Rorry Daniels is the Managing Director of the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI), where she oversees operations and strategy for projects across trade, security, climate, and global public health. She is also a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at ASPI’s Center for China Analysis. Previously, she worked at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy running a series of high level Track II dialogues, including on cross Taiwan strait relations with participants from the United States, China, and Taiwan.
Young China Watchers (YCW): What does the rhetoric coming out of Beijing indicate regarding the PRC’s current posture toward Taiwan?
Rorry Daniels (RD):I think Beijing has a tough time fitting its Taiwan strategy inside the rest of its priorities. There’s an absolutism to what it needs to say, do, achieve with Taiwan that creates zero flexibility to manage the problems and contradictions that arise with other parts of its domestic and external policy choices. The rhetoric coming out of Beijing right now is that China plans to prioritize its domestic economic growth over and above a tough approach toward its neighbors in the region.
Beijing is on a charm offensive abroad: It has muted the “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy approach; Xi Jinping is meeting with world leaders; Liu He is at Davos saying China’s open for business. But they still haven’t recognized how a charm offensive fits into what I see as an escalation of tensions in the Taiwan Strait that is likely to come to yet another head in the coming months, when the U.S. Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, travels to Taipei as he’s likely to do. What happens to the charm offensive in that scenario? There’s simply no way for Beijing to release itself from the corner it has backed itself into on Taiwan policy. Therefore, I would expect the charm offensive to take a hit based on decisions that are outside of Beijing’s control.
YCW: How do the two political parties in Taiwan differ in their approach toward cross-strait relations?
RD: Taiwan, because of the very dire and stark threat to its existence, is fairly insular when it comes to looking at regional security. Elections in Taiwan tend to be conducted as much in nationalistic terms as anywhere else, so when Taiwan talks about where it should be in the international system, its politicians turn to issues of respect, dignity — the intangibles that come from not having recognized sovereignty, which loom large in the international discussion. But they can’t talk their way around a political strategy that doesn’t have China at its core. The only time I’ve heard it articulated any differently, which is not unrelated to the mainland, is positioning Taiwan as an island that faces some specific geographic and strategic opportunities and challenges shared by other islands in the region.
Observers look at the Taiwan political system and say the Democratic Progressive Party is pro-independence and the Kuomintang is pro-unification. But those positions both remain a very tiny part of each party’s electorate. Most people prefer to maintain a status quo in which their sovereignty is ambiguous. No change is the overwhelming preference.
The mainland gets really bad information about Taiwan’s domestic politics by virtue of only talking to people — or weighing as true information from people — who are relatively sympathetic to facilitating a stable cross-strait relationship regardless of the political winds. Every once in a while, I hear something from a Chinese analyst that strikes me as wishful thinking. It’s very difficult as an outsider to the Chinese system, especially during COVID-era travel and communication restrictions, to know whether these ideas are being floated for reaction or whether Beijing is really basing its cross-strait calculus on some seriously suspect information. Likewise, in Taiwan, it’s difficult — if less so — to get good information on the actual policy debate happening on the mainland. That’s less because of wishful thinking and more because policymaking in China is done by a small group of opaque decision-makers.
Unlike some other U.S.-based analysts, I take Chinese officials at their word that they’re only developing a contingency plan for Taiwan in the event it declares full independence. My logic is based on the fact that use of force remains Beijing’s worst option and therefore falls to the bottom of the menu of policy choices. The political imperative to prevent independence is so high that they are perhaps overpreparing for a worst-case scenario in ways that actually manifest it. Whether or not we think peaceful reunification is possible, it behooves the world to hold on to the possibility of peace because the alternative will damage the whole world, the global trading system, the environment, potentially all the way up to destroying the system of international order that has been put in place since the end of World War II. Beijing will never give up on peaceful reunification, because it remains the most cost effective and magnanimous way to affect China’s ultimate policy goal.
“The political imperative to prevent independence is so high that [Beijing is] perhaps overpreparing for a worst-case scenario in ways that actually manifest it.”
