Home / Articles / Varieties of Sovereignty and China: Challenges and Opportunities in the Cross-Strait Relationship
On December 17, 2001, the Foreign Policy Research Institute held a day-long conference to address the question of sovereignty in PRC-Taiwan relations and the economic, political, legal, and international relations issues affecting the prospects for addressing or resolving it. The conference was held amid developments that were reshaping some of the key contexts of the Cross-Strait relationship. The December 2001 legislative elections on Taiwan yielded victory for the Democratic Progressive Party, making it the largest party in the Legislative Yuan. The PRC and Taiwan both acceded to the World Trade Organization. Cross-Strait dialogue remained characterized by the PRC’s continuing dismissal of Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian as insincere and untrustworthy, even as Beijing’s tinkering with the meaning of the “one China principle” sought to signal flexibility. All of this unfolded against the backdrop of the U.S. having turned its foreign policy focus to the war against terrorism and away from Cross-Strait issues. The Conference was organized in four panels:
Economic Integration and its Implications: Caleb Clark, Auburn University (principal paper); Tun-jen Cheng, College of William and Mary, and Gilbert Rozman, Princeton University (commentators).
Domestic Political Transformations and their Implications: Alan Wachman, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (principal paper); Shelley Rigger, Davidson College/FPRI, and Kim Lane Scheppele, University of Pennsylvania (commentators).
Models of Complex / Intermediate Sovereignty and Cross- Strait Relations: Jacques deLisle, University of Pennsylvania/FPRI (principal paper); Arthur Waldron, University of Pennsylvania, and Harvey Sicherman, FPRI (commentators).
Options, Challenges and the Road Ahead: Assessment and Overview: Avery Goldstein, University of Pennsylvania/ FPRI; June Teufel Dreyer, University of Miami/FPRI; and Jacques deLisle.
Comments offered during the final panel addressing primarily issues covered in the first three panels are incorporated in the reports of the first three panels.
The conference papers will be published in the Fall 2002 issue of Orbis, due out in September.
Economic Integration and Its Implications for Sovereignty
Panelists all stressed that burgeoning economic links and growing social ties between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland have transformed the “low politics” of Cross-Strait relations in recent years. From near-zero baselines in the late 1980s, bilateral trade has grown to $30 billion annually and investment is estimated to have reached $80 billion to $100 billion. Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese live semi-permanently in Shanghai and elsewhere on the mainland. Temple associations and other social and cultural connections have developed as well.
There was less agreement about how to characterize these vastly deepened and expanded Cross-Strait economic and social ties. One analysis perceived extensive economic integration, suggesting strong structural connections between the two economies. Complementarities between the two economies fueled this process in the 1990s, with rising costs driving Taiwan out of labor-intensive, standardized manufacturing industries just as the PRC’s second wave of economic reform policies began to emphasize a more export-oriented growth strategy that sought foreign investment in relatively low-technology, cheap-labor-intensive industries in coastal China. Much of the flow of goods in Cross-Strait trade now takes the form of transfers within firms or from supplier to manufacturer, part of an integrated production process.
Another assessment saw the Cross-Strait economic relationship as one of interdependence, characterized by extensive economic flows that still fell short of true economic integration. On this view, the economic connections might be less inexorable than they seem. They are in part the product of a somewhat panicked rush by Taiwanese business interests not to miss out on the trade and investment opportunities that others were reaping. And they remain dependent on the political will on both sides to make and maintain legal agreements and other arrangements that provide the indispensable underpinnings for trade and investment. Another perspective emphasized the asymmetry of Cross-Strait economic interdependence, stressing that Taiwan has become far more economically dependent on the PRC than the PRC is on Taiwan. Taiwan has become crucially reliant on the PRC as an export market and as the site of a large and growing share of Taiwan companies’ manufacturing facilities (with no reverse flows of investment from the PRC to Taiwan).
