Brookings Institution senior fellow Richard Bush has said that US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi “should reject” a call by several US senators that she should invite President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) to address a joint meeting of the US Congress.
He offered three objections to the “flawed proposal” to honor “the elected leader of one of America’s best friends in the world.”
First, he said: “It is contrary to a fundamental principle of US relations with China … that we would carry out substantive relations with Taiwan and its government on an unofficial basis … China would interpret the move as Washington’s reneging.”
That would be the Shanghai Communique — the original sin of US-China-Taiwan relations — which I and others have long contended is the most flawed diplomatic document ever signed by a US president.
However, even taken on its own terms, China has from the outset violated the US’ stated “fundamental principle” — that the Taiwan issue be resolved peacefully. Mao Zedong (毛澤東) instead insisted on the “right” to use force. Yet the parties moved ahead without having established a meeting of the minds on that ultimate underlying issue — thereby ignoring the sine qua non for a binding agreement in every legal system in the world.
In the almost five decades since, Beijing has accrued the enormous benefits of the US’ engagement policy. Yet it has continued to use force, the threat of force, economic coercion, subversion, sharp power, psychological warfare and diplomatic isolation in its relentless quest to bring Taiwan’s emerging, and now fully-fledged, democracy under China’s communist dictatorship.
These ongoing hostile actions, which defy Washington’s condition of a peaceful outcome, have long freed the US, morally and legally, to treat Taiwan and its leaders as the model global citizen it is, up to and including formal diplomatic recognition. An address by Tsai to Congress falls well within the range of permissible US options.
Which brings us to the second perceived “flaw” in the senators’ proposal — its disregard of China’s predictable unhappiness.
“[A] radical downgrading of the relationship would be likely… Any hope … of cutting a trade deal … would vanish,” Bush said.
That assumes — as US policymakers and the expert community have done all along — that good economic and political relations are more important to Washington than to Beijing.
With that mindset, the West has continued its generous engagement policies that helped build China into an economic and military powerhouse, while ignoring its constant flouting of international norms in trade, human rights, proliferation, territorial claims and support for other criminal regimes.
In all those areas, Beijing never frets about how its actions might offend Washington or other capitals — it just does what furthers its ambitions and what it thinks it can get away with, which, during the engagement era, has been a lot.
The administration of US President Donald Trump is finally breaking the mold, imposing tariffs for unfair trade practices, prosecuting fraud and theft of intellectual property, conducting freedom of navigation operations against illegal maritime claims, and checking Beijing’s military and diplomatic pressures against Taiwan.
A Taiwanese presidential visit to Washington would partially correct a historic injustice against Taiwan, and make clear to China that its exploitative and aggressive approach to the West is no longer acceptable.
However, Bush said: “Beijing would take the opportunity to pressure and squeeze Taiwan even more than it is already doing … get the small number of countries that still maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei to switch to the PRC [People’s Republic of China] … intensify Taiwan-directed [military] exercises … increase efforts to interfere in Taiwan’s domestic politics.”
Applying that standard, China could — and does — escalate its bad behavior any time it chooses, over any contentious issue and without any pretext at all. That is the modus operandi of a tyrannical regime and history demonstrates that the governments of the Free World simply cannot afford to yield to its intimidation.
In any event, the US’ National Defense Strategy, promulgated by the US Department of Defense last month, dispels any illusions that, left unchecked, China’s aggressive actions increasingly threaten regional and US security. Asymmetrical, non-kinetic actions like strengthening government-to-government relations with democratic and geostrategically well-situated Taiwan are both moral and prudent.
The “third flaw” is simply a recasting of the second: a presumption that, for fear of China’s reaction, Taipei would not welcome such an invitation. The best way to address this “disregard for Taiwan’s view” is to extend the invitation privately and let the Taiwanese government decide whether to accept it.
By itself, a congressional resolution recommending the invitation, even if not accepted, would emphasize to both Taiwan and China how highly the US prizes its friendship and strategic partnership with Taiwan, and how seriously it would treat any further Chinese attempts to pressure or intimidate it. For that reason alone, it is well worth doing.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense. He is a fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the advisory committee of the Global Taiwan Institute.
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