The Corner

National Security & Defense

Taiwan’s Risky Future

Robert O’Brien recently visited Taiwan and has written an excellent piece for The National Interest about the changes there, and the growing possibility of conflict between that country and mainland China.

Taiwan separated from China in 1949, when the Communists took over the mainland and Chiang Kai-shek escaped with his nationalist forces to the island then known as Formosa. Originally, the United States recognized Chiang Kai-shek’s government on Taiwan as the legitimate government of China and refused to recognize the Communist regime on the mainland. Even in those days, however, the Communist party in Beijing and Nationalist leaders in Taiwan saw the arrangement as temporary, with unification as the eventual goal. Both sides viewed Taiwan as part of China; both sides believed themselves one country; the difference was over which side was entitled to rule the whole.

When Jimmy Carter recognized China in the late 1970s, the United States moved to an unofficial relationship with Taiwan, accepting and protecting its independence, but on a de facto rather than de jure basis. Most other countries did so as well. For two generations that diplomatic fiction has worked, after a fashion. It allowed the Chinese to tolerate the practical independence of Taiwan, something that — because of the strength of the United States Navy — it had in any case no choice but to accept. Meanwhile Taiwan has grown, prospered, and developed into a mature and vital democracy. 

But nothing lasts forever; demographic and cultural change, and events on the ground, are bringing the issue of Taiwan’s status back into the picture.

Most citizens of Taiwan, and especially the younger generation, no longer view themselves as Chinese. Of course they share many traditions with the mainland, but organic, independent institutions have taken root and grown in Taiwan, and are vastly different from those on the mainland. The Taiwanese enjoy their own culture, economic system, and above all else the freedoms that are absent on the mainland; the two systems have pursued such different trajectories for so long that it is hard to contemplate how they could peacefully unite, and the Taiwan people are beginning to embrace that fact.

Here is how O’Brien puts it:

What is very clear from conversations with a range of Taiwan’s citizens is that there is no interest whatsoever in reuniting with the mainland. Taiwan is developing into a mature democracy. Its people view themselves as part of the liberal international economic order and as part of what we used to call the ‘free world.’ They see Japan, South Korea, America, Singapore and Europe as their friends and peers–not China. . . . There is no possibility such a dynamic people will ever willingly throw in with the Chinese Communist Party.

In all true democracies, major social change is eventually ratified in the political process.  Taiwan’s new president, Tsai Ing-wen, won a landslide election this spring, in part because of growing concern among her people about the encroaching influence of China on the island’s affairs. Although President Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party is clearly oriented towards a formally independent status for Taiwan, she has emphasized her pragmatism on the issue. However, she has also refused to explicitly endorse the diplomatic frameworks Beijing insists should define the cross-Strait relationship.  

Beijing’s reaction to the election has been swift and predictable. The Communist leaders on the mainland are moving to further isolate Taiwan and pressure Tsai and her people to accept the principle that Taiwan and China are one country. Tsai won’t do that, but neither does she want an open confrontation with the mainland, because the regional balance of power has shifted too far in China’s direction.    

The last major crisis over Taiwan occurred in 1996. Beijing’s leaders suspected that the then President of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui, harbored pro-independence views, and they were outraged when the Clinton Administration allowed him to visit Cornell University, which was his alma mater. The Chinese reacted by conducting missile tests, amphibious assault training, and live fire exercises near islands held by Taiwan. President Clinton ordered additional American ships into the region (in those days, there were enough ships in the Navy to give him that option), including two carrier battle groups, one of which sailed through the Taiwan Strait.

That effectively ended the matter; in the face of America’s military advantage, China had no choice but to back down.

The situation today is very different. China has built a powerful, missile centric military that can hold American sea and land assets at risk, precisely in order to give Beijing additional leverage on issues such as Taiwan.  

I doubt any president today would risk sending an aircraft carrier into the Strait — not in a crisis when China’s credibility was on the line, not given China’s growing strength and increasingly aggressive posture in its near seas. But if President Tsai doesn’t walk a fine enough line, and Beijing decides to resolve the issue of Taiwan’s status through force — or if a minor dispute is mishandled and escalates — the American president might have only two options:  playing the brinksman in an effort to deter the Chinese, or abandoning Taiwan to its fate.


Deterrence is a question of power, practice, and perception over time. In all three areas, the trend lines have for years signaled that America does not value its commitments — its “red lines” — enough to enforce them even when the downside risk is moderate, much less when it is high.  I doubt the Chinese want a major confrontation, but they are certainly getting ready for one. Events have a logic of their own, and the trajectory of recent history — Taiwan’s growing sense of national identity, China’s increasing power, and the weakness of America’s defense and foreign policy — suggests that the status quo may not be the status quo much longer.

Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.


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