The People’s Republic of China (PRC) sent its aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, through the Taiwan Strait early this month, at least in part responding to President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) telephone conversation congratulating US president-elect Donald Trump.
That is Beijing’s style: Make an unacceptable long-distance telephone call, and an aircraft carrier shows up in your backyard. It is akin to proclaiming the South China Sea a Chinese province and constructing islands in international waters to house military bases; to declaring a provocative air defense identification zone in the East China Sea; and to seizing Singaporean military equipment recently transiting Hong Kong after annual military exercises in Taiwan.
It is high time to revisit the “one China policy” and decide what the US thinks it means, 45 years after the Shanghai Communique. Trump has said the policy is negotiable. Negotiation should not mean Washington gives and Beijing takes. The US needs strategically coherent priorities reflecting not 1972, but 2017, encompassing more than trade and monetary policy, and specifically including Taiwan. Let us see how an increasingly belligerent China responds.
Constantly chanting “one China policy” is a favorite Beijing negotiating tactic: Pick a benign-sounding slogan; persuade foreign interlocutors to accept it; and then redefine it to Beijing’s satisfaction, dragging the unwary foreigners along for the ride.
To Beijing, “one China” means the PRC is the sole legitimate “China,” as sloganized in “the three noes”: no Taiwanese independence; no two Chinas; no one China, one Taiwan. For too long, the US has unthinkingly succumbed to this wordplay.
However, even in the Shanghai Communique, Washington merely “acknowledges” that “all Chinese” believe “there is but one China,” of which Taiwan is part.
Taiwanese public opinion surveys for decades have shown fewer and fewer citizens describing themselves as “Chinese.” Who allowed them to change their minds?
Washington has always said unification had to come peacefully and by mutual agreement. Mutual agreement has not come in 67 years and will not in any foreseeable future, especially given China’s increasingly brutal reinterpretation of another slogan — “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong.
Beijing and its acolytes expected that Taiwan would simply collapse. It has not. Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) 1949 retreat was not a temporary respite before final surrender. Neither the Shanghai Communique nor former US president Jimmy Carter’s 1978 derecognition of the Republic of China persuaded Taiwan to go gentle into that good night — especially after the US Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.
Eventually Taiwan became a democracy, with the 1996 popular election of Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) as president, the peaceful, democratic transfer of power to the opposition party in 2000, and further peaceful transfers in 2008 and last year. So inconsiderate of those free-thinking Taiwanese.
What should the US do now? In addition to a diplomatic ladder of escalation, it can take concrete steps helpful to US interests. Here is one prompted by China’s recent impoundment of Singapore’s military equipment. Spoiler alert: Beijing will not approve.
The US could enhance its East Asia military posture by increasing military sales to Taiwan and by again stationing military personnel and assets there, probably negotiating favorable financial terms. It need not approximate former US general Douglas MacArthur’s image of Taiwan as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” or renegotiate a mutual defense treaty.
Basing rights and related activity do not imply a full defense alliance. US activities would not be dissimilar to Singapore’s, although they could be more extensive. The Taiwan Relations Act is expansive enough to encompass such a relationship, so new legislative authority is unnecessary.
Some may object that a US military presence would violate the Shanghai Communique, but the language of the Taiwan Relations Act should take precedence. Circumstances in the region are fundamentally different from 1972, as Beijing would be the first to proclaim.
Nearby Asian governments would cite the enormous increase in Chinese military power and belligerence. Most important, effectively permanent changes in the Taiwan-China relationship have occurred, making much of the communique obsolete. The doctrine of rebus sic stantibus — things thus standing — justifies taking a different perspective than in 1972.
Taiwan’s geographic location is closer to East Asia’s mainland and the South China Sea than either Okinawa or Guam, giving US forces greater flexibility for rapid deployment throughout the region should the need arise.
Washington might also help ease tensions with Tokyo by redeploying at least some US forces from Okinawa, a festering problem in the US-Japan relationship. Moreover, the current Philippine leadership offers little chance of increasing military and other cooperation there in the foreseeable future.
Guaranteeing freedom of the seas, deterring military adventurism and preventing unilateral territorial annexations are core US interests in East and Southeast Asia. Today, as opposed to 1972, a closer military relationship with Taiwan would be a significant step toward achieving these objectives. If China disagrees, by all means let us talk.
John Bolton is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This article first appeared in print in the Wall Street Journal.
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