This month gaggles of distinguished diplomats, politicians, and military officers will gather together in Washington and Taipei to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (U.S. Public Law 96-8). Glittering banquets will be held, eloquent speeches will be made, and illuminating discussions will take place. Much will be said about the “status quo” and how important it is. Politely left unsaid will be what the “status quo” actually is and where it came from.
The truth is that the United States and Taiwan have a lot of hard work to do. The relationship between Washington and Taipei is probably the best it has been in forty years, but it’s not even close to being as good as it should be.
The United States government, in some respects, has treated Taiwan like an international pariah since 1979. If nothing major changes, American foreign policy elites can be expected to continue along this path until the road runs out.
It must be recognized that Washington’s policy toward Taiwan made geostrategic sense in the late 1970s when the Soviet Union appeared unstoppably ascendant. American strategists believed they needed the People’s Republic of China, then a fellow adversary of the USSR, to help arrest Moscow’s predatory advances around the globe. Because Taiwan’s authoritarian government didn’t share common values, it could be sacrificed.
The situation has since changed. Today the Soviet Union is long gone, and China’s communist government has become the most dangerous source of instability in the world. Taiwan has also changed. Today, Taiwan is a shining democracy.
China’s current dictator, Xi Jinping (習近平), is an ambitious militarist. Chairman Xi has repeatedly signaled his intention to conquer Taiwan. With every passing democratic election in Taiwan, it becomes harder and harder for Beijing to maintain the myth that the island is not a legitimate country. China’s provocative actions continue to heighten regional tensions.
Normally, in situations like this one, the U.S. would station troops in the threatened democracy to serve as a strategic trip-wire. It would extend ironclad security guarantees to forestall aggression and war. Alternative policies of appeasement and accommodation have been tested before, only to see tragedy strike. Yet, in this case, American policymakers have struggled to adapt to the changing facts on the ground. How do you help protect a country that you don’t even treat as a country?
The “status quo,” or existing state of affairs, is neither static nor sustainable. The “status quo” is that Washington treats authoritarian China like an elite member of the community of nations and democratic Taiwan like an untouchable member of the world’s lowest diplomatic caste.
When was the last time a sitting American president talked with his Taiwanese counterpart? When was the last time an American secretary of state visited the island? When was the last time a Taiwanese president, foreign minister, or defense minister was welcomed in Washington?
Many American policymakers remain convinced that showing goodwill to China by giving Taiwan the cold shoulder could have real benefits. It has also seemed unwise to risk doing anything that might give China an excuse to attack. However, this line of logic deserves further scrutiny in view of Beijing’s disquieting track record.
Former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and current President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) both embraced conciliatory and cautious cross-Strait policies. They both invested significant political capital. They both pushed their respective political parties to the limits of the possible when it came to their China policy.
Despite this goodwill, China has continued its astonishing military buildup across from Taiwan. Threats to Taiwan’s way of life have continued unabated across both DPP and KMT administrations. Radical Chinese behavior will continue after next year’s presidential elections no matter who the voters in Taiwan elect.
The reality is that Leninist political organizations like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are inherently militaristic. They follow zero-sum policies of expansionism and oppression. For them, the appetite grows with the eating.
Developments in the South China Sea bear witness to this deeply-ingrained tendency. So do nightmarish concentration camps in China’s interior, which enclose millions of innocent people inside razor wire. Their lives have been senselessly shattered. More could follow in their footsteps. The CCP’s abhorrent legacies will forever stain the reputation of modern China and its so-called civilization.
Should Washington continue current policies that help this regime survive and thrive? Should it allow its national security interests to be diminished for the sake of placating Beijing? Does America’s treatment of Taiwan make sense on the merits? Or would it be better to rethink long-held assumptions and break better ground?
If Washington was to develop a more strategic and forward-looking policy, it would likely have three interlocking objectives: First, to ensure that Taiwan is kept outside the control of the CCP; second, to deter an attack on Taiwan and win the war if deterrence fails; and third, to reestablish an embassy in Taipei.
None of these long-term objectives are likely to be successful if pursued in isolation. If Washington does not gradually normalize diplomatic relations with Taiwan, it will probably be unable to prevent Chinese attack and foreclose the possibility of a successful invasion.
U.S.-Taiwan relations have made remarkable progress over the past forty years thanks in large part to the Taiwan Relations Act. There is indeed much to celebrate this April. Nonetheless, it should not be taken for granted that another forty years of success is possible under the current framework. To the contrary, it would be unwise to cling to something so out of touch with reality.
The establishment of diplomatic relations between America and Taiwan in the first half of this century is not a lost cause. Contrary to Beijing’s propaganda line, it is possible to resist Chinese pressure. Doing so will take creativity, resolve, and statecraft. Above all, it will take faith in the idea that right could one day overcome might in the conduct of international relations. That day is waiting.
Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia (中共攻台大解密).
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