Still another view noted the uncertain effect of increased social communication, pointing out that sometimes expanded contact between PRC Chinese and other East Asians has led to conflict. The net impact of expanded PRC-Taiwan social communications (which occur almost exclusively on the mainland) is unclear. The especially close cultural ties and growing economic dependence between the people in Taiwan and the people in the PRC suggest a firm foundation for social communication creating a basis for positive interactions and the rediscovery or construction of a shared identity. Nonetheless, it is possible that dense interaction could produce an increased sense of social distance and greater skepticism about the desirability of reunification, especially in light of the dissimilarities between the two political systems and the efforts by political leaders on Taiwan to reinforce development of a distinct Taiwanese identity.
Panelists agreed that developments in economic interdependence or economic integration and social communication between Taiwan and the mainland were part of a broader pattern of economic globalization, including the expanded economic relationships among the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan and the United States. Three-quarters of PRC information technology-related exports to the U.S. are made in Taiwanese-owned factories. And the PRC is heavily dependent on U.S. foreign direct investment and technology, and access to U.S. markets. The politics of this triangular relationship must be considered as a central factor in assessing the political implications of Cross-Strait economic ties for the politics of Cross-Strait relations. Regional economic integration within East Asia may be adding another complicating factor.
The picture of the “high politics” of Taiwan-PRC relations that the panelists presented is a good deal less sanguine. During the early 1990s, hopes had arisen on both sides that growing economic links would lead to progress toward some form of political accommodation— for Beijing, in the form of advancing reunification and for Taipei in the form of dampening Chinese dissatisfaction with Taiwan’s pursuit of international status. But this was followed by deterioration, especially after the PRC undertook missile exercises to intimidate Taiwan and counter a perceived drift toward independence in 1995-1996. On Taiwan, concern grew that economic dependence on the mainland provided leverage that the PRC could and would use against Taiwan’s political autonomy.
Participants noted that some developments have limited or moderated— but only slightly— this trend toward friction in the political relationship and over possibly acceptable formulae for allocating sovereignty. One important factor during the period since DPP leader Chen Shui-bian assumed the presidency on Taiwan has been the influence of Taiwan’s business community, which has considerable clout within the DPP and which has an obvious economic stake in good relations with the PRC. On the other hand, prospects for improvements in the political relationship are dimmed by signs of Beijing’s inclination to take a harder line — cracking down on mainland-investing Taiwanese business leaders who had supported Chen, attaching a new precondition that Chen accept the PRC’s version of the “one China principle” before negotiations could proceed on the trade- and investment-enhancing “three links” proposal, and suggesting that PRC-Taiwan WTO disputes must be handled as domestic matters.
The panelists offered divergent assessments of the likely future impact of close and extensive economic connections on the political dimensions of Cross-Strait relations. One assessment judged that economic integration probably would continue to grow despite continued or increased friction in the political relationship, but that a significant deterioration on the political side could undermine or overcome integrative economic trends. On this view, the concerns of “high politics” still held significant potential for trumping the “low politics” of economic relations, particularly in the PRC’s calculations (in which the economic concerns of the populace or even business elites do not need to be taken fully into account). On both sides, the intractable issues of sovereignty remain highly salient and made a European Union-like solution implausible. Several comments stressed that history has not been very kind to the thesis that “low politics” will triumph. On this view, the European Union is a key example. It is not a case of political integration built on the foundation of economic integration. Rather, the EU has its origins in the security concerns of the Cold War and the unifying force provided by a common enemy.
Another analysis foresaw continued developments in economic ties leading to greater likelihood of a solution to political issues, including the sovereignty question. Less certain was the pathway by which this might occur and the degree to which the resulting arrangements would reflect current PRC preferences. One scenario envisages “peace by pieces,” with progress toward an overall political arrangement emerging (albeit unpredictably in its details) through the creation of economic interests — shared by politically powerful elites on both sides of the Strait— in a stable political environment. The PRC’s apparent embrace of “globalization” and, in the very long run, changes in the PRC’s society and polity suggest some hope for developments in “low politics” yielding progress toward a benign, mutually acceptable resolution of “high politics” issues.
