On December 9, 2003, in the presence of visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, President George W. Bush broke significant new ground in U.S. relations with China and Taiwan. Having pledged in April 2001 to do "whatever it takes" to help Taiwan defend itself, Bush changed tack, reaffirming U.S. support for maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. Of even greater significance, he rebuked Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, stating that "the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose."

Bush's volte-face was prompted by moves by Chen in the run-up to Taiwan's March 2004 presidential election. Chen is pushing for an unprecedented public referendum that would condemn China's growing missile threat and its refusal to renounce the use of force against Taiwan. He has also proposed a new constitution to replace the version used by the island since the 1940s. The Chinese government believes that Chen's proposals would move Taiwan much closer to permanent separation from the mainland, and so Beijing has threatened coercive measures to prevent such an outcome. This scenario would almost certainly lead to a confrontation with the United States, possibly involving armed conflict.

Although Wen and other senior Chinese officials have expressed appreciation for Bush's words and have moderated their reaction to Chen's proposals, the situation is by no means under control. Chen continues to downplay Bush's efforts to restrain him, claiming that he is advancing the democratic cause and strengthening Taiwan's ability to resist Chinese intimidation. These arguments have received a sympathetic hearing from some conservatives and liberals in the U.S. Congress, who were enraged by Bush's rebuke and argue that Washington has a moral obligation to endorse Chen's call for national plebiscites and a new constitution. Some critics even advocate ignoring China's concerns over Taiwan altogether, abandoning support for the "one China" policy (the view that Taiwan is a part of China), and endorsing Taiwan's right to self-determination, thus compelling Beijing to accept the reality of Taiwanese independence.

But these critics make three faulty assumptions: that Beijing would ultimately permit Taiwanese independence rather than confront the United States; that an expression of democratic self-determination is sufficient to establish territorial sovereignty and that democracy is incompatible with any political arrangement short of formal independence; and that it is immoral, as well as fundamentally contrary to U.S. interests, to oppose any manifestation of democracy in Taiwan. Once these assumptions are debunked, the prudence of maintaining the status quo becomes apparent.


China very much wants to avoid conflict over Taiwan. But this does not mean that it would be unprepared to go to war over the island. For China's leaders, the Taiwan issue is inextricably related to national self-respect and regime survival. The island -- ruled as a prefecture by the Manchu Qing Dynasty for more than two hundred years before becoming a Chinese province in 1887 -- was forcibly seized by imperial Japan in 1895 and came under de facto U.S. protection shortly after Japan's defeat in World War II. Beijing regards the eventual reunification of China and Taiwan as essential to China's recovery from a century of national weakness, vulnerability, and humiliation, and to its emergence as a respected great power.

Today, however, China's main objective is not to assert direct territorial rule over Taiwan but to avoid the island's permanent loss. Losing Taiwan against Beijing's will would deal a severe blow to Chinese prestige and self-confidence: Chinese leaders believe that their government would likely collapse in such a scenario. Taiwanese independence would also establish a dangerous precedent for other potentially secession-minded areas of the country, such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. This is the primary reason why the Chinese leadership will not jettison the one-China principle, the recognition of which remains a precondition to any serious political negotiations with Taipei. To discard such a principle would cast serious doubt on the Chinese government's claim that the island and the mainland are parts of a single sovereign authority. China has offered Taiwan a form of political reunification that would grant the island operational autonomy in domestic affairs, but, in return, Taipei would have to acknowledge a single shared sovereignty. China also refuses to renounce its use of force over the island, claiming that the ability to employ force over one's territory is an essential attribute of sovereignty. Removing that threat would also lift what China regards as an essential deterrent to the island's moving even more determinedly toward independence.

China's leaders are under few illusions about the detrimental effects a coercive strategy would have on Beijing's ties with the United States. But China would almost certainly sacrifice good relations with the West (and the economic benefits that accrue from those relations) in order to avoid losing Taiwan. The damage to China's political and social stability in being seen to lose territory, in other words, would be even greater than the diplomatic and economic damage resulting from a conflict with the United States.

The Chinese leadership would thus almost certainly fight to avoid the loss of Taiwan if it concluded that no other alternative existed, even if its chances of prevailing in such a conflict were low. Exactly how much blood and treasure China would be willing to expend over the issue is unclear, but it might be considerably more than the United States would be prepared to shoulder. Indeed, many Chinese believe that, in the final analysis, Taiwan matters far more to China than it does to the United States. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that the Chinese government can be persuaded or coerced to alter its calculus regarding Taiwan, especially not by a U.S. government that appears to be supporting Taiwan's independence. This notion directly contradicts a key assumption held by critics of the status quo.

Moreover, the maintenance of cooperative, if not necessarily amicable, relations with the Chinese government is critical to U.S. regional and global objectives. These objectives include preserving a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Asia; resolving the North Korean nuclear weapons crisis; maintaining peace between India and Pakistan; advancing the United States' ever-burgeoning economic interests in China; strengthening enforcement of international nonproliferation regimes; and prosecuting the war on terrorism.

A war with China over Taiwan would, of course, be far more dangerous than any of the United States' post-Cold War operations. Although not a match for the United States, China is nonetheless a continental power with very large conventional ground, naval, and air forces, as well as a nuclear weapons arsenal capable of reaching any target in the United States and beyond. Taiwan's proximity to China, the difficulty involved in interdicting Chinese attacks without directly striking the Chinese mainland, and the historical inclination of both sides to display resolve in a crisis through decisive -- and sometimes rapid -- military action suggest that escalation might prove extremely difficult to control.

None of this is intended to imply that Taiwan is not worth supporting or defending. In fact, the island is of considerable importance to the United States for at least three reasons. First, Washington's policies toward Taipei directly affect the credibility of U.S. commitments to other potentially destabilizing regional or global issues. Second, U.S. support for Taiwan is closely tied to U.S. interests in nurturing newly established democracies, especially those that are threatened by authoritarian governments. And third, it is always important to demonstrate loyalty to long-time friends.

It is a mistake, however, to think that safeguarding these interests and warding off a confrontation with China are mutually incompatible goals. That would be true only if Beijing were clearly and irrevocably committed to employing force against Taiwan, which is not the case. Rather, China's deployment of military forces along the Taiwan Strait is intended to deter Taiwan and the United States from closing off the option of eventual reunification. The chances of a confrontation between Beijing and Washington, in other words, could be reduced further if China's leaders believed that the option of ultimate reunification remained on the table for the foreseeable future. Any such judgment is directly related to U.S. policy toward Taiwan. Not only can the United States decisively affect Taiwan's behavior, but determined U.S. support for an independent Taiwan could eventually elicit the backing of the majority of the international community. Thus U.S. policymakers must not ignore or downplay Chinese views. In particular, Washington must reassure the Chinese that their worst fear -- independence for Taiwan -- will not be realized without their consent.


At the same time, however, the United States must avoid giving Taiwan the impression that it will permit China to coerce the island into submission. This would undermine the United States' credibility and its support for democracy. Even worse, it might convince Taiwan to seek alternatives to U.S. military support, perhaps even raising the specter of nuclear deterrence. The United States should also attempt to convince China's leaders that they must soften their stance toward Taiwan and make China more attractive to Taiwanese citizens. The best way to do this would be to encourage democratization in China via greater social and economic contact and sustained efforts to promote the rule of law. Any unilateral attempt to compel China to drop essential elements of its long-standing policy -- such as the one-China principle or the use of force -- would simply alarm Beijing and could result in unnecessary conflict.

Military and diplomatic deterrence, balanced by an adequate level of reassurance, is also essential to the maintenance of stability. Under existing conditions, words alone will not convince Beijing that force is irrelevant or too dangerous to employ in an effort to avoid losing the island. The Chinese leadership continues to fear that the United States might eventually support the permanent separation of Taiwan from China. Washington must therefore minimize the risk of China's miscalculating its interests, by keeping the stakes of a first military move by Beijing extremely high. This requires a consistent and energetic reiteration by the United States that it will not tolerate any attempt by Beijing to coerce Taiwan into submission. It also requires the creation and maintenance of a credible military deterrent by both the United States and Taiwan.

