Dr. Dalton Lin on the Triangular Security Dynamics between Beijing, Taipei, and Washington

Without a doubt, the Taiwan Strait has been one of the most sensitive topics in U.S.-China relations since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Chinese President Xi Jinping, in what appears to be a subtle response to Washington’s growing engagement with Taipei (e.g., Nancy Pelosi’s visit, the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022), affirmed to “resolutely carry out major struggles against separatism and inference” and “firmly grasp the initiative in cross-strait relations.” To make sense of the China-Taiwan dispute and U.S. involvement in the region, I spoke with Dr. Dalton Lin, an Assistant Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and an East Asia specialist.  

Dr. Lin studies theories of international relations and foreign policy with interests in how major and lesser countries bargain in international politics and an area focus on China and East Asia. He is the executive editor of Taiwan Security Issues since 2008 and a research associate at the China Research Center. His recent works have appeared in The China Quarterly, Survival, The Diplomat, and Taipei Perspective, among various others. Prior to joining the faculty at Georgia Institute of Technology, Dr. Lin was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program. He received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.      

Could you start by describing the triangular dynamics between Beijing, Taipei, and Washington?  

Counterintuitively, the triangular dynamics between Beijing, Taipei, and Washington manifest in the Taiwan Strait “status quo.” This might sound confusing, but let me explain. 

Let’s first clarify what the Taiwan Strait status quo is. Of course, the status quo likely means different things to different people. However, Shelley Rigger’s definition probably captures the bare essentials: Taiwan’s continued government by a democratic state entirely separate from the one headquartered in Beijing. Andrew Nathan puts it simply as Taiwan sustaining autonomy without formally declaring independence. 

I offer three points from this status quo to understand the China-Taiwan-U.S. triangular dynamics. First, neither Beijing nor Taipei likes to stay at the status quo. Second and consequently, Beijing and Taipei are taking incremental steps to move the status quo to their advantage. Lastly, Washington now seems to prefer more explicitly to maintain the status quo. 

Let’s explain each of them. First, Beijing has never considered the Strait’s status quo acceptable and has tried very hard to reverse it. Thomas Christensen has long pointed out that a stabilized status quo can legalize Taiwan’s de facto independence from China, which goes squarely against Beijing’s goal of bringing the island into its fold. Therefore, staying at the status quo is detrimental to Beijing’s interests. However, Taipei hardly likes the status quo, either. Taiwan does not have a complete international personality under the status quo, and as a result, the island cannot effectively protect its interests because a lot of rights and protection in the international system are reserved only for sovereign states. For a recent example, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said in November last year that Australia is unlikely to support Taiwan in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) because it is not a recognized nation-state. Under the status quo, Taiwan thus chronically faces the risk of being marginalized in international integration and losing its lifeline: economic vitality. 

People seldom question China’s and Taiwan’s willingness to stay at the status quo because the two parties like the alternative, a spiral of tension and a shooting war, even less. However, disliking war does not mean liking the status quo. 

Since neither Beijing nor Taipei wants to stay at the status quo, both take incremental steps to move the status quo to their advantage while avoiding an unwanted armed showdown. On the Chinese side, China has tried to take small steps to chip away at Taiwan’s international status and substantiate its sovereign claim over the island. Examples are abundant. The more recent and novel ones include persuading several capitals to downgrade or close Taiwan’s trade offices and extending the policing of Beijing’s “one-China principle” to non-state actors (well-publicized incidents involving the Marriott hotel chain and three major U.S. airline carriers). The more assertive and perilous developments are China’s use of gray-zone operations beneath the threshold of lethal force to erode the status quo and incrementally establish a de facto sovereign presence in Taiwan proper. 

Taiwan is not sitting idle either and has tried small steps to enhance its international status. Examples include Taiwan’s novel strategies of vacation diplomacy in the 1990s, the check-book diplomacy before 2008, and the campaigns to join the United Nations (UN) since 1993. In recent years, Taiwan has changed course and appealed to the international community to support its meaningful participation in the UN specialized agencies. The latest example of Taiwan’s creativity is the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF), launched in 2015 with the help of the United States to build connections with officials in the Indo-Pacific and enhance Taiwan’s international presence. 

