America’s actions in supporting Taiwan’s efforts to prevent being swallowed whole by the mainland seem to be causing more harm than good. The alleged dilution of Washington’s stance on the One China policy which, according to Beijing, was evident in former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August 2022 and the planned meeting of her successor Kevin McCarthy with Taiwan’s President in the USA, has been used by China (PRC) to escalate military operations in and around the Taiwan Strait.
Such symbolic demonstrations of support risk entrapping Taiwan in an escalating Sino-US rivalry and undermining its security. Especially, as Washington still maintains strategic ambiguity about whether it is treaty-bound to come to Taiwan’s military aid in the event of a Chinese invasion. Recent surveys conducted in Taiwan by a team of experts from the Harvard Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies showed that most respondents believe Ms Pelosi’s visit was detrimental to Taiwan’s security. At first glance, this seems surprising, say Alastair Iain Johnston, Tsai Chia-hung, and George Yin who led the surveys. In a triangular relationship between a patron state (USA) and its client (Taiwan) on the one hand, and a shared adversary (China) on the other, one might normally expect the client to welcome visible and credible signals of support.
However, even as its security environment appears to be deteriorating, a client might not welcome signals of support from the patron if the client considers those signals to be so provocative that they undermine its security. Typically, it is the patron that worries about entrapment by its client, while the client worries about abandonment by the patron. But the surveys suggest that a considerable portion of Taiwanese voters worry about entrapment by the USA. This concern about entrapment seems to have increased appreciably after Ms Pelosi’s visit. The panel survey was conducted by the Harvard Centre in two parts ~ in September 2022 and January 2023 ~ to assess the Taiwanese people’s reaction to senior US officials’ demonstrations of support for Taiwan.
A significant majority agreed that while the PRC’s aggressive intentions are a source of instability, they essentially leaned toward the ideas embedded in the traditional US policy of dual deterrence: Taiwan is more secure when the PRC’s expansionist intentions are countered and when Beijing is assured that US policy does not encourage formal independence. That is the fine balance America’s political leaders need to maintain if they are genuinely committed to maintaining Taiwan’s freedom to choose its own path ~ whether it be a merger with China or maintaining status quo.
As the academics write, the data suggests that if a substantial constituency in the client state believes high-profile signals of support are counterproductive, this can weaken the security relationship between patron and client, making coordinated responses to the common adversary more difficult. But as the American presidential election cycle gets underway, there is no surety that US politicians will pay heed to such concerns.