Zhou Bo v.s Douglas H. Paal: US changing cross-Straits status quo fearing China’s rise

  • Editor's Note:

    Since US President Joe Biden inherited the reckless China policy of the previous administration, friction points between China and the US over the Taiwan question have greatly increased. The US is believed to be engaging in a "cognitive warfare" campaign with an attempt to blur the fact that Taiwan is part of China by playing tricks such as supporting its participation in the UN system and claiming the Taiwan Straits are international waters. What's the purpose of the US chipping away at the one-China policy? Will Washington shift from "strategic ambiguity" to "strategic clarity" over Taiwan? These series of interviews seek to find the answer.

    The first of the series focuses on which side is really changing the status quo of the Taiwan Straits. Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (ret), who is now serving as a senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and China Forum expert and Douglas H. Paal, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, shared with Global Times different perspective. 

    Paal's opinion represents mainstream American views, but do not necessarily reflect the objective situation. The purpose of this piece is to present the views of the two sides. The views of the interviewees do not reflect the position of the newspaper.

    GT: US officials said they adhere to the "one China" policy at some occasions, but they are increasingly taking concrete actions to hollow out the "one China" policy. For instance, the State Department website's section on relations with Taiwan recently removed references on acknowledging that Taiwan is part of China. What do you think of the purposes behind those moves by the US?

    Paal: I believe the administration's changes represent continuation of the former positions on Taiwan independence and acknowledging Beijing's position in the following highlighted phrase from the second amendment to the website:

    The US approach to Taiwan has remained consistent across decades and administrations. The US has a longstanding one China policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three US-China Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances. We oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side; we do not support Taiwan independence; and we expect cross-Straits differences to be resolved by peaceful means. We continue to have an abiding interest in peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits. Consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act, the US makes available defense articles and services as necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability -- and maintains our capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of Taiwan.

    Zhou: The US will always say that it upholds "one China" policy, because this is the commitment of the US government, and 181 countries worldwide recognize the People's Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China.

    But since the Trump administration, the US has been taking a salami-slicing approach to hollow out one-China policy in diverse ways, including enhancing exchanges with Taipei, sending warships to sail provocatively through the Taiwan Straits and secretly deploying its servicemen in Taiwan to help with military training. There are many reasons behind all these.

    First of all, the development of the Chinese mainland's military power has almost become inconceivable for the US. In fact, according to the US' various war games, Washington does not have much chance of winning within the first island chain, especially in the Taiwan Straits.

    US' confidence in the face of the mainland's military progress is declining, which brings about strategic panicking. Therefore, whether it is US warships' repeated passage through the Taiwan Straits, or increasing substantial military assistance to the island of Taiwan, or even sending staff to train Taiwan troops, the US has already made a relatively big adjustment in its policy. The US is gradually breaking away from its strategic ambiguity that has characterized America's China policy.

    Second, the conflict in Ukraine has aggravated some of the US' suspicions that the mainland might one day adopt a similar approach. But the Ukraine crisis and the Taiwan question are two different things. One is a conflict between two countries, and the other is China's sovereignty issue. 

    Our military buildup won't be affected by the Taiwan question. Fully transforming the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) into a world-class military by the middle of the century is our declared clear goal, so this is no secret. But what is a powerful army for? For China, the first is to defend our sovereignty and territorial sovereignty, the second is to defend our expanding overseas interests, and the third is to assume the international responsibilities as a major power. The Chinese military is increasingly fulfilling its international responsibilities. Whether it is peacekeeping, or counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden, or humanitarian disaster relief, these are all military operations other than war. In other words, all of these operations are for humanitarian purposes. 

    GT: The US often accuses China of changing the status quo, but the Taiwan authorities' perception of cross-Straits issues is quite different from what it was when China and the US established diplomatic relations and very different from what it was under the Ma Ying-jeou period. The US has elevated its official ties with the Taiwan island, supports Taiwan island's return to the UN system, are these moves changing the status quo of the Taiwan Straits?

    Paal: This or that aspect of cross-Straits relations cannot be frozen in time. Changes in political and economic development, for example, need to be realistically accommodated. But the founding principles need to be constant so as not to force the other sides of the Taiwan triangle to seek major readjustment. Recently, unlike at different times in the past, the primary source of change is from the mainland.

