Collage image of China, Taiwan and US flags against a naval ship background. Photo: Facebook
The Covid-19 crisis has seemingly changed strategic dynamics to China's advantage in the South China Sea : Facebook

Much of lasting significance happened in 1979. There was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Iran’s Islamic Revolution, which brought to power a regime set on remaking not just Iranian society but also much of the Middle East. Just as important was the United States’ decision to recognize, effective January 1 that year, the government of the People’s Republic of China – then, as today, run by the Communist Party – as China’s sole legal government.

The change paved the way for expansion of trade and investment between the world’s largest economy and the world’s most populous country, and enabled closer collaboration against the Soviet Union.

Diplomacy was based on an intricate choreography. In three communiqués (in 1972, 1978, and 1982), the US acknowledged “the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” It agreed to downgrade its ties with Taiwan and maintain only unofficial relations with the island.

America’s commitments to Taiwan were articulated in legislation (the Taiwan Relations Act) signed in 1979. The US stated that it would “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means of grave concern to the United States.”

The law stated that the US would support Taiwan’s self-defense and maintain the capacity to come to Taiwan’s aid. Left vague, however, was whether it actually would. Taiwan could not assume that it would; the mainland could not assume that it would not. Such ambiguity was meant to dissuade either side from unilateral acts that could trigger a crisis. Together, the three US-China communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act form the basis of America’s “one-China policy.”

China has enjoyed the most successful economic run in history, becoming the world’s second-largest economy. Taiwan, too, has experienced phenomenal economic success and has become a thriving democracy. The US benefits from the region’s stability and closer economic ties to both the mainland and Taiwan. The question is whether time is running out

This structure made for a winning formula. Mainland China has enjoyed the most successful economic run in history, becoming the world’s second-largest economy. Taiwan, too, has experienced phenomenal economic success and has become a thriving democracy. The US benefits from the region’s stability and closer economic ties to both the mainland and Taiwan.

The question is whether time is running out. For many years, US policymakers worried that Taiwan would upset the applecart: not content with the mere trappings of independence, it would opt for the real thing – an unacceptable outcome for the mainland.

Taiwan’s leaders appear to understand that such a decision would be a grave mistake. But they reject the notion of Taiwan’s becoming a part of China under its “one country, two systems” rubric – a formula that has done little to protect Hong Kong’s special status – and refuse to endorse language (the “1992 Consensus”) used by Beijing to describe the relationship between the mainland and Taiwan.

Now, however, stability is also being jeopardized by both China and the US. China is experiencing a significant economic slowdown. This makes President Xi Jinping potentially vulnerable, as Chinese leaders have derived much of their legitimacy from economic success. The concern is that Xi will turn to foreign policy to distract public attention from faltering GDP growth.

Gaining control over Taiwan would accomplish this. Early this year, Xi publicly reiterated China’s call for unification and refused to rule out the use of force. What worries some in the region is that it cannot be assumed that a US administration that is leaving Syria, is signaling that it will leave Afghanistan, and is regularly critical of allies will come to Taiwan’s defense.

The US also seems less protective of the diplomatic arrangements that have worked for the past 40 years. Before becoming President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton wrote in The Wall Street Journal that it was “high time to revisit the ‘one-China policy.’” Trump also became the first president (or president-elect, as he was at the time) since 1979 to speak directly with Taiwan’s president.

Most recently, five Republican senators wrote to Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, urging her to invite Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to address a joint session of the US Congress, an honor almost always reserved for heads of government or state. Doing so would be inconsistent with America’s unofficial relationship with Taiwan and would elicit a strong response from Beijing.

All of this is not taking place in a vacuum. It comes at a time when the US-China relationship has reached a 40-year nadir, the result of trade frictions and US unhappiness with Chinese assertiveness abroad and increased repression at home. A good many Americans, in and out of government, want to send Beijing a message and believe there is little to lose in doing so.

It is far from clear that this calculation is correct. A crisis over Taiwan in which the mainland introduced severe sanctions, imposed an embargo, or used military force could threaten the autonomy, safety and economic well-being of the island and its 23 million people. For Beijing, a crisis over Taiwan could wreck its relations with the US and many of its neighbors and rock an already shaky Chinese economy.

For the US, a crisis could require coming to Taiwan’s aid, which could lead to a new cold war or even a conflict with the mainland. A decision, though, to leave Taiwan to its own devices would undermine US credibility and possibly prompt Japan to reconsider its non-nuclear status and alliance with the US.

In other words, the risks for all concerned are high. It would be best to avoid symbolic steps that would be unacceptable to the others. The status quo is admittedly imperfect, but it is far less imperfect than what would follow unilateral actions and attempts to resolve a situation that doesn’t lend itself to a neat solution.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

Richard N. Haass

Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.

Join the Conversation


  1. I have to express some appreciation to this writer for bailing me out of such a situation. Just after searching throughout the online world and seeing things which are not productive, I was thinking my entire life was well over. Living minus the approaches to the problems you have solved as a result of your entire report is a serious case, and those that would have in a wrong way damaged my career if I hadn’t encountered your web page. Your main know-how and kindness in handling all the details was excellent. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I had not encountered such a solution like this. I’m able to at this point look ahead to my future. Thanks a lot very much for your professional and amazing help. I won’t think twice to propose your blog post to anyone who should get assistance about this topic.