YCW: How would you characterize Japan’s role in managing cross-strait relations? Does Japan’s colonial history in Taiwan render its current offers for defense assistance problematically paternalistic?
RD: Taiwan really doesn’t see much option between accepting help for its security situation and the alternative. If that help comes in a paternalistic form, Taiwan is mature enough to take it at face value and use it for its own purposes. That also echoes how Japan sees the U.S. role in the region; Even as Japan changes its military doctrine and strategy to build workarounds that are appropriate to the modern era, there’s also a fair amount of accepting paternalism in the U.S.-Japan relationship for the sake of the top goal on any politician’s mind: maintaining national defense.
Japan has several interests related to Chinese mainland coercion or a possible hostile takeover of Taiwan. Not all of them are confined to Japan’s investment in the future of Taiwan. There’s the issue of China’s deep water access; disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which include “gray zone” tactics; and there’s an international legal component to those disputes. There’s also China’s general relationship with U.S. allies in the region that creates difficulties for everyone, but particularly for Japan.
There’s also the issue of U.S. reliability in alliance relationships. The damage of the Trump years hasn’t been fully borne out yet. In some ways I read Japan’s willingness to spend more on defense as its own protection from the uncertainties of the U.S. domestic political cycle. Trump viewed alliances as transactional. He thought they needed to be more cost effective and accrue more benefits to the U.S., and this way that he assessed international relationships rattled allies throughout the region. Some of Japan’s actions, which have a shadow effect on Taiwan, may be about networking with the rest of the region to insure itself against U.S. unreliability in the face of a rising and aggressive China. There are also real, deep personal relationships between the Abe family and Taiwan. So in some ways, steering the entire Japanese security strategic mindset toward what could happen on Taiwan was driven by personalities in Japan’s political system.
That might be an enduring legacy of the Abe years: Japan is so focused on peace and stability on the Taiwan Strait, but it is really about ensuring there is a viable strategy to deter China.
YCW: How would you characterize the state of Taiwan studies within the United States’ Asia policy community (academia, think tanks,…)? What are we missing or getting wrong?
RD: The two dangerous consensuses that I see forming are pretty easy to identify: One is the debate over strategic ambiguity/clarity, which is centered on whether the U.S. would respond to a mainland invasion with force. I find that debate particularly dangerous because the most stable outcome for Taiwan is continued ambiguity. Adding clarity where it is destabilizing is detrimental to our goals of maintaining a free and open society in Taiwan.
“[T]he most stable outcome for Taiwan is continued ambiguity. Adding clarity where it is destabilizing is detrimental to our goals of maintaining a free and open society in Taiwan.”
The second line of thinking that I find really dangerous and misguided is that there is a direct relationship between technological competition for semiconductor knowledge and the use of force against Taiwan. The idea that the mainland would risk everything in order to get a few generations ahead on semiconductor manufacturing, when it has other ways of achieving that goal short of invasion, has entered the public discussion in such a splashy and easily digestible way that it keeps coming up, regardless of how many times it’s debunked with facts and sound analysis.
We’re very focused in this country on planning for and facilitating hard defense strategies, which leaves us vulnerable to looking at every problem as though it has a defense solution. The problem set in Taiwan is political, not military. If we continue to try to use the military to affect politics, we will find ourselves at a disadvantage.
Tangential to that, I think what lawmakers most need to understand is that the U.S. has quite a bit of agency to shape that political problem set in ways that are strategic to our goal of maintaining a free and open society in Taiwan. It feels to me that in all three capitals there is an over-focus on being reactive to the moves of the others and an under-focus on their own agency to manage, if not resolve, the underlying political issues. If I were to sit down with U.S. lawmakers or their staffers to discuss this issue, I would remind them that the decisions they make are part of an iterative cycle of action and reaction that is leading, however quickly or slowly, toward a situation we do not want. It is therefore incumbent on the strategic community to figure out how to stop or redirect that cycle toward something that might approach a long-term stasis we can all live with.
“The problem set in Taiwan is political, not military. If we continue to try to use the military to affect politics, we will find ourselves at a disadvantage.”
- Interview by Johanna M. Costigan