The Taiwan Problem and China’s Strategy for Resolving It

Remarks at the Center for Naval Analysis

China has always said that Taiwan is the central problem obstructing the development of its relations with the United States.  I’ve been asked to talk about what Beijing plans to do about this.   I have said and written a lot elsewhere about U.S. policy toward Taiwan.  I think we’ve done pretty well by the place.  I don’t intend to repeat either that analysis or my critique of current policy.  I will not speak to U.S. views, positions, or policies at all today except as they bear on Chinese strategy.

From this vantage point, the Taiwan problem began on a hot Monday night in Washington, DC.  It was a surprise gift to the Chinese and American peoples from the late North Korean dictator, Kim Il-sung.  At 04:00 on the morning of June 25, 1950, local time, he launched a surprise attack to unify Korea by force.  Instead of accomplishing this, Kim’s violent adventurism ultimately had the effect of perpetuating the division of Korea, cleaving Asia apparently irreversibly into competing American and Chinese spheres of influence, splitting China in two, and making the previously obscure Chinese province of Taiwan into the focus of ongoing Sino-American military rivalry.

On June 26, 1950, at 21:00 hours Washington time, President Truman met at Blair House with key members of his cabinet and the Joint Chiefs.  The question before them was what to do about the crisis in Korea and related areas.  On the advice of those present, the president directed that “orders be issued to the Seventh Fleet to prevent an attack on Formosa [Taiwan], the National Government of China [i.e. Chiang Kai-shek] be told to desist from operations against the mainland, and the Seventh Fleet be ordered to effect this.”1

Up to that point, Chinese and Americans alike had confidently expected Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to pursue Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan, to which Chiang had fled on December 10, 1949, and to complete the Communist victory in China’s civil war.  In anticipation of this, on January 5, 1950, President Truman took public note of the fact that “for the past four years the United States and other Allied Powers have accepted the exercise of Chinese authority over” Taiwan.  He declared that the United States would not involve itself “in the civil conflict in China . . . [and would] not provide military aid or advice to Chinese forces” on Taiwan.2  

The reversals of American policy that Kim Il-sung provoked imposed a formidable set of unanticipated strategic challenges on the newborn communist government of China.  As time went on, from Beijing’s perspective, the transformation of Taiwan into an American protectorate meant that:

• The objective of unifying China under a single, central authority – a fundamental aim of both the 1911 and 1949 Chinese revolutions – could not soon be accomplished.

• Part of China – Taiwan – would remain subject indefinitely to a foreign – American – sphere of influence, defeating yet another fundamental objective of both Chinese revolutions: the end of foreign domination of any part of Chinese territory.

• The civil war could not be concluded.

• Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China would continue to function as a rival regime, contesting the right to rule all of China, not just Taiwan, and to represent China internationally.  The legitimacy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would thus be subjected to constant challenge both at home and abroad.

• To rectify these conditions, China would either have to drive the United States from Taiwan by force of arms or persuade it to vacate the island voluntarily.

• In the almost certainly lengthy interim, the United States and China would be locked into a relationship of mutual antagonism and military hostility.

To one degree or another, from Beijing’s perspective, these frustrations continue to define what’s at stake for China in the Taiwan issue today.  The normalization of China’s relations with the United States in 1979 altered them less than Washington had appeared to promise or Beijing had hoped.  Taiwan’s democratization and the emergence of the Taiwan independence movement in the last decade of the 20th Century added another dimension to the complicated issue of Taiwan’s political identity, but did not change China’s strategic objectives or the domestic imperatives from which they derive.  The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is unalterably committed to unifying China in a way that removes foreign and domestic challenges to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Chinese state, while vindicating the Party and its leaders’ historic role in the restoration of China’s national dignity and self-regard.

Since 1979, China has — with great strategic resolve and even greater tactical flexibility — pursued the goal of reunification by measures short of war.  The Chinese have done so in accordance with a concept of the strategic requirements imposed by the perceived imperative of “a peaceful international environment.”  They judge that only within such an environment can they restore their country to wealth and power.  Their concept of what must be done to secure their state in the long run differs in two fundamental respects from American suppositions about what is necessary and appropriate.  The unstated presuppositions on both sides contribute to intermittent mutual frustration and misunderstanding.  They require clarification.