Another version envisions the PRC increasingly using the political leverage that it derives from the asymmetric economic relationship across the Strait to press for a solution that is to Beijing’s liking. In addition to Beijing’s direct exercise of power derived from asymmetrical interdependence, political pressure on Taiwan’s government by Taiwan’s business community could be an increasingly significant force, whether it is brought to bear relatively spontaneously and autonomously or by means of perceived pressure or threats from the PRC. Other factors beyond the bilateral relationship could affect any otherwise predictable trajectories. These include, principally, developments in U.S. policies toward Taiwan, the PRC, and Cross-Strait relations.
Implications of Domestic Political Transformations
Issues of sovereignty matter a great deal in Cross-Strait relations. Panelists pointed to the long, ongoing and sometimes heated war of words between Beijing and Taipei over how to characterize Taiwan’s status and its relationship to the PRC. Despite the rhetorical conflict over Lee Teng-hui’s so-called “two-states theory” or the PRC’s much-tinkered-with “one China principle,” both sides have found the status quo tolerable (at least when compared to the risks that attend efforts to change it), and have not fundamentally undermined it. That status quo is characterized by ambiguity in principle, with neither side asserting (much less achieving) a fully conventional “one state” or “two state” solution. The rise of national identity, the advent of democratization and the prolonged and separate exercise of the ordinary attributes of sovereignty on Taiwan have produced a lasting rejection of the former “one China” formulation of sovereignty, but the PRC’s continued insistence on unitary sovereignty has meant a cold shoulder for any proposal for a formal apportionment of sovereignty. In practice, the status quo is also characterized by what one panelist called a “pragmatic stand-off” in which Taiwan enjoys de facto autonomy but not formal independent sovereignty.
Panelists agreed that ambiguity concerning the question of sovereignty is preferable to the likely result of any foreseeable undertakings to produce clarity. Trying to negotiate an agreement for the allocation or sharing of sovereignty could produce problematic results of several different types. It could lead Taipei and Beijing to realize or to focus more intensely on differences, some of them irreconcilable, in their positions on the basic questions of sovereignty, thereby worsening the climate in Cross-Strait relations. It could lead a frustrated Beijing to resort to high pressure tactics or to threaten to use force to achieve its preferred solution, thereby producing a crisis in Cross-Strait relations that would in turn produce an international crisis involving the United States. Given the imbalance in power between the two principal parties, the quest for clarity or a negotiated solution could produce a clear outcome that reduces Taiwan’s current de facto autonomy, which can be seen as an undesirable outcome, as well as a potentially unstable one.
These expected drawbacks to pursuing an alternative to the status quo of tolerated ambiguity— when combined with demands and pressures (from Beijing, Washington and elsewhere) to engage in some type of process to address Taiwan’s status and Cross-Strait political relations— led some participants to suggest a strategy of pursuing an open- ended process seeking, at most, interim arrangements that would delay indefinitely the earnest pursuit of the illusory and thus dangerous goal of agreement on an overall solution. As one blunt, perhaps cynical, characterization put it, this approach to the risk of destabilizing confrontation over reunification and the sovereignty question was to “kill it with process.”
Panelists generally agreed that arguments about whether there are or should be one or two conventional sovereign states or some intermediate or hybrid formal or legalistic arrangement do not adequately capture the politics of sovereignty in the contemporary Chinese context. As some panelists saw it, the question of sovereignty with respect to Taiwan needs to be understood in terms of broader, competing claims about the legitimate right to exercise political authority internally and to reject the imposition of external political authority. Such complex claims are developed and articulated in two changing contexts: the place of sovereignty in the contemporary world, and domestic political developments in the PRC and on Taiwan.
