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Untying the Knot. Richard C. Bush Brookings Institution Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies. The Taiwan Strait Paradox. Shared Economic Interests Extensive Private Interchange Common Ethnic and Cultural Heritage BUT Political Hostility Military Build-up. The PRC Hypothesis.

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Untying the knot l.jpg

Untying the Knot

Richard C. Bush

Brookings Institution

Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies


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The Taiwan Strait Paradox

  • Shared Economic Interests

  • Extensive Private Interchange

  • Common Ethnic and Cultural HeritageBUT

  • Political Hostility

  • Military Build-up


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The PRC Hypothesis

  • It’s Lee and Chen, stupid!BUT

  • In office, Lee and Chen have been careful not to rule out unification totally.

  • They certainly opposed one country, two systems (1C2S).

  • They insisted that the ROC or Taiwan was an independent sovereign state.


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The PRC Hypothesis

  • Both have insisted Beijing should acknowledge that Taipei is essentially equivalent, that Taiwan have an international role, and that the PRC renounce the use of force.

  • In addition, both have been frustrated that Beijing has rejected Taipei’s views outright and ignored its moderation.


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The PRC Hypothesis

  • To be sure, Lee and Chen did act provocatively at times.

  • They also took initiatives that were motivated by domestic politics.

  • Yet Beijing incorrectly read their opposition to 1C2S as a rejection of unification. For Lee and Chen, however, how Taiwan might be a part of China has governed whether it should be a part of China.


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The Taiwan Strait Knot (TSK)

  • The TSK is a knot formed by two twisted strands of rope. Each strand represents a core substantive issue:

    • The first issue is sovereignty

    • The second is security

  • The strands are twisted because they are interrelated.


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TSK: Sovereignty

  • Stephen Krasner tells us that sovereignty can take four forms:

    • Domestic sovereignty;

    • Westphalian sovereignty;

    • International legal sovereignty; and

    • Interdependence sovereignty.

  • The first three, particularly Westphalian sovereignty, are analytically important.


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TSK: Sovereignty

  • Many observers focus only on international sovereignty, on whether the ROC is a full member of the international community.

  • But when it comes to sovereignty, for cross-Strait relations, it’s Westphalian sovereignty that matters more.


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TSK: Sovereignty

  • Westphalian Sovereignty:

    • A government’s absolute right to rule within the territory under its jurisdiction unless it chooses to vest a higher authority with its powers.

    • The key is non-subordination.

    • This is the concept that underlies the stance that the ROC is an independent, sovereign state.


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TSK: Sovereignty

  • This claim is fundamentally antithetical to the 1C2S approach.

  • Under 1C2S:

    • Central government is the exclusive sovereign;

    • The Special Administrative Region (SAR) is subordinate to central government and acts internationally only at its discretion; and

    • The SAR has autonomy and nothing more.

  • In practice, Beijing’s system for Hong Kong limits political outcomes to what it can tolerate.


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TSK: Security

  • Taiwan and the PRC are locked in a security dilemma.

    • Each fears the intentions of the other.

    • Each builds up its capabilities to hedge against pre-emption.

    • Each reads the other’s hedging as hostile.

    • Mistrusting the other and fearing exploitation, each is afraid to make a concession.


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TSK: Security

  • Yet the cross-Strait security dilemma is special.

    • What China fears is not military action by Taiwan but a political initiative that will irreversibly change the status quo and close the door on unification.

    • In addition, Taiwan must live with the fear of abandonment by its de facto ally, the United States.


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TSK: Security

  • The essence of the security dilemma is that each side understands the value of peace but mistrusts the other too much to pay the price to gain it.

    • Each worries that if it makes a concession, the other side will exploit its good will.

    • Beijing’s demand that Chen Shui-bian accept the 1-China principle is an example.


