Taiwain’s defense ministry has said recently that it would boost training of troops, including sending its marines to Guam to train with U.S. forces. And the Biden administration said the United States would defend Taiwan if China invaded, hinting at a move away from its policy of “strategic ambiguity.”
Sheena Chestnut Greitens is associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. She tells Texas Standard that the United States has traditionally taken a hands-off approach to Taiwan-China relations, in an effort to avoid conflict.
“The official policy of the United States government is that Taiwan status is undetermined, but that whatever solution is arrived at, it absolutely has to be achieved peacefully,” she said “And so the United States actually has a stronger commitment to the process by which this issue is settled, then to exactly how it shakes out.”
But as threats to Taiwan increase, it could become more difficult for the United States to stay in the background. Learn more about why in the interview with Greitens in the audio player above or in the transcript below.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: Put it into context for us: why does Taiwan matter so much to China in the first place?
Sheena Chestnut Greitens: Taiwan matters to the Chinese Communist Party because it’s the unfinished business of the civil war that brought the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] to power. So after the Chinese Civil War, the KMT [Kuomintang or Chinese Nationalist Party], the party that had been ruling China, escaped to Taiwan and ruled there actually as a single- party authoritarian regime until the late 1980s, early 1990s. And then Taiwan became a vibrant two-party democracy. But to the CCP, this is the unfinished business of the civil war and an island that they consider a part of Chinese territory.
China has been putting pressure on lots of countries not to recognize Taiwan. What is the official position of the United States?
The official policy of the United States government is that Taiwan’s status is undetermined, but that whatever solution is arrived at, it absolutely has to be achieved peacefully. And so the United States actually has a stronger commitment to the process by which this issue is settled than to exactly how it shakes out.
The issue is that as you’ve seen Taiwan democratize and become the vibrant place that we all have seen in the news today, that China has become more and more powerful. And there’s been more and more concern that China will use its growing economic and military power to try to coercively alter Taiwan’s status. And in fact, we have seen efforts to militarily pressure Taiwan with flights, and efforts to squeeze Taiwan out of international organizations where, frankly, its presence makes a lot of sense, like [the] World Health [Organization].
We should point out that these threats to Taiwan have been escalating. And last week, the president of Taiwan confirmed the presence of U.S. military troops in Taiwan but didn’t mention a specific number. Were you surprised by that, and what does that mean for tensions there overall?
I think the the big surprise was that it was being openly discussed. There have always been, for example, United States Marines guarding U.S. facilities in Taiwan and forces that have rotated through on a low level. We’ve also had some lower- level military officials visit Taiwan from time to time. So it’s not as if there’s been zero contact, even military contact.
I think the concern that you’re seeing now is that there needs to be a stronger presence and a clearer program of cooperation and commitment because the concern used to be, like maybe in the early- or mid-1990s in the U.S., that Taiwan would actually try to formally declare independence. And China has said that that’s a red line that might trigger an assault or an invasion. And frankly, we’re all concerned about Taiwan’s ability to defend itself, and even if the United States did get involved, about the United States’ ability to defend Taiwan.
And so what you’ve seen is that the concern has shifted somewhat from, let’s keep Taiwan from declaring independence and triggering a conflict we’re not ready for to the primary concern being that China will try to coercively alter Taiwan’s status.
The elephant in the room, though, is the potential that Taiwan becomes the flashpoint for a superpower conflict between China and the United States. How likely is such a conflict?
One of the things that occurred under Xi Jinping is, you know, people thought that this was an issue where everybody had a lot of time and you could just kind of kick the can down the road. And it’s clear that Xi Jinping treats issues on China’s periphery, like Xinjiang, like Hong Kong and Taiwan, somewhat differently than his predecessors did. He’s talked about it as an issue that can’t be passed down from generation to generation. But he’s never given a definite timeline by which he thinks this issue has to be solved.
So part of what you’re seeing is a concern that he’s made signals that the timeline for resolving the Taiwan question in Beijing is shorter, but nobody knows how much shorter. And that’s exactly why people, I think, are really nervous and why there’s so much debate about what China is going to do. When is there any serious conflict, right? Because you’re talking about two nuclear-armed great powers or superpowers in the international system, and the risk that this could escalate to the nuclear level, I think, is a real and a serious concern. It’s part of why the U.S. has tried to get the Chinese military to engage in crisis management talks, but frankly, it’s had pretty limited success.