Panelists disagreed about the degree to which the significance and meaning of sovereignty have changed around the world. One view saw conventional sovereignty as in rapid decline, potentially rendering obsolete or at least antiquated many of the principles and positions advocated on both sides of the Strait. Thus, over time, a viable political solution in Cross-Strait relations is less likely to be hamstrung by disputes over old-style issues of sovereignty. Another, more widely shared view held that, although the meaning of sovereignty surely has been changing amid economic globalization, international concern with human rights and other recent developments, conventional notions of strong, nation-state-based sovereignty— ones rooted in Westphalia and coming to full fruition at the time of China’s unhappy 19th-century encounter with the West— are particularly robust in contemporary China and continue to cast a long shadow over the politics of Cross-Strait relations. In particular, some panelists noted that Beijing consistently claims the right potentially to exercise political authority in Taiwan. This produces deep concerns in Taiwan that Beijing really seeks to exercise such authority in actuality if Taiwan acquiesces in Beijing’s assertions concerning the locus of sovereignty. On this view, this peril exists despite any promises that the PRC makes with respect to its intentions, not least because Taiwan’s acceptance of Beijing’s view of de jure sovereignty would leave other states unwilling to intervene in what the world would have come to regard as a domestic matter. Under such conditions, “traditional” questions of state sovereignty will remain relevant— and pose problems— for efforts to supplant, or bolster, the status quo.
In assessing domestic politics on both sides of the Strait, panelists generally perceived substantial forces for moderation in addressing Cross-Strait political issues, while also noting important countervailing factors. On the PRC side, the impending leadership transition creates a climate in which caution prevails because new or candidate leaders will not risk incurring the high costs that would attend a botched effort to alter the status quo, especially when such leaders will already face immense pressures and dangers that flow from implementation of socially and economically disruptive implementation of WTO-mandated reforms and from the perceived need to host the 2008 Olympics successfully. The regime’s dependence on economic growth for its legitimacy and the dependence of economic growth on good relations with the West offer additional reasons for moderation. So too does the PRC’s appreciation of the PLA’s limited capacity to take Taiwan, and the devastating consequences that the use of force against Taiwan would impose on a Taiwanese economy that is vital to the PRC. And there seems to be little genuine mass support for pushing aggressively for reunification, much less using military force to achieve it.
On the other hand, the PRC’s regime operates with considerable autonomy from the moderating political forces that exist in democratic polities. PRC elites have sometimes sought to whip up widely-held (or effectively instilled) nationalist sentiments on the Taiwan issue, in the possibly overconfident belief that such emotions, once released, will not push the leadership farther from moderation than it wishes to go. The PLA in particular may see friction over the Taiwan question as essential legitimation for the military build-up it seeks and for its own political influence. More broadly, the leadership in Beijing knows that it is facing a transition in its political system, and the democratic politics of Taiwan appear to much of that leadership as a threatening example that should hardly be encouraged or accommodated.
On the Taiwan side, there is a widespread sense that the state and its autonomy are vulnerable, and that any effort to move the status quo is therefore highly risky. Notably, the DPP — invariably labeled in the Western press as the “pro-independence” party — now leads a government that, like its predecessor, has been politically constrained to reject independence. Voters on Taiwan will not support recklessness. On the other hand, the defeat at the polls of the formerly ruling KMT and the New Party can be read as an electoral rebuff to those seen as too ready to “sell out” Taiwan to the PRC. While public opinion on Taiwan favors the status quo, it also tends to regard Taiwan as already in practice a sovereign state and is uncomfortable with the island republic’s PRC-induced ambiguous and vulnerable status. This suggests much latent demand for clarifying that status if conditions were to permit it. More broadly, identity politics in a democratic Taiwan might deepen resistance to compromise arrangements, although there are also signs that identity on Taiwan is becoming an increasingly complex phenomenon and thus a less salient or predictable factor in Cross-Strait politics.
Panelists agreed that political change was possible, and that one or both sides could alter their “scripts” on the sovereignty question. This suggested to some that time was likely on the PRC’s side— that as Cross-Strait economic dependencies grow apace and if political reform takes root on the mainland, the situation could become substantially more conducive to an arrangement closer to Beijing’s preferences.
