Back in the 1950s and 1960s, an influential portion of the political spectrum in the US adhered to the “free China” concept: Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) Nationalists — who had fled to Taiwan after the defeat at the hands of Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) Chinese Communist Party — were the rightful representatives of all of China. The “Republic of China” on Taiwan continued to enjoy diplomatic recognition and held the “China seat” at the UN.
Any attempt at dual recognition of “two Chinas” or as “China and Taiwan” was rejected out of hand. US government records show that both the administration of former US president John F. Kennedy and the early administration of former US president Richard Nixon made significant efforts in this direction: As late as the summer of 1971, then-US representative to the UN George H.W. Bush was lobbying hard for a solution to have both Chinas represented there.
However, Chiang and his “free China” supporters nixed the idea.
The now well-known result was of course that Chiang lost the “China seat” in October 1971, and that the process of derecognition led to the loss of diplomatic ties with the US in 1978 and 1979, and to increasing political isolation of Taiwan.
The dogmatic clinging to the “free China” concept — which attempted to isolate Communist China — had led to a new “one China” concept, which isolated Nationalist China on Taiwan.
However, instead of withering away — as Nixon and then-US secretary of state Henry Kissinger had expected — a repressive and authoritarian Nationalist China morphed into a vibrantly democratic Taiwan, and the nation made its momentous transition to democracy in the 1980s and the early 1990s.
However, as Taiwan’s democracy matured from the 1990s to the present — culminating in the election of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government and a DPP majority in the legislature in 2016 — the fundamentals of the “one China” policy of the US and Western Europe did not adapt to the new situation on the ground: Taiwan is now a free democracy that aspires to be a full and equal member of the international community.
Yes, the US and Western Europe do compliment Taiwan for its democracy, but the “one China” policy framework continues to be the unassailable mantra, cast in concrete and shielded by bureaucratic inertia.
Some in the US Congress and the community of think tanks have started to question this conventional wisdom: US Representative Ted Yoho, chairman of the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, has argued for a new “status quo,” while others advocate normalization of relations with the newly democratic Taiwan.
However, powerful voices in and around Washington and in European governments argue against any changes to the basic “one China” framework. They refer to a compelling incentive: Beijing is strongly opposed to any move in this direction.
Then the fundamental question becomes whether the US and Western Europe should let a repressive China dictate their relations with a vibrant and democratic Taiwan. Should they not adhere to principles and policies that are supportive of the spread of democracy in the world?
Instead of a short-term realpolitik, their policies need to be guided by a long-term vision, in which a democratic Taiwan is accepted by the international community as a full and equal member.
History shows that the rigid position taken by the “free China” advocates in the 1950s and 1960s prevented creative solutions, such as “dual recognition,” at that time.
Similarly, the rigid position now taken by adherents of the “one China” policy is preventing the international community from coming up with new ideas and creative solutions that would provide a rightful place for Taiwan in the international family of nations and sustainable peace across the Taiwan Strait.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat, who served as editor of Taiwan Communique from 1980 through 2016. He teaches History of Taiwan at George Mason University.
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