First, Americans have regarded the situations in Korea and the Taiwan Strait as embodying a more or less stable and peaceful international status quo that requires continuing military effort for its sustainment but which is preferable to any feasible alternative.  Chinese, by contrast, have seen the status quo in both places as reflecting the inherent instabilities of temporary armistices or de facto ceasefires in ongoing conflicts.  They also consider the underlying political conflicts that drive these situations to be national rather than international in character.  These differences of perspective account for many of the differences in the two sides’ approaches to these issues.

The basic American objective has been to manage and limit international conflict along China’s borders, deferring them indefinitely rather than resolving them.  The fundamental Chinese objective has been to shape these issues so that temporary arrangements can eventually be replaced with long-term agreements that resolve the underlying issues between the parties, eliminate or reduce the possibility of armed conflict or foreign intervention on China’s frontiers, and enable peace to be sustained mainly by non-military means.  The two sides have shared an interest in deferring conflict that has masked essentially different strategic objectives with respect to it. 

In the American view, conflict management avoids politically painful choices.  Americans equate a stable status quo to peace.  As Chinese see it, the status quo is one of political struggle and latent military conflict; hence it is inconsistent with peace.  They think that replacement of strategic dispensations that suspend war with accords to resolve the issues that risk it is ultimately essential to secure China’s periphery over the long term.  The Chinese also consider that resolution of confrontation-fraught situations on their borders would reduce (or even eliminate)  the presence of foreign expeditionary forces — meaning American forces — there.  In Beijing’s view, this would lower the probability of conflict with the United States or its Asian allies and reduce pressure for increased investment in external defense capabilities at the expense of domestic development.

Thus, the American focus on peace-keeping contradicts and undercuts the Chinese emphasis on peace-making.  In the case of Taiwan, the United States, though officially ambivalent, acts consistently in practice to support the indefinite extension of the island’s peaceful coexistence with the mainland on terms that preserve its de facto politico-military separation from the rest of China.  China, by contrast, sees reunification of some sort — if only symbolic in nature — as indispensable to creating a lasting peace in the Taiwan area, much as the return of Hong Kong and Macau to Chinese sovereignty ended controversy over their status without altering the character or significantly affecting the operation of their politico-economic systems. 

Second, the characteristic American overemphasis on military factors in foreign relations and tendency to confuse campaign plans with strategy have caused many in the United States to slight other elements of China’s grand strategy with respect to Taiwan.  Americans have tended to view the Taiwan problem as a military issue with political dimensions.  The Chinese have seen it as a political problem with military aspects.  Chinese policies toward the island are neither primarily nor exclusively military.  They combine political, economic, informational, and cultural instruments of influence with diplomatic and military measures calculated to advance the cause of a negotiated resolution of the nature of Taiwan’s relationships with the rest of China in all these aspects of human interaction.  The Chinese see weapons as tools with which to change men’s minds, not as instruments whose value is to be measured in how much physical damage they inflict. 

In this and other respects, China’s strategic culture remains profoundly influenced by its traditions, including Sunzi’s notion that measures short of war, politico-military maneuver, and stratagem are the most important elements of campaign plans.  As Master Sun put it: 不战而屈人之兵善之善者也 (“to subdue the enemy without actual battle is the acme of skill”).  Foreign statements positing a contradiction between China’s peaceful engagement with Taiwanese interest groups and elites and the PLA’s military buildup against the island strike most Chinese as nonsensical.  In China’s strategic doctrine, these are two flanks of the same maneuver.

The Chinese are notoriously patient.  They also understand that economic power, like gravity, is an attractive force that can be attenuated by distance but that cannot repel.  Like Europeans, they see economic measures as usually best employed to link peoples rather than to punish them.  Beijing is using the allure of mainland markets skillfully to vest a widening range of Taiwanese economic and social groups with interests in cross-Strait interdependence.3  Unlike Americans, Chinese are not enamored of economic sanctions or blockades.  On the other hand, they don’t mind a bit of anxiety-driven reflection about the pain a crisis could inflict on the large chunks of Taiwanese society that are now dependent on cross-Strait trade and investment. 