An important exogenous consideration also bears on these expectations, as the panelists saw it. The U.S. and, more broadly, the West are a central factor in the politics of Cross-Strait relations and the sovereignty question. In shaping the future of Taiwan-mainland relations, much will depend on how Washington (and other capitals) define their national interests in the Chinese and East Asian regions and how much emphasis the U.S.’s (and its allies’) foreign policies place on principles of democracy, human rights and the like. One commentator stressed that such calculations (and particularly the assessment of American national interests) were unlikely to turn on judgments about whether there were, as a juridical matter, one or two states in the PRC-Taiwan area.
Models of Complex/Intermediate Sovereignty
Panelists agreed that prospects are dim for agreement on any imaginable formal legal model for arranging or allocating sovereignty over Taiwan, despite indications of serious interest in the question in the PRC and Taiwan. There appears to be no viable replacement for the former strange- but-stable formula that had crumbled by the 1990s: That Chinese on both sides of the Strait agreed that there was but one China which included Taiwan, but disagreed about which regime (the one in Beijing or the one in Taipei) constituted its legitimate government. The menu of inadequate formal legal options is broad and varied, encompassing some arrangements considered or proposed by the parties and others available or readily adaptable from the repertoire of international law.
The list includes: a conventional unitary nation-state in which provincial political subdivisions enjoy some delegated powers; “special autonomy” regimes in which the delegation of power to sub-units is especially extensive and entrenched; federalism arrangements in which the component entities in theory retain some sovereignty in their own hands although often with little practical consequence; arrangements such as suzerainty, protectorate status or mandate or trust territories in which the lesser entity in principle could retain the full attributes of sovereignty but which has ceded, at least temporarily, many elements of sovereignty to a foreign entity; sui generis entities in which international lawyers have applied a unifying label to a grab-bag of entities (including Taiwan) that seem to fall slightly short on one or more of the traditional indicia of statehood such as a distinct population and territory, independent and effective governance, capacity to engage in international relations, and declaration of state status; commonwealth structures in which most of the attributes of sovereignty in principle and in practice and in the eyes of the world rest with a political entity with respect to which a thin, residuum of sovereignty in theory remains with a larger state or superstate conglomerate (such as the British Empire); confederation agreements in which separate sovereign states reassign some limited sovereign powers to a collectivity for exercise by a super-national institution (such as the EU); divided state situations in which a single people (such as the Germans or Koreans) is at least temporarily split into multiple states; and the full-fledged two-state situation in which no structures of shared or rearranged sovereignty links states that interact through the ordinary modes of international relations.
While the panelists agreed that none of these paradigms has proven acceptable or shows much near-term promise, they offered different assessments of the reasons for their failure. One analysis stressed that all such formulas proceed from one of two incompatible sets of first principles about the initial locus of sovereignty. In some of the models, sovereignty initially resides in separate components that transfer sovereign rights to another entity or partially merge their sovereign powers in a larger entity. In other models, a single unitary state delegates— ultimately as an internal, discretionary and revocable matter— to a subordinate entity some of the sovereign authority that the state alone possesses. The former view is unacceptable to the PRC. The latter is unacceptable in Taiwan. Any imaginable practical discussion of specific formulae for arranging or allocating sovereignty ultimately lays bare positions with respect to first principles, thereby rendering the formula under consideration intolerable to one side or the other. The few intermediate models that do not seem to be rooted firmly in one set of first principles or the other are either too indefinite or too ambiguous to provide a meaningful solution to the problem of formally allocating sovereignty, or, when put in operational or specific forms, reveal their roots in one or the other of the incompatible views of where sovereignty lies ex ante.
Another analysis explained the non-viability of all such models as the product of, first, the U.S. and the PRC having acted on the basis of unrealistic expectations during their initial moves to normalize relations and in the years since and, second, contemporary domestic politics on both sides of the Strait. On this view, much of the problem flowed from the initial U.S. moves to recognize the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China, to derecognize the Republic of China, to maintain only quasi-diplomatic relations with the ROC, and to adhere to a position that considered sovereignty over Taiwan officially “unsettled.” This problematic arrangement seemed acceptable or appealing to key U.S. officials because they unrealistically believed that any Taiwan problem would soon go away as reunification proceeded in relatively short order, amid U.S. abandonment of its role as Taiwan’s patron and as part of a broader pattern of ineluctable communist victories, at least at the margins of the communist world.
