In this author’s latest article on the Taiwan issue, it is important to note the development of its central point to date, namely the apparent strengthening in the last year or two of that faction of the US establishment which stands for abandoning the so-called “strategy of uncertainty” in its approach to Taiwan.
Unlike the still iconic for many former national security advisor to the US President, John Bolton, it is difficult to say whether the current speaker of the lower chamber of the US Congress, Nancy Pelosi, belongs to this faction. In any case, she did not say anything publicly on the subject before, during or after her controversial visit to Taiwan.
In other words, Pelosi’s trip did not bring any fundamental novelty to the Taiwan issue; it did not go beyond media provocation and was addressed not even so much to Beijing as to the American public, who, it seems, will soon be spouting all they think about “all these guys and gals (and various combinations of both) who run us.”
The draft Taiwan Policy Act, which has been under preparation since the summer of this year and has received bipartisan support, contains elements of such novelty, but has not left Congress and is likely to remain in it until the next session. And it will be reviewed by a new set of congressmen. However, anyone who so wishes can read the latest revision of the TPA (dated September 15). Although every line of this wide-ranging document is crossed out, it does not make it difficult to see where the congressmen’s thinking is heading in this case.
Specifically, it is heading towards actually replacing another law, the Taiwan Relations Act, which has been in force ever since it was passed on January 1, 1979. It is TRA-1979 that forms the basis (predominantly, though with some elements of the so-called “Reagan guarantees”) of the very “strategy of uncertainty.”
What matters in this document is both what it does contain and what it does not. For example, it has a thesis that Washington adheres to the One China Principle (without mentioning who represents it, though). It also states that it does not accept attempts at non-peaceful solutions “between the banks of the Taiwan Strait” (a remarkable turn of phrase, by the way) or even the mere threat to use force for that purpose. But there is no mention of how the US would behave in the event of not only a “threat,” but even that very “use.”
Once again, it is worth recalling the global and political context in which this law was passed, which is fundamentally different from what is seen today. In the 1960s and 1980s, when the main geopolitical rival of the US was the USSR, it was crucial for Washington to win China over to its side. The same China which by now has become the source of main US foreign policy concerns. This not only makes all the “politesse” towards Beijing spelled out in TRA-1979 superfluous, in the eyes of the above mentioned faction of the US establishment, but also stands in the way of combatting China.
That is, in their view, the US position on the key for the PRC issue of Taiwan should be made fully “certain.” And hence there should be no “clarifying explanations” of the recent (seemingly) “slip” that Joe Biden made during an interview with the host of the popular TV show 60 Minutes. When asked twice (virtually the same question) about the binding nature of US military intervention in case the PRC tries to resolve the Taiwan problem by force, the answer was also positive twice.
But an hour later, the same “clarification” was issued by a “White House source” that US policy on the issue was unchanged. The main provisions of the said policy are, once again, set out in TRA-1979.
It should be noted, however, that in this case it is probably not a “slip” by a decision-maker with signs of some kind of aberration in his perception of the world around him, but rather a quite conscious probing of the reaction of (mainly) his own population to a possible radical change of strategy on what is arguably the most important foreign policy issue today.
Signs of such a change, again, can be seen in the so far “crossed out” TPA-2022. For example, “Section 102” instructs the Department of State to: “(1) engage with the democratically elected government of Taiwan as the legitimate representative of the people of Taiwan; and (2) end the outdated practice of referring to the government in Taiwan as the ‘Taiwan authorities’.” And what would be left from the thesis of Washington’s respect for the One China Principle if TPA-2022 had already been adopted? According to Chinese experts, almost nothing.
But the adoption of this law, again, has been postponed. This is reported (with obvious disappointment) by a leading Taiwanese newspaper, the Taipei Times. The answer to the question of what will happen to it next will be largely determined by the outcome of the forthcoming US congressional elections.
Among other things, this fact indicates that Washington seems to have decided to slow down its move towards a “strategy of certainty” on the Taiwan issue. Joe Biden’s speech to the current UN General Assembly three days after the “slip” mentioned above says exactly what was spelled out in TRA-1979 over forty years ago. And what was once again said by those aides to the US President who corrected their chief’s (alleged) “blunder.”
Regarding the question of how far (and how quickly) the US should move away from a “strategy of uncertainty” on the Taiwan issue and move towards a “strategy of certainty,” there are quite huge differences of opinion in the US establishment. They are evidenced not only by the fact that the TPA-2022 approval procedure has been postponed, but also by the removal from its “final” text (as of September 15) of the previously present thesis of making Taiwan a “major non-NATO ally of the United States.”
Only a few countries have this status, namely Australia, Israel, South Korea and Japan. But the document does note that under certain circumstances Taiwan “shall be treated as though it were designated a major non-NATO ally.” Perhaps some readers will see some substantive difference in both of these notes…
With any possible subsequent changes, it is fairly certain that the final version of the TPA will reflect some of the trends that have already emerged. Of these, the first is due to the general course of the sudden revival of the US military-industrial complex. Taiwan will undoubtedly remain one of the most preferred markets for its products. Unlike Ukraine (which plays a similar role on the opposite side of the Great Game table), which can offer only cannon fodder and black earth as payment for patronage to the same “master,” Taiwan is quite a wealthy and attractive trading partner.
Therefore, second, the future TPA will likely confirm the trend towards bilateral trade and economic cooperation with the island, as well as its involvement in the anti-Chinese interstate configurations being formed by Washington.
Third, there will be a similar trend to involve Taiwan in the work of authoritative international bodies such as the WHO, ICAO, IAEA and even the UN, which oversees them. In this regard, the initiative by three states (which have official relations with Taipei) to return Taiwan’s mandate as a member of the UN has drawn attention. The President of the Marshall Islands spoke on their behalf during the ongoing session of the UN General Assembly. It seems to be no coincidence that a statement to this effect was made by the leader of one of the island states in the Pacific. It is they (after Taiwan and the Southeast Asian region) that are now moving to the center of the struggle between the US and the PRC.
Fourth, the course of involving America’s closest allies in all processes related to Taiwan will be reaffirmed. Japan is one of these partners in particular. Once again, concerns about the situation in the Taiwan Strait were expressed by the US and Japanese defense ministers during a meeting on September 14 in Washington.
And, of course, there will be support for the rapidly developing (qualitatively and quantitatively) process of networking between US and Taiwanese politicians at various levels.
Finally, the very fact that Washington has so far postponed the adoption of law designed to provide the basis for a new strategy on the key foreign policy issue of the entire system of relations between the two leading world powers shows that it (at least, part of US political elite) is aware of the serious consequences of making mistakes.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.