Taiwan isn’t a ‘Dirty Word’: We need to talk about Taiwan. (Part III of III).

Ben Moles

In parts I and II of this three part post I made a case for the need to talk about Taiwan, today. Here, in this final instalment  I shall continue to outline why (linked to Australia) and from where we (Australia) might begin.


Why aren’t we talking about it? Taiwan, since the 2004 Alexander Downer ‘incident’ has been a politically sensitive topic in Australia and ‘thin ice’ that very few dare venture out on to.

The Australian connection? Australia, concerning Taiwan and more specifically a Taiwan crisis scenario, is an actor that both the US and China have certain expectations of; the US, our greatest security partner, that we would militarily and diplomatically support them and China, our greatest trading partner, that we would not.

Australia’s interests? In a 2005 paper ‘Balancing Act: Taiwan’s Cross-strait challenge’ published by the Lowy Institute, Malcolm Cook and Craig Meer state that Australia’s Taiwan interests rest in maintaining the status quo. I disagree. From a purely Machiavellian perspective and to borrow from Deng Xiaoping: ‘black or white, if cats catch mice that’s all right’. Australia’s national interest in Taiwan simply rests in the issue not being resolved through force in which Australia is called upon to take sides. In correspondence with US China analyst David Shambaugh, he posited that Australia (and the US) will abide by whatever agreement the two sides (Taiwan and China) can come to providing it is: 1, peaceful and 2, has the consent of the Taiwanese people.

But what of the Taiwanese people? According to statistics provided by the Taiwanese Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), 60.5% of people wish to maintain the status quo (28.3% indefinitely and 32.2% with a yet to be determined decision to be made in the future). A further 23.3% of people wish to maintain the status quo now but with a definite decision to be made later (15.8% calling for independence later and 7.5% unification later). So all up, in one guise or another, the majority of Taiwanese people support the status quo.

However, irrespective of whether the goal is maintaining the status quo or something else, and a point reiterated throughout this series of posts, we really need to start talking more about Taiwan, today. From an Australian perspective, here are three suggestions for where we (Australia) can begin:

i) Clarify Australia’s existing Taiwan Policy and state it in response to questions relating to Australia’s Taiwan position.  

I remember, as I was writing my thesis at the time, an ABC Late Line interview with Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith (28/04/2011) who flatly rejected to even discuss Taiwan as an issue, perhaps he didn’t know it but how easy would it have been for him to state Australia’s actual Taiwan policy. In my various attempts at correspondence with the Minister of Defence, Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Secretary for the Department of Foreign affairs and Trade not once was Australia’s Taiwan policy stated to me.

Australia can de-mystify Taiwan and its discussion by simply acknowledging that it has a policy, the one China policy, and stating it: “Australia recognises the Government of the PRC as the sole legal government of China and acknowledges the position of the Chinese Government that Taiwan is a province of the PRC.” An abject failure to do so, maintaining Taiwan as a ‘dirty word’/‘taboo’ topic, adds unnecessary gravitas to the situation that we should and need to be able to talk about. Australia needn’t and indeed shouldn’t publicly speculate what it would or wouldn’t commit to in a hypothetical ‘Taiwan conflict scenario’ but shouldn’t be afraid to admit that it has a policy position and to state it. An easy first step.

ii) Convey what Australia supports and doesn’t support to the essential parties concerned: China, Taiwan, and the US.

Australia has, as an actor that both the US and China have certain expectations of, a right to have its voice heard. Australia must, as Bruce Jacobs said in a statement to a 2006 Senate report committee on the subject, “stand up and clearly state [its] position to all sides without fear or favour, this can be done quietly but it must be done.”

To Taiwan: Australia must make clear that Australia doesn’t support Taiwanese independence, however, supports the continued peaceful development in relations across the Taiwan Straits. To China: Australia must clarify that it doesn’t support a Taiwan resolution sought by the use of military coercion or armed force, however, supports the continued peaceful development in relations across the Taiwan Straits. And to the US: that Australia doesn’t support continued US arms sales to Taiwan, however, supports the US position to maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or coercion against Taiwan.