On this account, the situation has evolved into one of de facto dual statehood which the PRC rigorously rejects because the PRC unrealistically believes that Taiwan can be reintegrated under Beijing’s terms and because the PRC clings to an uncompromising position that serves important domestic political needs for Beijing. These domestic needs include the imperative to identify an external enemy to justify unpopular and repressive policies at home. At the same time,. Taiwan’s political transformation into a vibrant democracy with a distinct national identity— one that is hard to square with some of the more narrow definitions of Chineseness emanating from the PRC— has made even more clearly untenable the result (a settlement largely on Beijing’s terms) that the U.S. expected in the 1970s and that the PRC has expected and still seeks. Amid such conditions in Taiwanese politics and with the U.S. guarantee of Taiwan’s security still surviving, even a return to the 1992 consensus — and the agreement to disagree about what the shared concept of “one China” meant— has proven beyond political reach.
Panelists presented a wide variety of views about what approaches might be viable and promote stability (if not resolution) in Cross-Strait relations, given the poor prospects facing existing proposals and models for formally allocating sovereignty. First, a more creative quest for alternative paradigms might still bear fruit. Obscure or seemingly archaic examples of shared or blended sovereignty suggest that the recognized menu of options might not be exhaustive. One panelist noted that sovereignty over a tiny but strategically important entity in the Pyrenees once had been structured in a way that might suggest analogies for the PRC and Taiwan: sovereignty over Andorra (Taiwan) was jointly vested in the King of France and the Bishop of Segovia (the PRC and the ROC) with the power to exercise that sovereignty being transferred to the Andorran National Assembly (the government of Taiwan) upon its election.
Second, progress toward a comprehensive resolution might be achieved through discrete agreements on concrete problems and issues in Cross-Strait relations, a notion somewhat akin to “peace by pieces.” On the other hand, panelists noted that this approach easily could founder because negotiations over such issues quickly could devolve into arguments over intractable issues of sovereignty or because either side might lack interest in reaching such piecemeal accommodations (especially if such agreements threatened to erode a party’s ability to assert its position on the underlying question of sovereignty).
Third, interim agreements preserving the status quo for a prolonged period or committing to open-ended negotiations over the terms of reunification might permit the preservation of ambiguity with respect to the question of sovereignty and other fundamental issues that remain irreconcilable. This approach might include something like the Lieberthal Plan, floated during the Clinton administration, or the strategy of “killing with process” the specter of a destabilizing confrontation over sovereignty that might arise in any ardent quest for a permanent solution.
Fourth, the status quo might be maintained and its stability strengthened even with the two sides sticking to their incompatible positions on sovereignty and its allocation, and even without substantial progress toward agreement on fundamental issues. The two sides might be able to continue to find the basic status quo tolerable and a number of new and old concrete arrangements acceptable and justifiable in terms of their mutually incompatible notions of sovereignty, in what panelists variously dubbed a “parallax view” or a Rawls-like “overlapping consensus.”
Finally, there may be no viable alternative and no normatively preferable alternative to accepting openly a formal legal arrangement of sovereignty that tracks the underlying political reality. On this view, the answer lies in recognizing that there are two states, the PRC and Taiwan, in the full legal and political sense of the term “state,” and that Cross-Strait relations are international relations legally and practically no different from those between the two Germanies before unification or, indeed, between any two states.
