward the Taiwan Strait has often been described as one of "strategic ambiguity." At first, the policy was a primarily political stance: Washington maintained an agnostic position on the ultimate status of Taiwan, requiring only that the matter be settled peacefully, by mutual agreement, and without coercion. Over time, however, the policy became increasingly defined in military terms. Washington did not make clear what actions it would take in the event of a cross-strait conflict, adhering only to the well-worn verse in the Taiwan Relations Act that the United States would "consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means ... a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States." Washington refrained from being more explicit about its response, believing that uncertainty would deter both Beijing and Taipei from making any provocative moves.

This policy of ambiguity has become difficult to explain and perhaps even more difficult to implement in recent years. It has hindered routine consultations with U.S. allies because even senior U.S. officials are not sure what Washington would do in the case of a true crisis. It has also severely constrained communication and planning with Taiwan's political and military authorities—essential elements of effective crisis management. In 1995-96, for example, Pentagon planners and intelligence specialists did not know how Taiwan would respond to the PRC's provocative missile tests across the strait. This blind spot in a tense situation was a wake-up call to the United States, leading to a substantial increase in military contact with Taiwan during the Clinton years. These meetings, however, remained unofficial and behind the scenes.

In response to these difficulties, a growing debate has emerged about whether the United States should move toward a policy of more explicit deterrence to prevent both provocative ROC political actions and coercive PRC military steps. Many observers fear that the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity has been profoundly misinterpreted by both sides: Taiwan believes that in the end, the United States would support its independence, whereas the PRC believes that the United States would stand aside if the bullets ever started to fly. Misapprehensions of this sort can make ambiguity an ultimately dangerous strategy.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush criticized the policy of strategic ambiguity for this very reason. Four months after he took office as president, he told an interviewer on Good Morning, America that the United States would do "whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. At first, this statement seemed to counter long-standing policy and provide new clarity to U.S. commitments. But the manner in which Bush made the announcement seemed to reinforce rather than reduce ambiguity concerning U.S. commitments to Taiwan. His statement was not coordinated with Congress or U.S. allies. And in an interview later that day, he reiterated his administration's adherence to the one-China policy—a statement later affirmed by members of his foreign policy team. Whereas Bush's statement appears to have sown concern and some confusion in Beijing, Taipei has warmly embraced the increased clarity, stating that the comment made the U.S. commitment to stability in the region "more convincing."

As demonstrated by Bush's statement, the ambiguity of U.S. policy toward the Taiwan Strait is not entirely strategic. Significant disagreements within Washington muddle the U.S. position and mitigate the policy's effectiveness. This political ambiguity is not new: beginning in the 1950s, conservative Republican legislators used the U.S. commitment to Taiwan—and the related issue of "who lost China"—to attack President Harry Truman for his insufficient anticommunist zeal. And in 1979, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act to affirm abiding U.S. security commitments to the island in response to President Jimmy Carter's recognition of the PRC.

This tension between Congress and the White House continues today. Although a general consensus supports both engagement of the PRC and commitment to the security of Taiwan, Washington is becoming increasingly divided into two camps: those who see China as the next major market for the United States, and those who see China as the next major threat to the United States. These concepts are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they form the basis for lasting tensions within the China-watching community.

More ominously, the sort of bitter ideological—and often personal—conflict seen among Soviet specialists during the Cold War is beginning to emerge within the China-focused community both inside and outside of government. This trend emerged during the sharply partisan later years of the Clinton administration and continues today, marked by periodic news leaks and personal attacks on individual China specialists and policymakers. The continuation of this trend will be chilling to the kind of open, honest, and informed discussion necessary for formulating an effective China policy. It may ultimately prove dangerous for managing a situation as sensitive as that of the Taiwan Strait.


Whereas Mao and Deng Xiaoping were willing to wait 50 to 100 years for Taiwan's integration, today's PRC regime expresses a growing sense of impatience. In light of Taiwan's recent political changes, the CCP increasingly believes that time is not on its side—that Taiwan is moving further from the mainland with each passing year. Over the last few years, reports have surfaced about a possible PRC timeline for resolving its dispute with Taiwan. Beijing's February 2000 "white paper," for example, characterized the situation in the Taiwan Strait as "complicated and grim," suggesting a growing pessimistic sentiment that war is inevitable.

More ominously, the paper also enunciated a new reason for using force to resolve the Taiwan issue: the island's indefinite refusal to negotiate reunification. This statement suggested a fundamental change in Beijing's policy toward Taiwan. In the past, the PRC threatened violence should Taiwan depart from the status quo. The 2000 white paper, however, suggests that the PRC would now consider using force should Taiwan cling to the present system.

During the April spy-plane incident, moreover, certain elements of Chinese society, including the youth and the urban intelligentsia, demonstrated growing feelings of nationalism and resentment toward the United States, fueled by state propaganda. Such popular sentiments could drive the CCP to take a harsher approach toward Taiwan and the United States. Should this nationalism grow virulent, or should an economic downturn shake the government's legitimacy, the regime could be compelled to take drastic action toward Taiwan to save itself.

At the same time, Taiwan has displayed increasing impatience with its current lack of international status. As a major player in global trade and investment and as a burgeoning democracy, Taiwan desires a commensurate role in world affairs and an enhanced international profile. This desire will likely increase, clashing with the PRC's strategy of isolating the island.

The current situation in the Taiwan Strait—the escalating tensions, the lack of meaningful dialogue, and the increasingly hostile rhetoric—suggests that the U.S. approach to the region requires a wholesale review. In the end, Mao's oft-quoted warning about the need for patience in addressing the issue of Taiwan is perhaps more relevant today than it was when Mao first uttered it. Thus the best option for the United States is to help create incentives (and disincentives) that will encourage both Taipei and Beijing to maintain the undefined status quo—a middle ground between reunification and independence. Each side dislikes the current situation for its own reasons, but for both it is the best choice among unhappy alternatives.

The United States must use its diplomatic skill and military muscle to dissuade the PRC from continuing its coercive course toward Taiwan and persuade it to pursue a more constructive and conciliatory approach. Meanwhile, Washington should seek ways for Taiwan to participate in the international community while accepting the inevitable limitations of its indeterminate status.

The United States must also conduct more dialogue with key regional allies and friends, both to consider their views and to take the Taiwan situation out of its narrow bilateral context. Washington should focus on and publicize the hopeful signs of cultural interaction and commercial links between the two sides. At the same time, the United States must continue prudent contingency planning and maintain an active military presence in the region to sustain deterrence. It should also consider a more active diplomatic role to help facilitate future cross-strait discussions on political, military, and other issues.

For the past two decades, the essence of U.S. policy in the Taiwan Strait has been to preserve peace and stability in the region while indefinitely deferring the ultimate resolution of the problem. This approach has led to 20 years of prosperity and the proliferation of commercial contacts between Taiwan and the mainland. Yet today this stability shows unmistakable signs of strain. Unless both sides of the strait act creatively, Washington may find that the future it sought to postpone has already arrived.

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  • KURT M. CAMPBELL is Senior Vice President and Director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Deputy Director of the Aspen Strategy Group.
  • DEREK J. MITCHELL is Senior Fellow for Asia at CSIS.
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