Monday, April 23, 2012

Michael O’Hanlon, “One China, Two Governments,” and Taiwan’s Defense

During a recent conference hosted by the National Bureau of Asian Research and reported in the Taipei Times, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution asked the audience to consider if the US needed to “weaken” its defense commitment to Taiwan. Consideration of weakened defense commitment presumably would entail a thoughtful review of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). O’Hanlon asks if U.S. “strategy for the defense of Taiwan” has the ability to survive for another decade or two.” He also commented on perceived asymmetry of interests between America and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and injected a personal view, saying “China cares more about Taiwan than we do — it’s just a fact.”

Michael O’Hanlon is a talented and esteemed defense policy analyst, and his call for greater creativity in deliberate war planning is dead on. However, his “dramatic” question – whether or not the US needs to weaken its defense commitment to Taiwan – could be reframed in order to better focus public attention.

How to Best Align U.S. Policy With Objective Reality?

The key question we should be asking is this: How could U.S. policy toward Taiwan best reflect a more accurate representation of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait? An unintended consequence of a thoughtful review of the TRA is the introduction of alternatives. When compared side by side, normalization of relations with both sides of the Taiwan Strait -- the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) -- is more consistent with US interests than abandonment of principles through repeal of the TRA. The more the Beijing and its supporters push for abrogation of the TRA, and by extension full adoption of the CCP position on sovereignty, the more attention should be directed toward the most viable alternative -- normalization of diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Taiwan, under its existing ROC constitutional framework, exists as an independent sovereign state. The status quo today is the existence of two sovereign, independent states on both sides of the Taiwan Strait with overlapping territorial claims embedded in their constitutions – authoritarian PRC and democratic Taiwan. Taiwan is a state by any accepted definition of customary international law and practice. Millions of residents from the island carry a passport that says “Republic of China (Taiwan),” a democratically elected government that controls an area the size of Maryland, Delaware, and Rhode Island combined. Taiwan has a convertible currency, a capitol, and the capacity to make and respect international commitments. Taiwan has been one of America’s top 10 trading partners and a critical node in the international high tech supply chain. Anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time on Taiwan and in China can sense the two sides are as different as the United States is from Canada, the United Kingdom, or Australia.

“One China, Two Governments” as the Alternative to Abandonment

Dual recognition in the Taiwan Strait is unlikely but possible within the context of a “One China” policy since the PRC and ROC constitutions can be interpreted as having overlapping territorial jurisdictional claims. In other words, “One China” is embodied in constitutional overlap. Between the Conlon Report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of 1959 and the UN seat issue of 1971, the mainstream U.S. policy and academic community viewed dual recognition as in the best interest of the United States. Former National Security Advisor to President Nixon, Henry Kissinger, operated in isolation from this community, and it’s an uphill battle to recover from the colossal mistake that he still tries to glorify. He sacrificed the dual recognition option in favor of short term political expediency related to Vietnam and Nixon’s flailing public image.

Under a “One China, Two Governments” formula, the United States would continue to abstain from supporting either side’s territorial claim. Normalization of U.S.-ROC relations would not undermine a “One China” principle any more than our dual recognition of both Germanys during the Cold War. Dual recognition would not imply support for de jure Taiwan independence, and nor would it foreclose the option. Issues of independence or unification should be left to both sides of the Taiwan Strait to work out between themselves. If the two sides of the Taiwan Strait decide to unify at some point in the future, that result should be welcomed as long as it is uncoerced. And Taiwan independence should not be ruled out as a viable outcome as long as the process is peaceful.

