Skip to main content
Blog post

Taipei, Beijing, and the “Status Quo”

Ambassador Mark Green

Less than 6% of people in Taiwan either support the immediate pursuit of independence from, or unification with, the People’s Republic of China. More than 88% want to maintain the status quo—at least for now.

US politicians, policymakers, and members of the media often stumble when asked to precisely define official US policy toward Taiwan. Their confusion is attributable to the vague labels we attach to our presence in the region—terms like “One China policy” and “strategic ambiguity.” 

What isn’t ambiguous is that the longstanding US approach—consistent under Republican and Democratic administrations—has largely worked. It has enabled Taiwan to prosper. It has allowed the US to grow its economic and military relationships with Taiwan. It has allowed commerce to flow freely through the Strait of Taiwan—nearly 50% of commercial container traffic flows through the Strait every day.

What’s also unambiguous is the level of support the people of Taiwan and their leaders have for the US approach. According to the National Chengchi University Election Study Center, which has decades of experience in polling the people of Taiwan about their core political attitudes, only 5.8% want their government to immediately pursue either complete independence from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) or reunification with the mainland. Nearly 29% of respondents want to maintain the status quo for now before deciding future status later on, while more than 28% want to maintain the status quo indefinitely. Over 25% want to maintain the status quo for now before eventually moving toward independence. Only 6% want to maintain status quo for now, and then move toward unification in the future.

And all of this is true even as a growing number of PRC warplanes and naval vessels approach Taiwan’s territorial skies and waters to intimidate the people of the island.

How did we formulate our current policy toward Beijing and Taipei? In 1979, the United States officially recognized the PRC and de-recognized the Republic of China (otherwise known as Taiwan). At the same time, the US did not recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan—it merely acknowledged Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of the PRC. Through enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act, or TRA, Washington declared it “to be the policy of the United States to preserve and promote extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan…” and expressed the “expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means…”

In other words, while the US has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan—no embassy or consulate in Taipei—the US government has gone to great lengths to reinforce its strong bond with Taiwan. In policy terms, that bond is essentially defined by a combination of the One China policy, the TRA, and the “Six Assurances” which President Reagan communicated to Taiwan in the wake of America’s recognition of the PRC. The Six Assurances state that the US did not agree to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan, the US did not agree to consult Beijing prior to arm sales to Taiwan, the US did not see a mediation role for the United States, the US has no plans to alter or revise the TRA, the US has not changed its position on the sovereignty over Taiwan, and the US will not attempt to pressure Taiwan to enter into negotiations with the PRC. 

All of the foregoing have contributed to “strategic ambiguity”…which allows Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen to maintain that Taiwan does not need to declare independence because it has always had independence. After all, Taipei experts are quick to note, the PRC has never actually controlled or occupied a single square inch of the island. And Tsai’s formulation does not propose any changes to Taiwan’s current status. 

Taiwan is often in the news these days because of the PRC’s aggressive acts. It’s also in the news because of growing calls from its American friends to hasten military and economic assistance to the island. There are many things the US can do in support of Taiwan to remind its people they’re not alone. None of them require a departure from “strategic ambiguity.”

This blog was researched and drafted with the assistance of Caroline Moody.

About the Author

Ambassador Mark Green

Ambassador Mark A. Green

President & CEO, Wilson Center
Read More