To signal political flexibility in future negotiations, Beijing has suspended its efforts to dislodge Taipei’s diplomatic and quasi-official relationships with foreign capitals. To foster a sense of common identity, it has opened mainland universities to students from Taiwan, licensed Taiwanese professionals to practice there, and facilitated migration as well as tourism.4  These steps may not generate Taiwanese support for reunification but they build a sense of a common Chinese space and erode anxiety about the consequences of formalizing a Chinese commonwealth in which Taiwan is at least symbolically united with the mainland.  They thereby diminish potential resistance to negotiated reunification.  Under the impact of Beijing’s policies, Taiwanese combine a growing stake in avoiding the disruption of cross-Strait relations with a declining stake in remaining politically dissociated from the mainland. 

Taiwanese have become accustomed to democracy.  China’s political system, unlike its economy and culture, remains unattractive to them, but Beijing’s international prestige is rising.  So is the pride of ordinary Chinese in their country and its achievements.  China can be expected to ensure that Taiwanese appreciate, as Chinese, that they too can gain stature from China’s enhanced standing and self-confidence.  The lure of identification with China seems very likely to rise, not fall, over time.  And, when Beijing judges that the moment is ripe, it will know how to use inducements as well as implied threats to help Taiwanese rationalize agreement to a long-term cross-Strait accommodation that meets the requirements of Chinese nationalism.

In this context, China’s achievement of a credible capacity to devastate Taiwan regardless of U.S. intervention in a cross-Strait conflict answers a key operational question: why should Taiwan negotiate an agreed relationship between itself and the rest of China?  No one is ever prepared to negotiate unless doing so is a path to potential benefits or a credible alternative to substantial setbacks or losses.  What Beijing is offering Taipei is essentially a symbolically repackaged status quo.  The offer — definitively outlined in the “eight point proposal” of 1995 — confirms that, under reunification, Taiwan would keep what it already has — self-government on terms it itself has decided, an unchanged political democracy, a globally connected capitalist economy, its own armed forces, responsibility for its own defense of its part of China, and so forth. 

Keeping what you have is not much of an inducement unless you are afraid you could lose it.  When the moment is ripe, therefore, Beijing must act to convince Taiwanese that they will be able to retain the benefits of the status quo only if they negotiate some form of agreed status consistent with “reunification.”  The means to do this are increasingly at hand.  Beijing will also want to drive home to Americans and Japanese that the only way to guarantee the absence of a PLA presence on Taiwan is for Taipei to accept Beijing’s offer to rule this out.  China’s endgame with Taiwan envisages its eventual preemptive capitulation to the inexorable in response to an offer Taiwan cannot refuse.

China may be prepared to go to war over Taiwan but it is well aware of what a disaster for all concerned actual combat would be.  Its strategy is directed at winning without fighting.  China now enjoys decisive military superiority over Taiwan.  It is acquiring a credible capacity to deflect or counter U.S. intervention in any cross-Strait conflict.  In this context, without firing a shot, China has accomplished the deterrence of moves by Taiwan toward independence.  It is now beginning to focus on compellence.  With this in mind, China is likely to treat Taiwanese to escalating demonstrations of the PLA’s ability to overwhelm Taiwan, notwithstanding whatever military backing it may have from the U.S.  China’s objective will be to couple political measures with demonstrations of irresistible military capabilities.  Its objective is to create a sense of inevitability about the need for Taiwan to reach an accommodation with the mainland.

It is in this context that we are seeing a change in the Chinese approach to “transparency.”  Transparency advertizes strength, which is why we have liked it and, up to now, the Chinese have not.  Increasingly, however, they do.  If cross-Strait military exchanges are begun, I would expect the PLA to make every effort to allow Taiwanese officers to observe its exercises so as to impress them with its increasingly formidable capabilities. 

