This week, the 40th anniversary of the 1972 visit to China by former US president Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, will be celebrated in Washington with a major conference at the US Institute of Peace. Celebrities like Kissinger himself will herald “The Week that Changed the World.”
While we indeed can celebrate the fact that 40 years ago, the US took steps to end China’s political isolation and normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), we also need to see what needs to be done to end a remaining injustice, the continuing political isolation of Taiwan.
In the early 1970s, Taiwan was ruled by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) under the dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), who had come to the island after World War II. Chiang ruled with an iron fist and did not allow the native Taiwanese (85 percent of the population in Taiwan at the time) any say in the political system. Chiang believed in reconquering the mainland and maintained the pretense of ruling all of China.
Over the years, that fiction became less tenable, and with Resolution 2758 in October 1971, “the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek” were expelled from the UN. The Nixon-Kissinger trip followed shortly thereafter. De-recognition by the US came a few years later, under then-US president Jimmy Carter.
While these developments normalized relations between the PRC and the West, at the same time they pushed Taiwan into political isolation.
Taiwanese, who did not have any say at all during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, were still without a voice in their national affairs. This only came after the country’s momentous transition to democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Suddenly, Taiwanese could speak freely and express their views on their future.
One of the first topics on the agenda under this newly found freedom was membership in international organizations, or “international space.” However, because of the clout of a rising China, the international community has been hesitant to respond positively to this quest for international recognition. Taiwanese, pragmatic as they are, are made to do with an uneasy “status quo.”
Still, one wonders if visionary leadership was able to break through barriers of conventional wisdom and mainstream thinking 40 years ago, why can we not break through similar barriers in the present situation and work toward the normalization of relations with Taiwan?
For China, it would be much more advantageous to be able to work with a friendly neighbor on the basis of mutual recognition. It could stop its military buildup, dismantle the weapons aimed at Taiwan and put those resources to good use in building the economy. That is the only way in which the cross-strait conflict can be removed as one of the Cold War’s remaining flashpoints.
For the US and other Western nations, the normalization of relations with Taiwan would mean increased trade, cultural and, yes, political exchanges with one of the few vibrant democracies in East Asia. For Taiwan, these exchanges are a lifeline for its freedom and democracy. Its future as a democratic nation depends on it.
So, as we celebrate the achievements of 40 years ago, let us take steps to help bring the 23 million Taiwanese of a political isolation imposed on them in the early 1970s by unfortunate circumstances beyond their control. Since then, they have fought hard to achieve their democracy and deserve to be accepted as a full and equal member in the international community, just like any other nation.