US-China relations are built on a series of fabrications about Taiwan. In fact, one of the major reasons the US-China relationship is so contentious right now is that Chinese belligerence is exposing these carefully constructed fictions to common sense.
Readers know the story. In the 1970s and 1980s, American officials said what they needed to make common cause with Beijing vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. Diplomats couldn’t talk about Taiwan as a “country” — let alone an independent one — which it so clearly is. They enshrined in US policy that “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China,” even though in Taiwan, until the election of 1996, there was no way to know what the Taiwanese people wanted.
After the Cold War, the fictions about Taiwan served the broader, amorphous strategic goal of ensuring “global stability.” In turn, this stability helped enable American commercial opportunity. The assumption was that saying the “wrong” thing about Taiwan would irritate Beijing, and Beijing would take their pique out on American business.
All this has left uninitiated observers in persistent confusion over America’s one-China policy and Beijing’s one-China “principle.” This is by design. The Chinese could maintain that the US adhered to their views on Taiwan’s status, and we Americans could deny that to be the case. And if those watching from the outside didn’t have the time to grasp it, that was just as well.
Times are changing.
Case in point: December’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Taiwan policy. In prepared testimony, US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner said, “Taiwan is located at a critical node within the first island chain, anchoring a network of US allies and partners that is critical to the region’s security and critical to the defense of vital US interests in the Indo-Pacific.” These, as well as Taiwan’s location amidst major sea lines of communication, he called the “strategic reasons” behind US policy on Taiwan.
Ratner’s statement caused a stir among America’s cross-strait cognoscenti. Why? Because he spoke a truth — something long-prohibited in US-China relations.
Of course, this is why Taiwan is strategically important to the United States. The US-China rapprochement of 40-plus years ago served its purpose. The Soviet Union is gone. The Cold War is over. Today, China’s aggressive attitude across the board — from blocking access to information on the origins of COVID, to trade embargos on Australia and Lithuania, to aggression in the South China Sea and on the southern border with India — has made finding exactly the right words to talk about Taiwan not quite the priority it was 10, 15, or 30 years ago.
Even commercial opportunity in China is not the inducement it once was. The Xi Jinping (習近平) regime has seen to that, turning on its head the economic liberalization that made China what it is today. Beijing may continue to produce national champions, and dangerous ones at that, but its mismanagement of the Chinese economy has foreign companies eyeing diversification strategies. There is certainly not the level of interest that once drove American business lobbies on Capitol Hill to council caution on virtually any policy that might discomfit Beijing.
The other ground reality Ratner exposed — something he didn’t say but that the handwringers accuse him of implying — is that the US will never acquiesce in the unification of China and Taiwan, even peacefully. Again, yes, this is true. Beijing has never believed otherwise.
The Chinese went along for the advantages they derived from the relationship with the US. Defeating the Soviet Union, stability, and foreign investment served their purposes, too. As for the US, it kept the door open to the Taiwanese agreeing to unification because it knew they wouldn’t.
Saying this officially and out loud would, indeed, upend the US “one-China policy.” And maybe we’re not ready to do that. Our decades-long China policy has worked to both keep the peace and keep Taiwan free and prosperous. Yet, with every new threat to Taiwan, with each new sortie into Taiwan’s ADIZ, the Chinese are forcing the US to reevaluate.
If force is ultimately needed to defend Taiwan, the diplomatic games are over. After all, there can be no one-China policy when the US military is engaged in combat to keep them separate. As this looks more and more possible, American officials must speak in plainer terms about the China threat, Taiwan’s status, and the value of Taiwan to American interests. If Beijing continues on its current trajectory concerning Taiwan, Ratner’s honesty could be just the beginning.
Walter Lohman is the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.
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