  2. I all the time used to study post in news papers but
    now as I am a user of web therefore from now I am using net for articles
    or reviews, thanks to web.

  3. I’m not sure exactly why but this site is loading incredibly slow for me.

    Is anyone else having this issue or is it a problem on my end?

    I’ll check back later on and see if the problem
    still exists.

  4. My spouse and I stumbled over here by a different web page and thought I may as well check things out.

    I like what I see so now i am following you. Look forward to looking over your web page repeatedly.

  5. Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like you wrote the book
    in it or something. I think that you can do with a few pics
    to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this
    is wonderful blog. A fantastic read. I’ll definitely be back.

  6. Greate article. Keep posting such kind of info on your blog.
    Im really impressed by it.
    Hello there, You’ve done a fantastic job. I’ll definitely digg it and for my part suggest to my friends.
    I’m sure they will be benefited from this website.

  7. Hey there! This is kind of off topic but I need some guidance from an established blog.
    Is it very difficult to set up your own blog?

    I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty quick.
    I’m thinking about making my own but I’m not sure where to start.
    Do you have any tips or suggestions? With thanks

  8. hey there and thank you for your information – I’ve definitely picked up anything new from right here. I did however expertise several technical issues using this website, as I experienced to reload the web site many times previous to I could get it to load properly. I had been wondering if your hosting is OK? Not that I’m complaining, but sluggish loading instances times will very frequently affect your placement in google and could damage your high quality score if ads and marketing with Adwords. Well I’m adding this RSS to my e-mail and could look out for much more of your respective fascinating content. Ensure that you update this again soon..

  9. I’ve been surfing online more than 3 hours today, yet I never found
    any interesting article like yours. It is pretty worth enough for me.
    In my view, if all website owners and bloggers made good content as you did,
    the web will be a lot more useful than ever before.

  10. Excellent beat ! I would like to apprentice whilst you amend your web site,
    how could i subscribe for a blog web site?
    The account aided me a acceptable deal. I have been a little bit acquainted of this your broadcast offered brilliant transparent concept

  11. I just couldn’t leave your site prior to suggesting that I extremely enjoyed
    the usual information a person provide for your guests?
    Is going to be back often to investigate cross-check new posts

  12. Good day! This post could not be written any better!
    Reading through this post reminds me of my old
    room mate! He always kept chatting about this.
    I will forward this article to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read.

    Many thanks for sharing!

  13. Do you have a spam problem on this site; I also am a blogger,
    and I was wondering your situation; many of us have
    created some nice practices and we are looking to trade techniques with other
    folks, be sure to shoot me an email if interested.

  14. Hey I know this is off topic but I was wondering if you knew of any widgets I could add to my blog that automatically tweet my
    newest twitter updates. I’ve been looking for a plug-in like this for quite some
    time and was hoping maybe you would have some experience with something like this.

    Please let me know if you run into anything. I
    truly enjoy reading your blog and I look forward to your new

  15. I really like your blog.. very nice colors & theme.
    Did you create this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it
    for you? Plz respond as I’m looking to design my own blog and would like to know where
    u got this from. thank you

  16. I have been browsing on-line more than three hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours.
    It is beautiful value enough for me. In my view, if all site owners and bloggers made
    good content as you probably did, the web shall be a lot more helpful than ever before.

  17. I don’t know whether it’s just me or if perhaps everyone else experiencing issues with your website.

    It appears as if some of the written text within your content
    are running off the screen. Can someone else please
    provide feedback and let me know if this is happening to them as well?
    This might be a problem with my internet browser because I’ve had this happen previously.
    Thank you

  18. What’s Happening i’m new to this, I stumbled upon this I’ve found It absolutely helpful and it has helped me out loads. I am hoping to contribute & aid other customers like its helped me. Good job.

  19. I precisely wished to thank you so much all over again. I’m not certain what I could possibly have undertaken in the absence of these pointers discussed by you about such theme. It had become a real frustrating situation in my view, however , seeing this well-written approach you handled the issue made me to weep with fulfillment. I am just happy for your help and expect you realize what a great job that you’re putting in instructing people today thru your web blog. I know that you have never met all of us.

  20. Do you have a spam problem on this blog; I also am
    a blogger, and I was wondering your situation; many of us have
    developed some nice practices and we are looking to exchange strategies with
    other folks, please shoot me an e-mail if interested.

  21. My spouse and I absolutely love your blog and find most of your post’s to be exactly what I’m looking for. Would you offer guest writers to write content for yourself? I wouldn’t mind publishing a post or elaborating on some of the subjects you write with regards to here. Again, awesome blog!

  22. Superb site you have here but I was curious bout if
    you knew of any forums that cover the same topics talked about in this article?
    I’d really like to be a part of communkty where I can get responses from other
    knowledgeable people that share the same interest.
    If you have any recommendations, please let me know.

  23. I must thank you for the efforts you’ve put in writing this site.
    I really hope to see the same high-grade blog posts from you in the future as well.
    In fact, your creative writing abilities has motivated me to get my very own site now 😉

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *