Rethinking the US-China-Taiwan triangle
By Brantly Womack
Taiwan’s future is with China, not against China. However, no new image of the triangular relationship of Washington, Beijing, and Taipei has replaced the security triangle formed in the Cold War era.
Taiwan will neither be remolded into a uniform part of the People’s Republic of China nor will it achieve global recognition as a sovereign state, and yet discussion of its options is often reduced to the extremes of either reunification or independence.
Taiwan’s ambiguous but not unstable status as a self-governing part of China creates a familiar and secure base for global East Asian activities especially in innovation and knowledge. Taiwan’s location should be viewed as an opportunity. Rather than seeing Taiwan as a security liability, the US should use it as a
compatible point of contact to East Asia. But this requires a rethink of the triangle.
The familiar Washington-Beijing-Taipei security triangle emerged during the Cold War as the result of irreconcilable hostility between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC - controlling only Taiwan after 1949) and the decisive military power of the United States.
The claims of both the PRC and the ROC to be the sole legitimate governments of China and the American commitment to containing communism made the triangle an unquestioned diplomatic feature until the 1972 Shanghai Communique. After normalization with the PRC, the American commitment to guaranteeing peaceful cross-Strait relations, codified in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, continued the security relationship with Taiwan despite de-recognition.
The Cold War relationship was a classic asymmetric security triangle. The strongest power is an "unwilling pivot" because it has little to gain, but its status as ultimate decision-maker rests on continuing tension between the other two. It is a peace-holder rather than a peace-maker.
The middle power is frustrated because without the threat of intervention it imagines it could be successful in resolving the tension. The smallest power is anxious because it knows that its security depends on hostility between the other two. It is an exclusive triangle: the advantage of each side depends on the tension between the other two. The triangle also requires basic stability in the balance of forces.
Since 2008, the Washington-Beijing-Taipei security triangle has become fundamentally unstable. Each leg of the triangle has become more complex. The rivalry in the relationship between Washington and Beijing has become more global but also more cautious since each needs the other in many facets of global governance.
Meanwhile, the relationship across the Taiwan Strait has become a mainstay of Taiwan's economic prospects, and avoiding crisis is now vital to the careers of the leadership on both sides. The Washington-Taiwan relationship was strained by the brinksmanship of Chen Shui-bian, president of Taiwan from 2000 to 2008, and currently doubts are raised about continuing arms sales.
Meanwhile, China has developed the military capacity to render American military assistance to Taiwan either ineffective or too costly. Thus many American analysts consider "the Taiwan problem" the greatest strategic flashpoint in Asia.
But it is the exclusivist, security-oriented mentality of the strategic triangle that is the problem, not the reality. Thicker US-China relations constrain mutual adventurism, and that is good for Taiwan. Improving cross-strait relations open new opportunities for the United States as well and they reduce the risk of crisis.
The US-Taiwan relationship also benefits China. Taiwanese industries like Foxconn are hiring Chinese workers to build American products. Fixation on the security triangle overlooks the mutually beneficial relationships that have become the actual content of triangular interactions. Moreover, China's military capacity of "area denial" still leaves it exposed to the US. The emerging US-China military relationship is one of a stalemate in which both sides are vulnerable.
Thus, the Washington-Beijing-Taipei triangle needs fundamental rethinking to make it more appropriate for present and prospective realities. Differences of interest and vulnerability remain among the three. Foxconn provides a clear example, since its labor practices have caused concern among its Chinese workers and its American contractors.
As the most exposed partner, Taiwan has reason to be cautious in expanding its engagement. But the triangle has become an inclusive economic and societal interaction in which advances between any two actors are likely to benefit the third.
For the United States, a reframing of the triangle as an inclusive, opportunity-driven triangle could be part of strategic "pivot" toward Asia. The mental shadow of the security triangle stereotypes American options as a dilemma between an increasingly risky and expensive defense commitment and losing credibility by abandoning an ally.
A thick and stable cross-strait relationship is desirable first because it lessens the likelihood of a military crisis. Second, the security triangle is the Achilles heel of US-China relations. Reducing Beijing's concerns about the American role in Taiwan would put the whole relationship on a more solid footing. Third, in an exclusivist framework Taiwan is rightly concerned about Washington-Beijing relations, but in an inclusive triangle it could play the vital and profitable role of offshore platform for American involvement with the Mainland. Taiwan as an opportunity rather than as a security problem would be a productive new framing of American involvement.
