The US remains today, despite its tensions, the first among equals in the community of liberal democracies.
For its part, Taiwan also shares this moniker. Taiwan has handled the threat of COVID-19 stunningly well and has proved durable in the face of relentless coercion from the regime of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It has become an economic engine of global high-tech markets through its dominance in the semiconductor industry.
However, Taiwan has a major problem with underexposure, particularly in the US. Many Americans cannot distinguish between Taiwan and other countries in East Asia, a problem exacerbated by the US government’s reluctance to recognize Taiwan diplomatically.
When the US public does not have a clear understanding of how closely the interests of Taiwan and the US body politic align, it becomes incredibly difficult to counter Chinese influence operations. Is Taiwan part of China? Hard to tell, as the US government does not recognize Taiwan.
There has been a sea change in the past two years on how US policymakers view Taiwan. A long-awaited and much deserved bipartisan recognition of Taiwan as a key issue in US foreign policy has finally arrived. The importance of strengthening cultural and social awareness about Taiwan in the US is a critical component of ensuring security in the Indo-Pacific region. This process can start with the renaming of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO).
And up go the placards: “Engaging with Taiwan separatist forces in this way is a blatant violation of Chinese sovereignty and is resisted by 1.4 billion Chinese.”
When state officials claim to speak for every last citizen of their country, it is a good time to stop listening.
There are good arguments for maintaining a position of strategic ambiguity from a realist standpoint. The most common argument is the weakest: Strategic ambiguity prevents the ruling party of Taiwan from going “off the rails” and unilaterally declaring independence, a move that China says would spark war.
This totally discounts that every regime, liberal or authoritarian, has a built-in survival instinct. Taipei is unlikely to make a move that would lose its hard-won US support, especially under the imminent threat of Chinese bombardment or invasion.
The second argument is the risk of angering Beijing. Would strategic clarity push the CCP into a rhetorical corner, one in which it felt obligated to respond to this “provocation?”
Despite the CCP’s rhetoric, it has a full plate already — an economic slowdown, the COVID-19 crisis, an aging population, indebted local governments and social unrest are just the start of the list.
However, a foreign war would be the perfect mechanism to retrench the regime’s power, authority and dignity in the eyes of its people. Undoubtedly, Beijing would think it a risk worth considering.
However, increased engagement with Taiwan is, paradoxically, one of the only policies that could stave off such thinking in the Chinese leadership. What would Imperial Germany have done if it recognized in the pre-World War I era that breaching Belgium’s sovereignty would be a casus belli for the UK? As former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, for his numerous faults, once correctly pointed out: “Weakness is provocative.”
There are measures being taken that stop short of full recognition and thus avoid these scenarios. The US Taiwan Diplomatic Review Act is one such measure. Among other proposals, the bill introduces a name change to the TECRO, whose current title needlessly obfuscates Taiwan and the US’ deep economic and cultural ties. The office should be titled the “Taiwan representative office,” a modest and unprovocative change that aligns that title with the terminology used by other US institutions and laws such as the Taiwan Relations Act, and the American Institute in Taiwan. Many other legal documents, such as the US National Defense Authorization Act refer to Taiwan, not Taipei.
The most public-facing institution of Taiwan in the US should be allowed to do the same.
The proper naming of a diplomatic office is well within the US prerogative and strategic interest. If Washington is unwilling or unable to make a change as modest as this, then the game is over before it has even begun.
Chen Kuan-ting is chief executive officer of the Taiwan Nextgen Foundation and a former member of staff at the National Security Council. Maxwell Wappel is a research associate at the foundation.
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