Why shouldn’t Australia support continued US weapons sales to Taiwan? For four reasons: Firstly, they really ‘piss’ the Chinese off. US-China relations sour when they occur, and when they happen they only add to the extant security dilemma; the Chinese rattle their sabres and aim a few more missiles at Taiwan, to prevent their own position being undermined, causing the Taiwanese to seek increased security and the US justification to provide it- in the form of more arms transfers (a vicious cycle). Secondly, in the 1982 Communiqué the US said they would eventually phase out arms transfers to Taiwan. Now would be a good time to phase them out and set a deadline to end them in exchange for a Chinese concession which I’ll go on to discuss. Thirdly, it would encourage Taiwan, as global technology leaders, to further develop their own indigenous defence capabilities and systems. And Fourthly, a US pledge of security (combined with that of their regional allies to support them) in the face of unprovoked military force is an adequate deterrence to a solution sought through force.

iii) Use Australian diplomatic influence with both the US and China to clarify the significance of a Taiwan resolution/ settlement to easing Asia-Pacific regional security anxiety and promote such an agreement to both parties.

Again, Australia has, as an actor that both the US and China have certain expectations of, a right to have its voice heard. Australia needn’t mediate negotiations, merely be an advocate of ideas. The risk of conflict over Taiwan can simply be reduced by both China and the US settling on an agreement that unifies and clarifies their objectives, reducing the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation.

In a joint US-China statement, the US could state that: “The US would not be opposed to Taiwan’s eventual, peaceful, consensual, reunification with China.” This is a policy statement proposed by Hugh White (with the exception that he believes the statement should commence “The US would support…”- in my conversations with a number of US security analysts ‘supporting’ isn’t a term many felt comfortable with, however, ‘not opposing’, it was felt, would be acceptable). White believes that such a statement would be a low cost, low risk means of recognising China’s position, that doesn’t concede anything to China more than it does under the current US Taiwan position, and I agree with him. Who is to say that there might not be, at some moment in the future, through peaceful means, determined by consensus of people on both sides of the straits, a decision for unification- under these circumstances who either would or could prevent it from happening?

However, the US must maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force against Taiwan, and this Australia and other regional allies, as previously stated, should support too (This can not be included in a joint-statement because it would undermine the Chinese position, but must be made clear, quietly, to China). The proposed statement with clarity defines what the US would not oppose, and by inference, what the US would oppose.

China, in return for a US commitment not to support Taiwan’s independence under any circumstance, which is already US policy, coupled with Taiwan’s commitment and assurance to drop any independence aspirations (No independence is already one of President Ma’s three No’s policy), would agree to renounce the force aspect of the anti-secession law, China could state that: “China will renounce the use of military force to pressure reunification of Taiwan with the mainland.”

To reduce the effect of, and end, the extant security dilemma both the US and China should agree a quid pro quo reduction and eventual ceasing of arms sales to Taiwan and missiles deployed against Taiwan respectively. Through removal of the security dilemma China and Taiwan are better positioned to resolve their differences through a more peaceful and mutually determined settlement, the US supported position since the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué.

An initial understanding might be that through removing the Chinese force aspect from the anti-secession law, Taiwan can make the concession of removing the ‘No unification’ statement from President Ma’s current three No’s policy (No independence, No unification, No cause for war), leaving in combination with China’s policy: ‘No force, No independence, No cause for war.’

Through such an agreement both the US and China can maintain face, the status quo can be sustained and Chinese military action against Taiwan would be less likely because China would be less anxious about the US and more relaxed about Taiwan’s trajectory.

“It’s good to talk”. These are ideas; they offer some food for thought. We have another 4 years until another round of Taiwanese/US elections. Taiwan isn’t a ‘dirty word’. At the very least, we simply need to talk more about Taiwan, today.

Ben Moles completed a Masters in International Security Studies at the University of Sydney last year and was recently an International Security Program intern at the Lowy Institute. (bwmoles@gmail.com or bmol4353@uni.sydney.edu.au). Follow on Twitter @bwmoles


5 thoughts on “Taiwan isn’t a ‘Dirty Word’: We need to talk about Taiwan. (Part III of III).

  1. Your suggestions remind me of Henry Ford’s quote “you can have any colour of car you want, as long as it’s black” – “Taiwan’s people can have any future they want, as long as it’s eventual unification with China”. How generous of you.

    It seems that the status quo you support is the one that sees Taiwan sucked ever deeper into the embrace of China. This is most definitely not the status quo as envisioned by the Taiwanese, who rather see it as a way of maintaining their de facto independence without inviting attack from China. Moreover, when asked to choose between independence and unification, an overwhelming majority choose independence (eg, a poll by TVBS – a very pro-Blue Taiwanese station – in February 2011 had 68% support for independence vs 18% for unification).

    The Taiwanese, like all other people in the world, are entitled to be able to determine their future, not have it determined for them by outside powers. If the US really believes in its own founding documents and myths, then in addition to telling China “The US would not be opposed to Taiwan’s eventual, peaceful, consensual, reunification with China”, it *must* also say “The US would not be opposed to Taiwan’s eventual, peaceful, self-determined declaration of independence.” Anything less would be hypocrisy.