There are several distinctive American interests that must be taken into account in order for an inclusive triangle to be desirable. First, a fundamental prerequisite is confidence that the triangle will produce a self-reinforcing peaceful relationship rather than being simply a peaceful phase that might be succeeded by future confrontation.
Movement toward an inclusive triangle does not require that the "strategic distrust" between Washington and Beijing be wholly replaced by strategic trust, but it does require Washington's confidence that Beijing is fully committed to a peaceful cross-strait relationship and is not offering a carrot that will be replaced by a stick.
It would follow that the inclusive cross-strait relationship would remain immune from future confrontations between Washington and Beijing on other issues and not used as a bargaining chip or hostage. All sides should portray the shift as a shared advance of common interests rather than as the achievement of one side for its own interests.
Second, the triangle must offer new benefits to the United States. Beyond the deficiencies of the exclusivist triangle, there must be incentives created by inclusion. To some extent the advantages are prefigured by the existing triangular economic relationships such as Apple-Foxconn-China. But a peaceful and unobstructed cross-strait interaction could offer much more. Over 60 years of close economic and societal ties with the US have made Taiwan into the place in Asia most fluent with both the US and China, and its close and amicable ties with Japan give it a unique tri-cultural fluency.
The US and China have the typical big-country problem of finding it difficult to cope directly with different systems and cultures. Taiwan could provide a multi-dimensional entrepot. Its commerce is already intimately involved with all sides; its universities and other institutions are expanding their mainland cooperation.
Being offshore and under its own government, Taiwan could insulate American businesses from vulnerabilities such as intellectual property protection and unfamiliar legal systems. As the mainland market becomes the world's largest, an entrepot with fluent access and yet politically insulated becomes more valuable, and at the same time Taiwan's connections with the US and Japan should be attractive to Chinese business.
Third, the shift in triangles should enhance rather than diminish the global role of the United States. One of the new triangle's advantages over simply pulling out of defense commitments to Taiwan should be that the development is opportunity-driven rather than necessity-driven.
This requires not only enhanced economic opportunities but also a continuing influential role in the triangle. Moreover, support for an inclusive triangle should further American commitments to values like openness, human rights, democracy, and freedom of navigation.
What concrete steps could the United States take to facilitate a transition from a security triangle to an opportunity triangle? Delicate diplomacy is called for, since at present each side is suspicious of unilateral initiatives. The PRC watches for collusion between the US and Taiwan, while Taiwan is afraid that deals between the US and the PRC might sacrifice its status. Thus the first task is to have an awareness of the possibility of paradigm change and to be responsive to diplomatic opportunities as they emerge.
Second, the US should encourage track two and private initiatives that further inclusiveness. The specific challenge is to foster relationships with Taiwan that presume a peaceful cross-strait relationship and benefit all sides.
Third, the US should focus attention on the economic and societal aspects of its relationship with Taiwan. Presently Taiwan is most often discussed at "the Taiwan problem" or as a purchaser of American weapons. In fact, the US-Taiwan has always been more multi-faceted than these security matters, but the American contribution to Taiwan's socio-economic development has been shadowed by the security triangle. The existing economic realities and future regionally-embedded opportunities should be highlighted.
Fourth, the US needs to show respect for Taiwan as an international voice. Taiwan should not be left out of American diplomatic activity regarding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the South China Sea. Taiwan is not a sovereign state, but it is a stakeholder in these disputes. Its continuous occupation since 1956 of Taiping Island in the Spratlys is one of the strongest legal grounds for the Chinese claim in the area, and Taiwan's commitment to a peaceful resolution cannot be doubted.
Similarly, the Chinese claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands rests on them being part of Taiwan. President Ma Ying-jeou's proposals for participating in a negotiated solution should be taken seriously.
The Washington-Beijing-Taipei security triangle has had a long history, and the expectations of all sides remain under its shadow. But reality has already changed for the better. It is time for the thinking about the relationship to catch up and to prepare for a different future interaction that will be beneficial to all sides.
Brantly Womack is Professor of Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia and holds the C K Yen Chair at the Miller Center. His most recent book is China Among Unequals: Asymmetric International Relationships in Asia (2010).
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