Though both sides try to shift the status quo through incremental steps, when the status quo tilts too much toward one side’s advantage, the other side will take desperate counteractions to force its rival to yield and rein in the momentum. The result is often a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui’s 1994 visit to the United States to break out of the international isolation imposed by China—which led to China’s responses with missile tests and military exercises—is one example. The result was the third Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995-96 that eventually involved Washington’s show of force. The crisis ended only after the two camps’ actions reestablished the perceptions of all involved parties and bystanders of their respective resolve in the Taiwan Strait and reset the momentum of China’s and Taiwan’s causes in the international community. Fast forward to August 2022, the drama around Speaker Pelosi’s Taiwan visit gave a sense of déjà vu. 

Therefore, the status quo in the Taiwan Strait is dynamic, not static. In the past, Washington, in fact, targeted maintaining stability but not necessarily the status quo in the Strait. The mentality was detrimental to Taiwan’s position because Beijing aptly used this mindset to advance its salami-slicing strategy and incrementally undermine Taiwan’s international status. Back then, Washington and its allies considered such matters as troubles to be avoided, not something to be defended; they kept their business with China as usual and intervened only when they were pressed by looming crises and often with stopgap measures. As a result, Taiwan’s international maneuvering space had been gradually squeezed due to the growing power asymmetry across the Taiwan Strait. With each passing tension or crisis, the momentum was reset, but the status quo ante could not be restored, leaving Taiwan with an ever-deteriorating status quo to defend.  

Back to your question, this ongoing push-and-pull dynamic status quo represent the triangular dynamics between Beijing, Taipei, and Washington we observe in the Taiwan Strait. Now, Washington seems to have made an about-face and become more willing to explicitly sustain the Taiwan Strait status quo. It is questionable whether Washington can freeze the dynamic status quo, and it remains to be seen whether the new U.S. position will alleviate Taiwan’s international frustration. However, Beijing surely would consider measures to perpetuate the Taiwan Strait status quo as adding momentum to Taiwan’s cause and detrimental to China’s interests. If history is any indication, Beijing would respond with strong countermeasures eventually and precipitate another crisis in the Strait. 

What is the “One China” policy? Is there a universal consensus about what “One China” signifies? Are there any inconsistencies between Beijing’s and Washington’s interpretation of the “One China” policy? 

The core drive of the triangular dynamics is the so-called “One China” issue. Therefore, for those concerned with peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, it is essential to understand what the “One China” issue is. Moreover, it is also critical to know how the international community has used a vague “One China” framework to help manage the issue and sustain peace in the past half a century, as well as what challenges the “One China” framework is facing today. In fact, 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China and the emergence of the current “One China” framework in international politics. Accordingly, The China Quarterly published a special section, “The ‘One China’ Framework and International Politics,” in its December 2022 volume guest-edited by Adam P. Liff and me. Interested readers, please check it out.  

Beijing’s position on the issue is codified in its “one-China principle”—there is only one China in the world, Taiwan is a part of China, and the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the sole legal government representing the whole of China. All countries that have diplomatic relations with China accept the last part that the PRC is the sole legal government representing China. However, they differ on the part that China claims it has sovereignty over Taiwan. For example, many third-party countries, notably the United States and its democratic allies, avoid taking a position on China’s sovereignty claim. The U.S. position merely “acknowledges” instead of “recognizing” the Chinese position that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of China. Therefore, we must distinguish Beijing’s “one-China principle” from other countries’ “one China” policies. Governments worldwide respond to Beijing’s demand to heed its “one-China principle” in various ways. Their responses are their “one China” policies. You can refer to a particular country’s “one China” policy, such as the U.S. “one China” policy. Still, you should be clear that many “one China” policies exist in the international community. 