  2. Thank you, Brian. That’s how I feel about it, and many of my fellow Taiwanese. It hurts to read that the most dangerous thing in this part of the world is the fact that Taiwan is democratic.

  3. I agree with Brian Schack’s comment. You acknowledge that the status quo is problematic. However, your solution seems to be that eventual unification will make the problem go away. This shows an incredible disregard for the democratic rights of the Taiwanese people. I believe any discussion about Taiwan’s future needs to be centred around the democratic rights of 23 million Taiwanese people.

  4. Firstly thanks to anyone who has commented and anybody else who finds the time. It’s good to talk- Churchill himself said so: ‘to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war’- and starting a conversation was what the piece was about.

    Michael Turton, blogging over at the ‘View from Taiwan’ (well worth a look to anybody with a Taiwan interest), has linked to these posts and a bit of a ‘discussion’ on the posts has ensued there. Here, repeated, are some of my responses to comments made there and, when not previously addressed, a comment or two on observations made here:

    @ziyou, I agree, nothing needs to be resolved right now, however, talking about Taiwan and being able to talk freely about Taiwan might be instrumental in preventing miscalculation- from all parties concerned. I certainly don’t think re-unification is the only solution, the status quo is working for the time being but the third option (independence) will require time- talking with clarity might just provide the time needed and prevent miscalculation. (in my opinion) if Taiwan was to declare independence today, I don’t think there is any ‘possibility’ in it, China would go to war with Taiwan. I would be interested to hear any other points you mentioned you had should you find the time.

    @Brock Freeman, I like your use of Henry Fords classic quote, however, I feel it has been inappropriately used in relation to what I have said, and actually think. ‘The customer can have a car painted in any colour they want providing it isn’t black (yet!)’- would be better. As I have said above, I don’t believe re-unification is the only solution (I said this in the post and nowhere in it did a say reunification was the solution), but strongly believe that a declaration of independence (now) would be a bad move. As previously mentioned, I am an IR realist, but an optimistic one. Sadly, history often shows that the strong act as they will while the weak suffer what they must- this doesn’t mean to say that ‘might is right’ so to speak, or the international system and way the world works is fine- but I think, sadly, this is a good reflection of the realities of the world. You mention self determination, and the important word there is ‘self’. The key question in relation to self determination is would Taiwan be prepared to stand by its self (alone) in determining its own future? If the answer to that is yes, then by all means you are right- no discussion necessary. However, if the answer is no, and Taiwan has certain expectations regarding the actions of others, then in order to prevent miscalculation- ‘we need to talk’.

    @Lorenzo, I actually said that the US, and its allies (including Australia), need to state with clarity their will to defend Taiwan should China seek reunification or alteration to the status quo through military force- not abandoning Taiwan or kowtowing to China. Any resident of the region should fear a war in the Taiwan straits, it would signify a quantum (and worrying) shift in current Chinese policy.

    @Brian Schack, the EPCU statement was mentioned in reference to a joint US-China statement, giving something in order to get something back- it doesn’t concede anything more to China than is currently US policy anyway. China would never agree to the wording of EP self determined declaration of independence for obvious reasons.

    @Chen Jiwen and @David Reid, I don’t actually believe or state in any of the posts that eventual re-unification is the solution. I applaud Taiwan’s democracy and certainly do not believe it to be the most dangerous thing in the region. However, a decision to declare independence or a decision to militarily force re-unification based on a miscalculation of the actions/inactions of others- might be.

    • Underpinning this discussion is an unexamined premise: that western foreign policy ought to be predicated upon managing the territorial loci of other States, in this case a formally democratic State and a formally communist State. The dispute on how to manage this conflict is a cynical betrayal of what the West is supposed to stand for.

      In stipulation to the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence – and elsewhere – what ought to be considered as the object of western foreign policy is how best to serve the principles of individualism and social freedom, but that points in the opposite direction: that western foreign policy ought to be predicated upon dissassembling and/or limiting the power which other States exercise over their territorial loci.

      Currently popular views on the security of Taiwanese people from PRC annexation focus on military and diplomatic means of dissuasion, yet all the while domestic political power remains centralized in Taiwan itself. Were PRC annexation to eventually occur, the task of imposing PRC rule over Taiwan would be made so much easier by the simple fact that the ROC government already exerts so much control over so many aspects of Taiwanese society (not least of which is the education system), and against which members of the current opposition party do not fight, but rather, await their turn in charge of the cane.

‘When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite’.

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