KMT, DPP, and “One China, Two Governments”

The only reasonable and enduring solution for stable, constructive ties with both sides of the Taiwan Strait is dual recognition. Would both KMT and DPP Central Committees oppose or support normalization of US-ROC relations? Fundamental areas of consensus exist between the KMT and DPP on key policy issues. Normalization would be a dream come true for the KMT and Ma administration, but they can not openly push it. It’s possible that they could push ROC sovereignty if Beijing steps up its campaign in Washington for a “thoughtful review” of the Taiwan Relations Act. Short of that, making trouble with both Beijing and Washington at the same time would be disastrous. Many senior KMT members thought Chiang Kai-shek’s refusal to push for such an arrangement in the lead up to the UN vote in 1971 was idiotic (see Jay Taylor’s fascinating bio of Chiang Kai-shek on this issue). Oddly enough, hardline nationalists in the DPP could undermine a move within Congress in favor of normalization if it implied Taiwan is part of “One China,” regardless of how loosely “China” is defined.

Yet political competition leads toward a natural tendency of both sides to paint the other in the darkest hue of Blue or Green as possible. Americans should understand democracy and this tendency. But they often buy into pan-Blue rhetoric that casts the DPP as crazed troublemakers intent on sacrificing every drop of American blood for Taiwan independence. And they often buy DPP rhetoric that the KMT is pro-China, which is implied to be synonymous with pro-Communist. The KMT dropped any reference to unification in their 2009 revised party charter. In 2009, Chinese observers slammed Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou as “mianli cangzhen” or “hiding a needle in cotton,” and a “dutai fenzi,” advocating an independent Taiwan. An “independent Taiwan” is defined as advocating shared sovereignty, coexistence of equal entities with each side having its own administrative jurisdiction that is not subordinate to the other, and a status quo calling for “mutual non-denial,” and highlighting unification as an option but not inevitable.

As a consensus on Taiwan regarding sovereignty solidifies, political leaders in Beijing may find themselves forced to come to grips with an objective reality. If CCP authorities are sincere in their desire to arrive at some sustainable political solution, then the party's cross-Strait policy has to change in a fundamental way. In this environment, DPP supporters could play the loyal opposition in a DPP/KMT good cop/bad cop effort, and push dual recognition in the name of the ROC. The US side could even negotiate a U.S.-ROC Joint Communique to enshrine a “One China” policy in bilateral relations if needed. Or maybe even a fourth US-PRC Communique!

Another Core Question

For the cost of one PAC-3 missile, another fundamental question that the Obama administration or Congress could pose to federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs), public think tanks, and America’s best and brightest China scholars for serious study is this:

How to best persuade the CCP Central Committee Standing Committee to accommodate objective reality and relate to Taiwan as an equally legitimate member of the international community?

Even Hu Jintao said “under One China, anything is possible.” Taiwan is undeniably a state within any conventional use of that term in common parlance or international law. Yet Taiwan is not recognized by much of the international community due to subjective interpretation of potential effects that dual recognition could have on relations with the PRC. 

So under what conditions would leaders in Beijing accept the ROC as a legitimate equal to the PRC, and how could America help make this happen? Maybe the answer is that normalization of U.S.-ROC relations would only come with utter and complete collapse of the CCP’s monopoly on power. Regardless, one should be careful about assuming China cares more about Taiwan than we do until a much better accounting of complexities, costs, and opportunities.

Taiwan is Defensible

Final comment. Because Taiwan’s democratic system of government – an alternative to mainland China’s authoritarian model -- presents an existential challenge to the CCP, the PLA continues to rely on military coercion to compel concessions on sovereignty. CCP success in alienating Taiwan legitimizes its reliance of coercive military power to resolve political differences around its periphery.

As one recent article notes, Taiwan is a core interest of the United States and has a pivotal role to play as an ad hoc coalition partner in U.S. defense policy and the strategic rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific. Michael O’Hanlon asserts that U.S., Taiwan, and other defense establishments in the region may weaken relative to China. PLA anti-access, area denial (A2/D2) capabilities are getting good. But not that good. The PLA Joint Theater Command directing an amphibious invasion campaign is a complex system. Like any system, vulnerable single points of failure exist. Properly equipped, trained, and backed as needed by a U.S. Joint Task Force, Taiwan is and will remain defensible. The basis of O’Hanlon’s assertion that Taiwan, with U.S. intervention, would over time be unable to defend against an amphibious invasion is unclear.


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