Cover: How Taiwan's Status Is Resolved Will Determine Whether U.S.-China Relations Are Cooperative or Hostile

How Taiwan's Status Is Resolved Will Determine Whether U.S.-China Relations Are Cooperative or Hostile

Published May 22, 2007

by Roger Cliff, David A. Shlapak

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Research Brief


Depending on how Taiwan's status is resolved, U.S.-China relations could range from friendly cooperation to cold war. As China's military capabilities grow, it will be increasingly important—and increasingly difficult—for the United States to both prevent an attempt at violent reunification and maintain the capability to defeat it.

At present, the most obvious and likely source of conflict between the United States and China is Taiwan. Although the United States has not had a formal defense treaty with Taiwan since 1979, it has an ongoing commitment to Taiwan's security and has been the island's principal protector against Chinese threats since 1950. Resolution of Taiwan's status, however, would not necessarily eliminate the possibility of tension or even conflict between Washington and Beijing. Indeed, the effect of an end to the cross-strait standoff on Sino-U.S. ties will be strongly conditioned by what that resolution is and how it came about.

A RAND Project AIR FORCE (PAF) study examines the ways in which Taiwan's status could be resolved and how the events surrounding that resolution would likely shape the subsequent U.S.-China relationship. There are, broadly speaking, ten different logical possibilities for trajectories that the cross-strait relationship could follow. Four of them are peaceful:

  • continuation of the current unresolved status quo
  • peaceful unification
  • peaceful independence
  • a compromise resolution.

Six involve Chinese use of force against Taiwan:

  • violent unification with U.S. intervention
  • violent unification without U.S. intervention
  • violent independence with U.S. intervention
  • violent independence without U.S. intervention
  • violent irresolution with U.S. intervention
  • violent irresolution without U.S. intervention.

Looking across all these cases reveals that simply assuming that the Taiwan situation has been "resolved" is hardly enough to understand the nature of the subsequent security relationship between China and the United States. Instead, the manner and mode in which the Taiwan question is decided will make a great deal of difference. To the extent one can generalize, the obvious appears to be true: The consequences of peaceful outcomes—including continued peaceful irresolution—are both more predictable and generally better for relations between Washington and Beijing.

In contrast, nonpeaceful resolutions of Taiwan's status could cause U.S.-China relations to fall anywhere from reasonable amity to a cold war–like confrontation, depending on the circumstances surrounding the conflict and its outcome. Only a fundamentally pragmatic Chinese government is likely to recognize Taiwan as an independent country, so if the resolution of Taiwan's status results in formal independence for Taiwan, subsequent U.S.-China relations will likely be cooperative. If the result is forcible unification for Taiwan, the United States and China will likely find themselves in a hostile cold war. A war over Taiwan that left its status unresolved would also be likely to result in a prolonged and severe deterioration of U.S.-China relations, although this deterioration would not necessarily be as severe as if China had won the war and forced Taiwan to unify with the mainland.

For more than 25 years, U.S. policy has, above all else, sought to ensure that any resolution of Taiwan's status occurs peacefully. The implication of the findings of this study is that, as China's power and confidence in its military capabilities grow and therefore the possibility of Beijing attempting to bring about unification through force increases, preventing such an attempt from occurring while maintaining the capability to defeat it will become increasingly important even as it becomes increasingly difficult.

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