What are the issues between the U.S., China, and Taiwan? Stanford scholar explains
In this explainer, Stanford scholar Oriana Skylar Mastro offers a brief history of the China and Taiwan dispute, the evolution of U.S. diplomacy in the region, and what signal Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit sends.
As China carries out military exercises around the island of Taiwan – allegedly as retaliation against last week’s visit by Nancy Pelosi to Taipei – Stanford scholar Oriana Skylar Mastro says Beijing has been wanting and waiting to do drills in the region, they were just waiting for a time to blame the U.S.
Here, Mastro, whose research focuses on Chinese military and security policy and Asia-Pacific security issues among other topics, explains how the conflict between China and Taiwan escalated in the years after the 1911 Xinhai revolution and why it persists today. Mastro also discusses U.S. relations in the region and how Pelosi’s visit sends a message of deterrence to Beijing.
Mastro is a center fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you explain the context underlying the existing relationship between China and Taiwan?
On and off throughout the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, there was a civil war in China between the Communist Party and the nationalists, who were backed by the United States. It came to an end in 1949 when the communists won. When the communists won, the nationalists fled to Taiwan where they established, for a number of years, a brutal dictatorship before transitioning to a democracy in the 1990s. But their civil war is not over until China has successfully resolved the issue of Taiwan being de facto independent. It’s an emotional and political issue.
How and when did the U.S. get involved?
The United States established a defense treaty in 1950 with Taiwan and continued to support the nationalists and didn’t recognize that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) existed.
After the Sino-Soviet split [when the communist alliance between the PRC and the Soviet Union broke down] the United States thought this was a great opportunity to become closer to China. The first thing on the agenda was there had to be a normalization of relations, which meant that the United States would have to diplomatically recognize the PRC. To do this, they had to figure out what that meant for the U.S. relationship with Taiwan and what we now call the “One China” policy came out of this, which was an ambiguous way for both sides to get what they wanted. Because the United States acknowledged that the Chinese on both sides of the strait believed there is, but one China and Taiwan is part of China. This wasn’t very controversial at the time in 1972 because the nationalist government of Taiwan also thought Taiwan was a part of China. The disagreement was about which was the legitimate government of all of China. So the United States could be ambiguous about whether Taiwan was a part of China and still placate the communists.
As a necessary condition to normalize relations with the PRC, the United States promised not to have any official ties with the government of Taiwan and abrogates the 1950 treaty and with it in 1980, the formal defense relationship. But then in 1979, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which regulated ties between the American people and Taiwan and added in it that the president had to consider defending Taiwan if the PRC used force because, during the negotiations, China refused to promise they wouldn’t use force.
Let’s now flash forward to today. Can you explain why Pelosi’s visit upset Beijing?
Because the U.S. is not supposed to have any official ties with the island of Taiwan under the 1979 agreement, the speaker of the U.S. House going to Taiwan to meet with government officials is viewed by the Chinese as a violation of the agreement. But the United States thinks China’s increase in military activity and aggression over the past two years against the island is a violation of their side of the agreement. And so, both sides feel like they’re being provoked by the other. Every time China decides anything aggressive the United States feels like it has to show a sign of commitment to Taiwan, and every time the United States shows a sign of commitment to Taiwan, China feels like they have to be more aggressive.
One big difference between 1979 when we normalized relations with Beijing today is China is much more powerful than it was even the last time a speaker visited the island, which was Speaker Gingrich in 1987. China also feels that the United States is not respecting how the relative balance of power has shifted and should be more careful to not upset China, which is another reason that they reacted so strongly.
What message has Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan sent?
Taiwan cannot defend itself against the PRC. There is no scenario in which, without U.S. intervention, Taiwan could defend itself from a Chinese attack. It becomes very important for deterrence or stability in the region for all to believe that the United States is going to come to Taiwan’s aid. But what Speaker Pelosi, and recently with some comments about Taiwan, President Biden are trying to do is to show they are willing to take risks, willing to accept costs, and that the commitment to Taiwan is real. I think focusing on signaling U.S. commitment is a bit misguided because China, at least militarily, plans for U.S. intervention but the U.S. telling China we’re going to intervene doesn’t actually change any part of China’s calculus. It just provokes them.
Right now, the Chinese rhetoric and the Chinese military capabilities have pointed in the direction of China considering using force – that’s why people like Speaker Pelosi are doing something to convince Beijing not to do this.
Do you think it’s inevitable that China will invade Taiwan, and what would that mean for the U.S.?
I can’t predict the future but given current trends, it seems unlikely that they wouldn’t. That means there would be a major war between two powers in the most important region of the world. It would be huge, economically and politically, at a huge cost to everybody.
What are you most worried about?
I’m most worried that China moves quickly with little early warning and we are left making a really difficult decision, such as weighing whether to try to defend Taiwan even though we would likely lose or not do anything at all. The amount of warning tells us how many good options we have and if we don’t have good options, the situation might resolve itself in a way that the U.S doesn’t like.
Is there anything that you think is misunderstood about the issue?
I think people misunderstand how much China wants and needs to test its military capabilities. China was going to do something like this regardless of Nancy Pelosi’s visit – they were waiting for an opportune time to blame the United States for it.