Tension between China and Taiwan across the Strait is getting more intense recently. Since the Pelosi’s visit last year, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been conducting military exercises near Taiwan. As to respond to Tsai Ing-wen’s transit in the US in April, the PLA announced an integrated military training, which involved the aircraft carrier Shandong.
As an international relations scholar, I thought it would be interesting to look at how the Taiwan problem was examined.
N.B. To learn more about recent update of the PLA exercises around Taiwan, you may want to visit ChinaPower tracker.
During the early 2002, there has been numerous literature on Taiwan due to the Taiwan Strait missile crisis in 1995-6. If we look back in today’s context, the crisis thirty years ago was not as serious as people thought given by China’s military constraint. However, it was somewhat a concern back then. On the one hand, people were worried of how to address China’s policy towards Taiwan. Also, there was discussion that the crisis could possibly turn into the Cuba missile crisis.
Under such context, Thomas J. Christensen wrote this classic piece that discusses the Taiwan issue from an international relations perspective. Christensen is a neorealist. He argues that security dilemma, a popular realist concept, applies in the contemporary political context. He points out, while ‘PRC leaders fear Taiwan’s permanent independence’, they have other considerations, such as economic growth and military capability. Therefore, ‘Beijing may be willing to fight over Taiwan even against militarily superior foes, but it is hardly eager to do so’.
The main contribution of this article is to expand the application of international relations theory in East Asian security. The concept of security dilemma, as Christensen suggests, ‘concerns merely defending sovereign territory from invasion and foreign acquisition’. Therefore, theorists would assume defensive weapons systems and doctrines would ‘pose little threat to stability because they require no response from other defenders of the status quo’ – which was not how the Taiwan Strait crisis developed in the 1990s.
Clearly, Beijing has become more assertive towards Taiwan nowadays. It is no longer limited to defensive strategy. However, some of Christensen’s analysis was still applicable. For example, he suggests that Washington requires reassurance policy while pursuing deterrence towards China. Also, his judgement on ‘Beijing’s fear of eventual Taiwanese independence with U.S. backing, rather than Taipei’s actual near-term declaration of independence’, is still one of the policy suggestions among China security analysts.
I recommend this article to students. It is an illustrative example of applying international relations theory in empirical case study.
This article is written by another well-known international relations scholar, Charles L. Glaser in 2015, when it was the beginning of US-China rivalry. The Taiwan Strait was relatively peaceful during President Ma Ying-jeou. He met Xi Jinping in Singapore in 2015, which was regarded as a historical moment of cross-strait relations. At the same time, there was a rising tension in the South China Sea.
Therefore, Glaser proposes an interesting but controversial concept, the ‘grand bargain’. He suggests, the US should ‘negotiate a grand bargain that ends its commitment to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression. In return, China would peacefully resolve its maritime and land disputes in the South China and East China Seas, and officially accept the United States’ long term military security role in East Asia’. Glaser assumes that this has been US grand strategy of ‘selective engagement’. It avoids conflicts with China as a rising power. This does not only suit US security interests, but also ‘for preventing nuclear proliferation and protecting US economic interests’.
This strategy would sound impossible in today’s context. In fact, the correspondence from Leif-Eric Easley and Patricia Kim have pointed out the limitation of Glaser’s analysis. They suggest, while Glaser’s motivation is laudable, he has largely ignored the role of Taiwan and China’s assertive responses. Not to mention, Taiwanese people would refuse to become a bargaining chip of the government in Washington.
So, to what extent Glaser’s argument is still informative? As he replies in the correspondence, ‘proponents of the United States’ current China policy tend to underestimate the risks inherent in the US commitment to Taiwan, including its role in fuelling military competition and supporting Chinese elites’ negative views of US motives’. While given up Taiwan is not feasible, US’ strategic ambiguity towards China-Taiwan relations is paying a higher cost. For sure, Washington must review its policy to maintain peace in East Asia.
Written by Brendan Taylor, one of the scholars that I admire, the book has nicely summarised shifts that have affected cross-strait relations since the missile crisis in 1995. These include, the growing ambiguity of Beijing’s ‘red lines’, increase of PLA military capability, the evaporation of US political and military support in Taiwan, and shift in Taiwanese politics.
Taylor concludes, ‘The potential pathways to this flashpoint’s tipping point are multiple. If anything, they are becoming more likely. And there is little reason to anticipate a reversal of this increasingly dangerous trajectory’. This is a serious warning from an international relations scholar. More pessimistically, he suggests none of the existing policy options, such as peace agreement, grand bargaining and ‘one country, two systems’ can reduce the crisis.
Enhanced deterrence in the Taiwan Strait would perhaps be the most popular policy suggestion in Washington now. However, Taylor rather suggests the need for crisis management, which ‘“ncompass virtually any attempt to reduce tension, suspicion or uncertainty between or among disputants’. In other words, the US and its allies must consider all kinds of measures. This is indeed somewhat still lacking in US-China relations, as well as managing the cross-strait relations at the moment.
If you are looking for an update of China-Taiwan relations in the last three decades, I would recommend this book.