I would not call the discrepancy between Beijing’s “one-China principle” and other countries’ “one China” policies an inconsistency. Rather, it is intentional flexibility built into the current “one China” framework that emerged from the 1970s when Beijing tolerated the ambiguity to facilitate the PRC’s strategic alignment with the United States and its allies against the Soviet threat. The flexibility and ambiguity instrumentally enabled China’s cooperation with the most advanced democracies and economies in the world and facilitated its rapid post-1980s rise while allowing Taiwan to maintain its autonomy and eventually democratize. Most critically, the flexibility and ambiguity have sustained the peace and stability in the region for the past five decades. Again, Adam P. Liff and I detail the substantive differences between terminologies, the ambiguity of the “One China” framework, and their impacts on international politics in The China Quarterly article “The ‘One China’ Framework at 50 (1972–2022): The Myth of ‘Consensus’ and Its Evolving Policy Significance.” Interested readers are welcome to check it out. 

Does the Taiwan issue pose a key obstacle to the normalization of relations between the U.S. and China? Or is it the case that U.S.-China relations will remain tense even without Taiwan? 

President Biden foretold the “extreme competition” between the United States and China in his first virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Since then, the competition has heated up in places from the South Pacific to Africa and on issues from supply chain resilience to dual-use technology dominance. Many observers, thus, call the tension “structural”—a rising power’s interests inevitably expand at the expense of the incumbent power. However, nowhere shows the heightened tension and the prospective dangers more than the Taiwan Strait.  

To prevent the U.S.-China competition from getting out of control, the Biden Administration has talked about setting up “guardrails.” The implied guardrail in the Taiwan Strait is the maintenance of the status quo. However, from our earlier discussion, we know maintaining the status quo is seen by Beijing as detrimental to China’s interest and thus cannot serve as the U.S.-China guardrail in the Taiwan Strait. 

The genuine and proven “guardrail” is the flexibility and ambiguity built into the “one China” framework five decades ago because the flexibility and ambiguity imply assurances to all sides. For China, assurances mean that peaceful unification remains possible. For Taiwan, assurances mean that any future settlement will not violate its citizens’ free will. For the United States and its allies, assurances mean substantive—if unofficial—ties and cooperation with Taiwan can sustain and deepen without inviting a confrontation with China. By reaffirming the assurances, history has shown that Washington and Beijing could manage their disagreement over Taiwan and that U.S.-China relations could move on.  

In your view, who should be responsible for the current escalation of the Taiwan issue?  

The triangular dynamics I described earlier show that the challenges to the Taiwan Strait status quo come from all sides. They come from China’s growing power that has enabled Beijing to assert its sovereignty over Taiwan and reduce Taiwan’s international status more aggressively. They come from Taiwan’s anxiety about its shrinking international status and the maneuvers to fend off Beijing’s pressure and preserve the island’s democracy and autonomy. They also come from the United States and its allies’ sense of urgency to support Taiwan’s resilience in the face of Chinese pressure. All sides are and need to be “responsible stakeholders” of the peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.  

How do you view Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei? In your estimation, what will happen if Kevin McCarthy visits Taiwan in 2023? 

I view Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and China’s following military exercises around the island from the push-and-pull dynamics I described. Beijing regarded Pelosi’s visit as giving too much momentum to Taiwan’s cause, which warranted strong counteractions to rein in and refresh the international community’s belief in Beijing’s resolve. I will not be surprised if a possible Speaker McCarthy’s visit meets strong counteractions from China. The danger is that in this action-reaction cycle, actors might find themselves obliged to take ever stronger responses to update people’s beliefs of their resolve to deter a similar provocation down the road. In other words, Beijing might feel obliged to counter McCarthy’s visit more aggressively because its responses to Pelosi’s visit fail to deter McCarthy’s. In response to China’s heightened counteractions, the United States might then find itself obliged to take stronger counter-counteractions. The result might be an even more volatile situation than the aftermath of Speaker Pelosi’s visit. 

Do the Taiwanese people support independence?  

I discussed this question in detail in The China Quarterly article, “‘One China’ and the Cross-Taiwan Strait Commitment Problem.” A simplified answer is that the majority of Taiwanese citizens want to maintain and strengthen Taiwan’s autonomy and international personality, but they can pragmatically compromise on de jure independence as long as they can continue their de facto autonomy. 