Taipei, in particular, must develop a genuine ability to defend itself against possible Chinese attacks, including a rapid decapitation strike timed to occur before any U.S. assistance can arrive on the scene. There is considerable evidence that China is seeking to acquire the ability to launch just such a strike. Unfortunately, Taiwan is unable to credibly deter or deflect a Chinese attack (especially a rapid strike) at present, despite greatly increased levels of U.S. assistance. Indeed, it appears that many Taiwanese political and military leaders incorrectly believe that the island does not need to acquire such capabilities and can rely on the United States entirely.

Ultimately, the extent to which the United States and Taiwan must rely on deterrence is inversely related to the success of Washington's efforts to reassure China that it is committed to the status quo. As President Bush has recognized, such efforts are likely to be more successful if greater levels of trust can be created through the establishment of a stronger, more cooperative, Sino-American relationship. They are likely to be less successful if the relationship is allowed to deteriorate through insufficient attention to each other's interests. Chinese officials will be less bellicose and more patient if they believe Washington is not colluding with Taipei to favor independence. Insufficient reassurance -- even if it is combined with a strong deterrence posture -- could eventually provoke China into a desperate use of force, in the belief that Washington might use its superior military capabilities to protect Taiwan from a Chinese attack as the island moved toward independence. Efforts to strengthen deterrence, in other words, must be carefully coordinated with a larger strategy of reassurance if stability is to be maintained.


Taiwan has been free to prosper and develop a vibrant democracy largely thanks to an understanding reached during the normalization of U.S.-China diplomacy in the 1970s. At that time, China pledged that it would seek a peaceful solution to the Taiwan issue in exchange for a U.S. commitment not to challenge (and, by implication, not to undermine) the one-China position. The Taiwanese government concurred that it understood the island to be part of China. But Taiwan's recent emergence as a democracy has cast doubt on -- if not eliminated altogether -- that commitment. The political influence of the Chinese nationalist minority on the island has waned, in favor of a growing separatist-leaning Taiwanese leadership.

It is imperative that the United States not follow Taiwan's lead in pressing for a unilateral change in the status quo. Given the high risks involved, the original understanding achieved between the United States and China should be adjusted only as a result of negotiations between the two powers, rather than through unilateral actions undertaken by either side or by Taiwan. In other words, Taiwan's democratization and the consequent "Taiwanization" of the island's political system do not automatically justify the unilateral abandonment of the United States' original pledge.

Furthermore, the U.S. government must not assume that Taiwan's citizens are uniformly committed to achieving full and permanent independence from China. Public opinion polls over the past decade have consistently shown that most Taiwanese people oppose any abrupt movement toward either independence or reunification. Moreover, a highly reputable recent study indicates that older Taiwanese citizens (who experienced the sometimes brutal rule of the Chinese nationalists) are more likely to view themselves as purely Taiwanese than their younger counterparts. Many of the latter identify themselves with both Taiwan and China, thus suggesting that Taiwan's population might become less inclined toward formal independence in the future. Overall, a clear majority recognizes the value of remaining pragmatic and open-minded about the future, acknowledging China's stance toward Taiwan, Beijing's growing military capabilities, and the enormous benefits that accrue to Taiwan as a result of deepening economic and social contact with the Chinese mainland. That said, most of Taiwan's citizens do not want to be ruled by the current Chinese regime and would prefer a greater level of international recognition as a nation.

The Taiwanese people's national aspirations -- and their willingness to undertake risks in achieving those aspirations -- are heavily influenced by the cues they receive from their political leaders, as well as the actions, or inaction, of the United States and China. In short, Taiwan's leaders significantly shape, and do not merely reflect, the island's sense of self-identity and its population's moves toward self-determination. For this reason, the United States must carefully evaluate the behavior of Taiwan's leaders and not shirk from shaping it in ways that support U.S. interests.

As part of this process, the United States must dispel the assumption -- held by conservatives in the United States and pro-independence politicians in Taiwan -- that a people's expression of self-determination is tantamount to actual territorial sovereignty. Neither the United States nor the international community has ever validated the notion that the majority views of a given people, whether expressed through democratic processes (such as a referendum) or other means, justify an inherent right to independence. Territories such as Chechnya, Kashmir, Kosovo, and Tibet are not recognized by the international community as independent states, despite the fact that a majority of their inhabitants would likely support independence. Rather, recognition of a people's status as a nation-state is conferred by the international community and is highly subject to the calculations and interests of the most influential powers involved. By this standard, Taiwan is not currently an independent nation, since the vast majority of the international community -- including the United States -- does not accept it as such.


