Taiwan a major topic of discussion at Shangri-La security summit
17 Jun 2022|

Last weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore was the first since 2019 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which seemed to make the event cathartic for pent-up tensions in the international system. Taiwan was a major topic of discussion, even if the Taiwanese government wasn’t formally represented.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, China’s Minister for Defence Wei Fenghe and Australia’s new Defence Minister Richard Marles all made references to Taiwan in their speeches and fielded a number of questions about the prospects for conflict.

None of their comments conveyed changed policies on Taiwan, but they were notably categorical in tone. They therefore represented an intervention in Taiwan policy that’s difficult to capture with the norms of foreign policy analysis.

Taiwan’s position as simultaneously excluded from the international system and situated at the centre of US–China relations and global technology supply chains means that layers of international Taiwan policy operate at the level of the tacit, ambiguous and unsaid. In this way, Taiwan destabilises what is ideally a stable relationship between foreign policy language and state power in the international system.

For national leaders to be unequivocal about Taiwan, therefore, is discomfiting because it creates a fixedness to the language with which the international system addresses Taiwan. It demarcates the complex and unstable realities of Taiwan’s status from the stable norms of the international system and ultimately constrains policy choices and Taiwan’s own future within those norms.

From the US side, the defence secretary affirmed the US position on Taiwan through the key statements: the Taiwan Relations Act, the Six Assurances and the three joint communiqués. He also restated the US commitment to its ‘one China’ policy, which deploys a deliberate ambiguity on the US position on Beijing’s territorial claim over Taiwan.

Austin went on to convey the developing belief in Washington that Beijing is reneging on its commitments to the US over Taiwan made since the 1970s by changing the material conditions in the Taiwan Strait through the use of state power. He was referring to the pattern of People’s Liberation Army Air Force flights across the median line in Taiwan’s air defence identification zone that threatens Taiwan and normalises a territorial claim over the strait. This was also the substance of US President Joe Biden’s comments in Tokyo about the potential for US involvement in the defence of Taiwan. He suggested that Beijing wasn’t holding up its side of the bargain made with Washington in the 1970s and 1980s, and so the US could respond accordingly.

But although Austin stated Washington’s position concomitant with its developing view, he also stated with unusual force: ‘The US does not support Taiwan independence.’

That statement would have come as a disappointment to Taipei, not because it is about to ‘declare independence’ but because President Tsai Ing-wen has worked hard to reframe Taiwan’s status beyond this rigid phraseology that constrains how it’s possible to talk about Taiwan’s past and future. As Tsai has stated, Taiwan has no need to ‘declare independence’ because it is already an independent sovereign state, the Republic of China. But the bald statement by Austin unequivocally places Taiwan outside the international system and that leads to the assumption that Taiwan’s only pathway into it is through ‘reunification’ with the People’s Republic of China. This suits Beijing but not the democratic aspirations of the Taiwanese people.

From the PRC side, Wei gave a speech that was notably belligerent and uncompromising in tone but did not indicate any fundamental change in Beijing’s position.

He declared that China would ‘fight to the very end’ to prevent Taiwan splitting from the mainland. He also said, using the scientistic Marxist teleology of the Chinese Communist Party, that ‘reunification’ was inevitable, in accordance with history’s laws, and that Beijing was ‘making every effort with the greatest sincerities to deliver peaceful reunification’. Beijing’s efforts are limited to offering the people of Taiwan a non-negotiable outcome—one country, two systems—with no roadmap to achieve it. In responding to questions, Wei did affirm a no-first-strike defensive doctrine for China’s nuclear arsenal, which matters for those commentators who use the risk of nuclear war to make an argument about Taiwan’s future that denies the Taiwanese the right of self-determination.

Wei did, however, lambast the Tsai’s government for refusing to accept the 1992 Consensus. This is a policy formulation coined in the early 2000s, referencing non-official negotiations between Taipei and Beijing in 1992, that agreed to set aside the question of Taiwan’s sovereignty in order to facilitate trade and governmental links. However, in a style that is typical of Beijing in many areas of policy beyond Taiwan, what was initially a pragmatically vague formulation has been concretised by the party-state system into an obdurate demand to accede to an immutable principle.

His comments, which have been repeated by PRC officials in Australia, highlights the way Beijing’s specific internal ideological fixations and its policy system can intrude counterproductively into its international relations.

For Australia’s part, the new defense minister responded to a media question about a Taiwan Strait crisis by declining to follow his predecessor’s line about preparing for war. Marles said, ‘Australia supports a one-China policy’, distinguishing Australia’s position from Beijing’s ‘one-China principle’. But he also followed Austin’s statement by saying unequivocally that Australia did not support ‘Taiwanese independence’. He went further, however, and said that Australia had ‘good relations with the people of Taiwan’ (that is, not the government of Taiwan) and stated that ‘what we do want to see is that the situation for the people of Taiwan is resolved through peaceful negotiation’. This diverged from the established formulation ‘the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues’, in which the use of the plural captures the many aspects of the cross-strait relationship, rather than the single situation of the future of Taiwan itself. Beijing has no negotiable position on the future of Taiwan.

Amid these declarative statements, it was perhaps not surprising that that it was Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky who, in an address via video to the Shangri-La Dialogue, responded to a question about Taiwan without naming Taiwan. Instead, he spoke of ‘certain political leaders who are not content with the present level of their ambitions’ and, on smaller countries, urged the international community to ‘not leave them behind at the mercy of another country’. Zelensky returned the question of Taiwan’s sovereignty to the tacit and unsaid and brought forward the liberal principles of the modern international system of shared peace and progress and the dignity of sovereignty, tacitly giving Taiwan a place in such a system.