The grand strategy China is following is fundamentally directed at manipulating the psychological parameters of decision-making in Taiwan, which China understands is ultimately conditioned by mass opinion as expressed through democratic political structures.  This, not U.S. military power, is the “center of gravity” on which Chinese strategy is focused.  The convincing perception by Taiwan’s elites of overwhelming Chinese military power, not the actual application of that power, is the operative objective of China’s continuing military build-up as it relates to Taiwan.  In the Chinese context of cross-Strait relations this approach may well work.  It has already led Taipei to deemphasize military means of defense and pay greater attention to political accommodation as a means of reducing the danger of war with the mainland. 

Part of the logical force of China’s strategy is that, from both Taipei’s and Washington’s point of view, it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that agreement to some sort of formal association between Taiwan and the mainland would not be preferable to a Sino-American war to determine the island’s relationship to the rest of China.  Such a war would devastate both sides of the Strait as well as U.S. bases in the Asia-Pacific region and quite possibly parts of the U.S. homeland.  When it ended, if Taiwan remained separate from China, there is no reason to believe that China would accept this as a final outcome.  It would be more likely to try again.5  If China had succeeded in seizing Taiwan, it would have done so at the expense of long-term Sino-American enmity.  In either case, Taiwan as we know it would almost certainly have been destroyed.  So, whoever “won” a war in the Taiwan Strait, China, Taiwan, and the United States would all have lost.

China’s Anti-Secession law6 specifies three circumstances in which China’s leaders must use force against Taiwan: (1) if “Taiwan independence” forces, under whatever name and method, accomplish the fact of Taiwan’s separation from China; (2) if a major event occurs which would lead to Taiwan’s separation from the rest of China; or (3) if all possibility of peaceful unification is lost.  It is in no one’s interest for either these provisions or the ambiguous language of the United States Taiwan Relations Act to be put to the test.  Perhaps the United States should try to create circumstances that promote the settlement of the Taiwan problem rather than its perpetuation.  But the likelihood of such strategic reasoning and statesmanship in today’s policy-gridlocked Washington is as close to zero as you can get.

On several occasions, the Chinese have brought themselves to hope that American diplomacy might help to advance rather than obstruct a negotiated resolution between the parties on either side of the Strait.  On each such occasion, they have been disillusioned.  They now see the United States not as a potential part of the solution but as an incorrigible element of the Taiwan problem — to be flanked, if not removed.  The fact that they see the Taiwan issue as ripening to the point where a negotiated resolution of it may be coming into view adds immediacy to the task of reducing or eliminating U.S. backing for Taiwanese recalcitrance.

Ironically, therefore, as progress is made toward lessened tensions and greater cross-Strait cooperation, U.S. arms sales and other elements of the U.S. defense posture not only become less politically relevant in Taipei but also less tolerable by Beijing, which blames the United States for enabling, if not endorsing, Taiwanese separatism.  The prospects are that a good deal of Chinese diplomatic energy and effort is about to be dedicated to raising the costs to the United States of following policies that, in China’s view, inhibit rather than encourage cross-Strait accommodation. 

The final implications of Kim Il-sung’s adventurism and the American response to it are far from having played themselves out in Sino-American relations.


1 Notes regarding Blair House meetings, June 26, 1950., reproduced in “The Korean War and  Its Origins, 1945-1953,”


3 In 2011, cross-Strait trade was about $160 billion annually.  Over 40 percent of Taiwan’s exports were to the mainland, either directly or through Hong Kong.  Well over 100,000 Taiwan-invested business and projects were underway across the Strait and cumulative investment in the mainland from Taiwan was about $150 billion.  (Investment approved by the Chinese central government stood at about $53 billion.)

4 At any given moment in 2011, 10 percent or more of Taiwan’s population (i.e., 2 – 2.5 million people) are at work or play on the China mainland. About 175,000 people from Taiwan have taken up permanent residence across the Strait.  At the same time, nearly 250,000 people from the mainland are temporarily in Taiwan, while almost 130,000 have permanent resident status there.  In 2010, 1.6 million tourists from the mainland visited Taiwan.

5 The Qing (Manchu) effort to retake Taiwan from the Ming pretender-regime that had retreated to it succeeded only on the eleventh of eleven bloody assaults on the island that took place over decades.

6 Passed by the National People’s Congress in March 2005.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

Alexandria, Virginia

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