Moral imperatives to intervene in international relations emerge only when another entity, usually a government, inflicts grave harm on innocent people. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass rape, and slaughter are examples of morally repugnant activities that warrant such interventions. Other deprivations may also be sufficient for the international community to act: economic enslavement, systemic state-imposed poverty, or denial of political rights and liberties, for example. These types of maltreatment do not typically lead other nations to initiate war, but they may prompt concerted political and economic pressure on the injuring state. Taiwan suffers none of these injuries. Its people are not being killed, ethnically cleansed, or raped by China. And it enjoys economic liberty and growing prosperity under freely elected democratic rule. The main limitation that China imposes on Taiwan is against its establishing de jure independence, as distinct from the de facto independence it currently enjoys. This hardship is regrettable, but no reasonable standard of international morality requires the United States to risk military intervention to redress it. From a moral standpoint, Washington's top priority should be to avoid precipitating war across the Taiwan Strait, a situation that would inflict incomparably greater suffering on the island than would continuing its de facto autonomy.

Critics of the one-China policy are also wrong to suggest that support for democracy in Taiwan obligates the United States to endorse the formation of an independent and sovereign nation-state. On the contrary, democracy will continue to thrive only if unilateral strides toward independence are rejected, because moves to alter the status quo would probably result in a devastating conflict on the island. U.S. strategic, political, and moral interests are thus best served by a policy that seeks not only to deter the use of military force but also to ensure that reunification between Taiwan and China remains an option.

At present, the most immediate threat to such a policy is presented by the actions of President Chen. Upon taking office in 2000, Chen pledged that he would avoid taking unambiguous steps toward independence -- including holding referendums that affect Taiwan's sovereign status -- as long as China did not intend to attack Taiwan. Now, claiming that such an intention exists, Chen wants to hold a national referendum on Taiwan's presidential election day, March 20, ostensibly to gauge the public's views of China's missile deployments and "use of force." To justify this move, Chen has invoked a recently passed law that permits the president to call "defensive" referendums in response to dire threats against Taiwan's national security.

Yet China's buildup of missiles and the country's refusal to renounce the possible use of force to prevent Taiwanese independence are not new threats. They have been a major element of the cross-strait imbroglio for many years and do not constitute clear evidence that Beijing actually intends to attack the island. As indicated above, China's posturing reflects Beijing's deterrence calculus and is an expression of its claim to sovereign authority over Taiwan. There is no doubt that the vast majority of Taiwan's citizens would express concern about Chinese saber-rattling if asked. But this begs the question, If the popular response is so predictable, why hold a referendum at all?

Chen is using the referendum to bolster his standing with Taiwan's voters and, perhaps even more important, may use it to create for himself a handy excuse for disregarding his original pledge not to alter the status quo. If the referendum passes, Chen could claim that the Taiwanese public has confirmed China's intention to attack the island and thereby could justify further moves toward independence. His next step would most likely be to enact an entirely new constitution via a second national plebiscite (as opposed to revising or amending the existing constitution). Such a move would sever any legal or procedural continuity with Taiwan's existing political system. Most important, it would negate the past source of Taiwanese sovereignty, which, according to the existing constitution, resides with the people of "China." Although this provision may seem fictional, it has proved highly useful, indirectly helping to preserve the peace for more than 50 years. Redefining the source of state legitimacy as belonging to the citizens of Taiwan alone would almost certainly persuade a large number of Taiwanese that "one China" no longer exists and that Taiwan is a separate sovereign state. Although such a self-definition would not be tantamount to independence, China would perceive it as precluding the possibility of reunification, which would greatly increase the chances of a conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan.

Washington is thus fully justified in discouraging Chen from holding a referendum, as part of its broader effort to establish the conditions underlying its political and military support to the island. The current leadership must be disabused of the notion that the United States will defend the island under any circumstances. Such a policy would be entirely morally justified, would in no way threaten Taiwan's democracy, and -- most important -- would best protect U.S. interests. On the Chinese side, Washington must seek both to deter China militarily and to assure Beijing that the reunification option remains on the table. To these ends, President Bush's recent policy shift is a step in the right direction.

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  • Michael D. Swaine is Senior Associate and Co-Director of the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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