Could war erupt over Taiwan?  

Again, back to the triangular dynamics, war will be a result of reciprocal intentional escalation, where both feel they need to outdo their past responses to refresh others’ beliefs of their resolve on the issue, until one side finds the only option left is to cross the threshold of lethal force. Therefore, I’m afraid I have to disagree with many commentators. I don’t think war will be the result of accidents.  

In another likely scenario, war could erupt when China finds it can achieve a fait accompli with bearable costs. China continues to build up its military capabilities for a Taiwan contingency to reduce its costs of using force. China also continues to undermine Taiwan’s international personality to make a Taiwan contingency look like China’s domestic affairs to subdue the international community’s outcry against and thus the potential political, economic, and financial fallouts of using force. Notably, China uses propaganda and misinformation to amplify the impacts of these endeavors to make the Taiwanese public think that the island is militarily weak and diplomatically isolated. Together with effective gray-zone operations that establish constant military presence closer and closer to the island, Beijing could calculate that a fait accompli has become doable and thus attempt one. 

How ought Washington approach the Taiwan issue?  

In Washington, the debate on the best way to maintain cross-strait peace and stability centers around two contrasting policies: strategic ambiguity and strategic clarity. However, neither strategic ambiguity nor clarity can maintain the Taiwan Strait status quo. The debate misses the critical point that the status quo is dynamic, not static. The arguments also focus only on avoiding a Chinese invasion that would topple the premised static status quo. Unfortunately, as described in the above question, an invasion of Taiwan is not the only way the status quo could be changed. The inconvenient truth is that while China’s credible military capabilities are now enough to advise caution in Taipei against moving toward formal independence, below the level of a shooting war, China can take many measures other than an outright invasion to change the status quo on the ground. The debate between strategic ambiguity and clarity thus leaves the audience wanting. The policy of strategic ambiguity does not help Taiwan’s defense as the island watches the status quo eroding under China’s incremental actions. Neither does strategic clarity help boost Taiwan’s confidence, especially in the realm of gray-zone operations, despite it raises the anxiety of provoking Beijing. 

Rather than strategic ambiguity or clarity, I argue Washington’s policy should be strategic consistency with tactical clarity. Strategic consistency comes from the U.S. and its allies’ capabilities and political postures. For the former, consistency comes from the U.S. and allies’ capabilities of “deterrence by denial” on Beijing’s encroachment on the status quo. The United States and its allies need capabilities to react to various escalation levels—from gray-zone operations to outright invasion—with consistent effectiveness. Consistent capabilities are also required in responding to sabotages of the status quo in different domains—from scuffling Taiwan’s status in international legal terms, economic isolation and coercion of Taiwan, to military presence around the island. To demonstrate strategic consistency, Washington and its allies must take clear tactical actions such as military budget allocations, postures, deployments, training, and exercises to show they have the capabilities ready. Washington and its allies must also maintain tactical coalitions of trade, finance, and diplomacy to show their consistently effective abilities to deal with cross-domain coercion in these various areas. 

The success of the policy of strategic consistency in maintaining the dynamic status quo requires pulling things back in time to the status quo ante before Beijing advances too much, all while avoiding a spiral of tension and a war that no one wants. The latter will need the United States and its allies’ consistent political postures in line with the ambiguity and flexibility that all interested parties have operated on the disagreement across the Taiwan Strait, that is, the modus operandi under the “One China” framework established since the early 1970s. The modus operandi provides the assurances I mentioned in the earlier question. 

Are the results of the Taiwan midterm election an indicator of change in Taiwan’s political climate? Could the Kuomintang (KMT) get back the presidency in 2024?  

Taiwan politics 101 is that local elections (what you call “midterm” elections) tell you very little about national elections because cross-strait relations play no role in the former but are critical in the latter. For example, the DPP won national elections in landslides in 2016 and 2020. In between, the KMT won local elections in 2018 in landslides. Does that suffice to validate my point?