Panelists agreed that the fate of any proposed solution or protracted non-solution depends on the political preferences of the PRC, Taiwan and the United States. No formal legal arrangement will be feasible unless the regimes on both sides of the Strait develop the will to pursue it. Political transformation in the PRC and continuing political development on Taiwan could alter significantly the current lack of such will. Some panelists believed that any change on this front is unlikely, given the persisting impediments to basic reform in PRC politics, the continuing consolidation and deepening of democracy and national identity in Taiwan and multi-generational experience with separate governance on Taiwan. If predominant, such factors would not produce greater accommodation or improve prospects for agreement on questions of sovereignty and Cross-Strait relations. While the U.S.’s interests and preferences continue to be to avoid deep and direct involvement in crafting or pushing upon the parties any “deal,” the U.S. role will remain large, because of the U.S.’s position as the sole guarantor of Taiwan’s autonomy and the principal deterrent to the PRC’s using effective coercion, and because of the U.S.’s continued invocation of principles of democracy and human rights in its China policy.
Options, Challenges, and the Road Ahead
Members of the final panel summed up the principal conclusions of the conference as “I love the status quo [but] stuff happens” that can disrupt it, and as “Leave bad enough alone.” The implicit and explicit prescriptions are primarily to “play for time” and thus to prolong the life of the tolerable existing situation, rather than to move aggressively in quest of a formal arrangement or solution. Each panelist identified one or more specific dangers that imperiled this strategy or made the pursuit of it imperative.
First, a significant threat to the status quo and to the strategy of playing for time (one not emphasized in the earlier panels) lies in the military dimension of the Cross-Strait relationship, which currently is an increasingly well-armed stand-off. On one interpretation, the dynamic is one of deterrence. The PRC seeks to deter Taiwan from moving farther toward independence and thereby disturbing a status quo that the PRC can stomach. Taiwan seeks to deter the PRC from trying to alter the status quo by coercively or forcibly integrating Taiwan under PRC rule. The U.S. sale of arms to Taiwan seeks to deter reckless behavior by the PRC while at the same time stopping short of providing Taiwan with support so strong and extensive that it might encourage Taiwan to take steps that would undermine the status quo. On another interpretation, however, the military situation is a potentially destabilizing arms race or spiral. The PRC and Taiwan are engaged in competitive accumulation of military capacity in anticipation of a showdown, laying the groundwork for a time when one side or the other will seize a perceived (and perhaps misperceived) opportunity to alter the status quo.
The military aspect of the relationship thus is a key element in addressing the sovereignty problem, either helping to extend or threatening to cut short the time available to allow economic integration or favorable political developments or clever diplomacy to produce a solution acceptable to both sides. At minimum, a serious approach to Cross-Strait relations and the sovereignty question must take account of what sort of military preparations or arms control would best prolong, rather than compress, the period to reach any such agreement.
Second, a serious risk in pursuing a strategy of trying to negotiate a solution to the sovereignty question and Cross-Strait relations stems from patterns in the PRC’s negotiating behavior. As several studies of the subject have stressed, PRC negotiators seek early agreement on matters of broad, general principle. Later, they insist that their particular interpretation of the general principle is the sole valid one, that the other side agreed to this interpretation (when it agreed to the general principle), and that any rejection of the principle (as interpreted by the PRC) constitutes bad faith or backsliding by the other party. This indicates reasons to worry about the ability to preserve those aspects of the status quo that favor Taiwan’s autonomy if serious discussions over the sovereignty question were to proceed. Those perils loom all the larger in light of two other factors: first, the penchant of some leading politicians on Taiwan to offer proposals that are more accommodating of the PRC’s preferences than are the bulk of the people on Taiwan, and, second, the sloppy preparation— and resulting ignorance of what has been said in earlier negotiations— that U.S. participants sometimes bring to negotiations with China, leaving the Americans relatively prone to acquiesce in their PRC counterparts’ overreaching characterization of points of asserted prior agreement.
Third, another problem with attempts to craft a formula for answering (or even addressing) the sovereignty question is that words can hurt as well as help or merely be empty. A clear legal or other formal characterization of an allocation of sovereignty over Taiwan would be essential to reach, to implement and to judge the implementation of any comprehensive agreement. But, unless and until any such agreement is reached, the proffering of models and formulae risks making clear that the two sides’ positions are incompatible, or making one side or the other perceive that time is not on its side. Either situation can threaten the often problematic and consistently uneasy but ultimately tolerable status quo in the potentially volatile Cross-Strait relationship.