In December 2003, during his meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao at the White House, when US President George Bush said that the United States opposes “any unilateral decision by China or Taiwan to change the status quo.” Nearly two decades later, that message has not changed. At the end of last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reported for making “crystal clear” in his talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that the United States opposes any unilateral change to the status quo.
Is this evidence of a consistent, clear American stance on the Straits issue? Or is it the expression of a weak policy formula, in which the status quo simply means no war?
How the status quo has changed
One way to approach the question might be to simply ask: Was the status quo in the Taiwan Strait in 2003, when the actions of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian the subject of Bush’s comments, the same as the current status quo? The answer is clearly no. But if that’s the case, what does “status quo” mean?
Status quo simply means the existing situation – it is a concept without substance. One way to substantiate it would be to imagine a continuum that ranges from a “stable status quo” on the one hand, where all parties involved accept and support the current situation, to a “conflictual status quo”, where all parties reject the existing situation. and are in conflict.
To take this analogy one step further, I would argue that in the years since 2003 the status quo indicator has shifted in one direction from the ‘stable pole’ to the ‘conflictual pole’.
In 2003, the status quo in the Taiwan Strait was one of mutual frustration. Neither Taiwan nor China could achieve the desired result. The United States was stuck in the midst of an ongoing manifestation of the Chinese Civil War. However, a shared desire to avoid armed conflict led to implicit and explicit rules of conduct that made it possible to deal with everyone’s frustration.
Negotiations between the US and China over Taiwan have become more dangerous
A lot has changed in the years since 2003. Under President Xi Jinping, China has taken a more assertive foreign policy, while the United States under the Trump administration has taken an increasingly confrontational approach to China. Meanwhile, both nations have used their respective policies toward Taiwan as a tool to express opposition to the other. At the same time, Taiwan took a less passive stance in the triangle and tried to take advantage of the Sino-US differences. A status quo of mutual antagonism has emerged since the rules that allowed for former management have been undermined.
Recently, much attention has been paid to Chinese actions in the so-called gray zone – competitive movements that find themselves in the nebulous space between war and peace, such as the People’s Liberation Army flight raids above the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone. However, allow me to propose another zone: the red zone. In American football, the red zone denotes the last 20 yards on a 100-yard field before entering the end zone. It seems to me that the danger today is that all three actors are pursuing policies that challenge the rules that allowed the previous management of a status quo of mutual frustration. Their actions in the red zone move the needle to a conflicted end of the status quo spectrum.
How to better manage the crisis?
Our colleague, the late Alan Romberg, wrote a book entitled “Rein In on the edge of the abyssthat warned of the dangers that could arise from mismanagement of the Strait issue. We must heed his warning today. There is nothing inevitable about war in the Taiwan Strait. Today’s crisis is caused by the mismanagement of a difficult issue. The current status quo is not something any party should strive for. Indeed, the formulaic repetition of the importance of maintaining that status quo is not only dangerous, but exposes the poverty of diplomatic efforts in the area.
What can be done? Certainly, given the events of the recent past, it will not be easy to move the needle back towards a less conflicted status quo. The challenges are greater than in the past. Domestic factors – Chinese nationalism, anti-China sentiment in the United States and growing Taiwanese identity – all limit diplomatic flexibility. At the most fundamental level, however, it would be an important start if the Taiwan issue ceased to be a surrogate in a Sino-American conflict, as it was in the 1950s, and treated by all sides as a complex and dangerous historical legacy that requires careful and skillful diplomatic management.