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Tightening the Knot

  • Several factors in the dispute

    • Domestic politics:

      • In Taiwan:

        • Identity and the fear of outsiders

        • The DPP’s history as opposition party

        • Taiwan’s unconsolidated democracy

      • In China:

        • Leadership politics

        • Nationalism


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Tightening the Knot

  • Decision-making systems:

    • Misperception

    • Miscalculation

  • The Leverage Game:

    • The International System

    • The United Front

  • The U.S. Factor

    • Dual Influence and Dual Deterrence


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Untying the Knot

  • If the knot is to by untied, three things are required:

    • Ways to reconcile substantive differences over sovereignty and security, which are linked.

    • Ways to mute the effect of the aggravating factors.

    • A skillful integration of substance and process.


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Untying the Knot: Substance

  • Concerning the sovereignty issue, is there a way for Beijing to get what it wants (unification) and for Taipei to get what it wants to preserve (sovereignty)?

  • There are models of political union that are composed of sovereign entities: confederation, federation, etc.


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Untying the Knot: Substance

  • Such unions are difficult to construct and hard to preserve, but sharing sovereignty is possible.

  • Both the KMT and President Chen have expressed a positive attitude towards such unions.

  • It is the PRC that is opposed, for some important reasons.


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Untying the Knot: Substance

  • There have been some ideas on the security side:

    • Agreement to end the state of hostilities

    • Allowing Taiwan to keep its armed forces

    • Jiang Zemin’s missile-withdrawal idea

    • The interim-agreement proposal

    • CBMs

  • Yet all of these founder because of mutual mistrust.


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Untying the Knot: Process

  • Even if theoretically there is common ground, mistrust makes it difficult for the two sides to move there.

  • Perhaps it is necessary to use process to drive substance, instead of using substantive concessions to begin process.


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Untying the Knot: Process

  • Setting preconditions for dialogue, while understandable, only compounds mistrust:

    • One China Principle

    • 1992 consensus

  • Recall that Beijing set a precondition after Lee Teng-hui’s U.S. trip but then ignored it for Koo Chen-fu’s 1998 visit.


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Untying the Knot: Process

  • Instead, the two sides should establish a private, authoritative channel to:

    • Reduce mistrust;

    • Build mutual understanding and assurance; and

    • Explore methods of starting public dialogue.

  • This sort of channel existed before.


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Untying the Knot: Process

  • As trust is built and as dialogue resumes, a mutually agreed set of principles could create a framework for discussions. This would:

    • Set limits;

    • Define areas of fundamental consensus; and

    • Establish an agenda for future action.

  • In process terms, this approach is different than an interim agreement.


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Untying the Knot: Process

  • How to deal with the aggravating factors?

    • For the leverage game: diplomatic truce and an end to PRC intervention in Taiwan politics.

    • To manage the Taiwan politics of cross-Strait relations, there needs to be a mechanism of transparency and consensus building.


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Untying the Knot: Process

  • What role for the United States?

  • Different forms of “intermediation”:

    • Messenger

    • Intellectual facilitator

    • Process facilitation

    • Mediation

    • Serving as a guarantor


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Untying the Knot: Process

  • I believe that the lower end of this scale is more appropriate. On mediation,

    • Do both sides trust Washington?

    • Would both sides trust the U.S. throughout?

    • Would the Congress support the Executive Branch?

    • How to deal with the fact that the United States is a party to the dispute?


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The Near Term

  • If solving the dispute is not possible, stabilization is the next best thing.

  • A window of opportunity has opened.

  • Beijing need not fear constitutional change in Taiwan.

  • Communication and trust-building is as important for stabilization as it is for solution.


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The Near Term

  • Preconditions are an obstacle to communication and trust-building.

  • The U.S. approach of dual deterrence also contributes to stabilization.


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A Final Word

  • The group that has the most to lose from mismanagement of the Taiwan issue is the people of the island.

  • They have finally gained the power to make choices about their future.

  • The U.S. will play a role, but it is the people of Taiwan who will have to choose.

  • To make good choices, Taiwan must strengthen itself.