    The general thrust of Chinese military development exceeds anything that might be justified by various actions by the US government regarding Taiwan. China occasionally increases activity such as air and naval surveillance in Taiwan's near abroad in response to things it does not like, and these are significant, but pale in comparison to China's overall militarization of the situation.

    Zhou: This issue is a typical security dilemma. Both sides believe that the other side is changing the status quo, and both can cite many examples to blame the other. For the Chinese mainland, the US is changing the status quo. A good example is that former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo apparently broke all American promises on the Taiwan question during the end of his term. In so doing, he wished to make the situation as difficult as possible for his successor. 

    Of course, the mainland has to make firm opposition. My understanding is that our response is a kind of warning and countermeasure to show the Chinese mainland's firm determination to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity. But the US does not think so. It thinks we in the mainland are provocative.

    The US is fundamentally reluctant to see the reunification of the two sides of the Taiwan Straits. I assume the US will never say that it opposes peaceful reunification. But in actual practice, the US definitely supports Taiwan in at least maintaining the status quo of not unifying with the mainland.

    GT: Biden said the US will militarily defend Taiwan if it's attacked by the mainland on several occasions, but every time White House officials immediately denied the US has changed its Taiwan policy. In your opinion, will the US abandon strategic ambiguity and move toward strategic clarity? What consequences will it bring to the Taiwan Straits?

    Paal: I think "Strategic ambiguity" is here to stay, because it serves US interests on the issue. President Biden's statements seem to reflect the widespread perception that the greatest current threat to that ambiguity comes from China's increasing military threat to the area.

    Zhou: In fact, the US strategic circle has made some discussions over the past year. 

    In the past, the US insisted on strategic ambiguity. It did not make it clear whether it will send troops or not to defend Taiwan. Presumably this can not only prevent the Chinese mainland from attacking the island, but also can prevent "Taiwan independence." Therefore, the US believes that this approach is effective. In September 2020, President of the US Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass and his colleague David Sacks published an article saying that "American support for Taiwan must be unambiguous," "making it explicit that it would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan. Such a policy would lower the chances of Chinese miscalculation" and makes China have no illusions and refrain from using force against Taiwan. Such an opinion was criticized by many scholars in the US who think that turning to strategic clarity would make the mainland take action earlier and would make the mainland think that the US deliberately wants to obstruct the reunification of the two sides of the Taiwan Straits, resulting in a situation that the US did not want to see.

    At the government level, the US has not stated it would change from strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity. But Biden's back-and-forth comments regarding defending Taiwan in a few months are no slip of tongue for us. What is behind this? We have to mull over this question. 

    I believe the US will still verbally support "one China," and will not easily change to strategic clarity. But it should be noted that when the US talked about strategic ambiguity in the past, it had certain confidence. But now the US is worried that China's military capacities are improving, and it believes China's will is growing in the direction of resolving the Taiwan question. However, I think the Chinese mainland's attitude toward Taiwan is actually still the same. The peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question is in the best interests of both the mainland and Taiwan.

    GT: The US has repeatedly emphasized its commitments to Taiwan. But seen from the Afghanistan and Ukraine cases, it seems the US is increasingly difficult to keep its commitments to allies. What message do you think this is sending to Taiwan?

    Paal: Taiwan's people are smart and observant. I think they can tell the differences between Afghanistan, Ukraine, and their own situation.

    Zhou: Whether the US commitment to defend Taiwan is credible is actually a question that Taiwan people should worry about. We cannot answer it for residents in Taiwan. Noticeably, there are too many examples that the US has failed its promises. 

    In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, why did the US not send troops to Ukraine? It seems the major reason is that Russia has many nuclear weapons. In comparison, is the PLA weaker than the Russian military? I do not think so. Judging from the current Chinese military power, it is hard to think of any weapon that China should have but not have, from aircraft carriers to hypersonic weapons. 

    Second, China has never engaged in a war since 1979. This invites the question of whether the PLA can fight and win, but few doubt that China's military is much stronger than it was in 1979.

    Third, long-time peace doesn't mean the PLA lack the will to fight. When our national strength was so poor in the 1950s, we were not afraid and fought against the US on the Korean battlefield due to some geopolitical reasons. Now we have ever stronger combat capabilities. Since the Taiwan question concerns China's core interests and our territorial sovereignty, if a war really breaks out, our resolve will be firm and unshakable.

    (This article was first published on Global Times on July 4, 2022.)

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