When U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold their much-anticipated summit this evening, the question of Taiwan will loom large. For decades, all three sides have solved the problem between them by effectively shelving it, but that may not be a viable option for much longer.
Preserving the status quo has been a key factor in preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait for a significant period. It has long served as a consistent concept, akin to a secret sauce, that helps the parties involved reach a state of equilibrium. However, in recent years, due to the China-U.S. rivalry, along with China’s growing threat in the Western Pacific and the Taiwan Strait, the once stabilizing mantra of the status quo is losing its edge.
One Status Quo, Three Interpretations
One of the central issues is that all three parties involved – China, Taiwan, and the United States – define the “status quo” differently.
The United States thinks sticking with the “status quo” is the way to keep the peace and prosperity flowing in the region. As American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) director Sandra Oudkirk – the de facto U.S. ambassador – said in a recent interview:
Maintaining the “status quo” ensures peace, stability, and prosperity in Taiwan and the world… The U.S. has a long-standing “one China policy,” which is rooted in the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiqués, and the “six assurances,” which is the so-called “status quo.”
For Taiwan, the mainstream interpretation of the status quo is best represented by President Tsai Ing-wen’s “Four Commitments”:
[O]ur enduring commitment to a free and democratic constitutional system, our commitment that the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China should not be subordinate to each other, our commitment to resist annexation or encroachment upon our sovereignty, and our commitment that the future of the Republic of China (Taiwan) must be decided in accordance with the will of the Taiwanese people..
Here, Tsai argued that the status quo is the enduring existence of the ROC (Taiwan) as a sovereign nation, which is not subordinate to the PRC. In fact, this stance was adopted in the Democratic Progressive Party’s revision of the party charter in 1999: “Although constitutionally known as the Republic of China, Taiwan is not subordinate to the People’s Republic of China. Any change in the status quo of independence must be decided by a referendum of all residents of Taiwan.”
China prioritizes the “One China principle” above all else, and it doesn’t use the term “status quo” positively. They persistently claim that Taiwan is a part of China and that Beijing has the right to “reunify” Taiwan. No questions asked.
In summary, the United States’ One China policy, Taiwan’s de facto independence, and Beijing’s One China principle represent divergent interpretations of the status quo. They coexist during peacetime. But with tensions rising, it’s getting tricky to keep this whole thing in balance.
Erosion of the Status Quo
The so-called status quo ultimately hinges on the engagement policy, grounded in the communique framework and the One China policy. Unfortunately, the equilibrium has tipped.
The erosion of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait has fundamentally resulted from China’s ascent, its intention to challenge U.S. supremacy in the region, and the U.S. response to this challenge. The current situation is in stark contrast to the strategic engagement both sides maintained for four decades.
In essence, the routine intrusion of Chinese jet fighters into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and their crossing of the Median Line are but natural developments following China’s newfound economic and military prowess. Xi Jinping has made it clear that there is no room for the ROC in the 1992 Consensus formula, and China has never renounced the possibility forceful unification. Instead, Xi, like Chinese leaders back to Deng Xiaoping, emphasizes a Taiwan solution under “One Country, Two Systems.”
Moreover, under Xi’s new definition of this formula, Taiwan would lose autonomy for defense, diplomacy, and even education, as some Chinese officials have said that “Taiwanese people will need ‘reeducation’ following unity,” similar to what happened in Hong Kong. This formula means that even Taiwan’s traditional party, the Kuomintang (KMT), now seems a bit inclined toward independence in Beijing’s eyes. KMT officials – including the last KMT president and the party’s current presidential candidate – have disavowed the “One Country, Two Systems” framework amid Xi’s changes to the formula.
All these recent developments have posed severe challenges to Taiwan’s security and its very survival.
Changing Public Opinion
There have been subtle shifts in Taiwanese attitudes amid these geopolitical tensions. Previously, it was widely acknowledged that a majority of people preferred the status quo when contemplating Taiwan’s statehood. However, a more refined research design discloses changes in people’s attitudes.
These surveys were conducted by the China Impact Studies, Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica. A pair of questions are asked: (1) Some people believe that Taiwan should declare independence as soon as possible, while others think that Taiwan and the mainland should reunify as soon as possible. There are also those who advocate maintaining the status quo. Which viewpoint do you personally lean towards? (2) What do you mean by maintaining the status quo?
The figure above indicates that in 2020 and 2021, more people leaned toward independence over the status quo, but in the past year, the traditional formula has regained popularity. This trend demonstrates that while the status quo remains one of the top choices, it’s no longer the persistently most popular choice, as it was before. Moreover, the support for the idea of independence in the younger generation (aged 18-34) is most spectacular, reaching a peak of 68.2 percent popularity in 2020. This reflects an outcome of the Anti-China civic movement in the youth since the 2014 Sunflower Movement.
We went beyond the conventional question by designing a new one to investigate people’s outlook on the future: “What do you think is the most likely outcome for future cross-strait relations?”
The results, shown in the figure above, are remarkable. Only a minority believe preserving the status quo is a likely outcome, while unification and independence have become the top choices. Since 2020, independence has held the top position. People understand that the status quo in the Taiwan Strait is slipping away, and they perceive it as a temporary rather than a lasting choice. Last year, 32 percent of respondents believed Taiwan would eventually be annexed (unified) with China, 46 percent expected eventual independence, and only 15 percent thought the status quo would continue.
This shift in public sentiment reflects the perception that the status quo is no longer a viable option for the future. Is this a sign that people are getting impatient with the status quo and therefore pushing for independence or unification? I would further interpret the findings to suggest that in the wake of China’s ever-assertive policies and the subsequent Taiwan Strait crisis, a substantial part of the population has become more resolute in their determination to safeguard democracy and autonomy, while a smaller but still significant part is yielding to the fate of “being unified.” The polarization of opinion reveals the unsustainable choice of the status quo. Overall, Taiwan’s public opinion toward its relationship with China has undergone a sea change since 2019, when Hong Kong’s Anti-Extradition Law Movement sent a shockwave to Taiwan.
At the same time, people are feeling the heat of the contestation in the Taiwan Strait. The figure below illustrates the level of anxiety stemming from China’s increasing pressures on Taiwan. More than half of the people believe that if Taiwan continues to reject unification, China will resort to force to compel Taiwan into unification negotiations. This finding, along with other survey questions, indicates people’s perception of the potential for a profound crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
It also fosters skepticism about the United States’ commitment to Taiwan’s defense, an issue that splits society along the so-called Blue-Green division under the bombardment of sharp power and cognitive warfare waged by China on a routine basis. Right now, as Taiwanese are about to elect their next president in January 2024, Beijing is doubling down on threats and swaying Taiwan’s party politics to its favor through its embedded proxies.
To conclude, all parties used to seek security and stability in the region. The primary stakeholders have interpreted the concept of the status quo (the existing state) differently. However, in recent years, the balance of power has been eroded.
The terms “deterrence” and “reassurance” are frequently mentioned in regard to the Taiwan Strait. Certainly, Taiwan should invest in both aspects. Nevertheless, when it comes to reassurance, particularly in the context of China’s loosely defined concept of “Taiwan independence,” what concessions can Taiwan make, and what can it expect in return? Similarly, what might the United States offer to avoid war with China, as some U.S. scholars have hinted? Could such concessions to Beijing damage Taiwan’s security and autonomy? And how can Taiwan withstand a forceful unification offensive from China without a dependable security guarantee and sustainable international standing? With geopolitics shifting dramatically, we need some fresh ideas for keeping things stable and manageable.