Loyal readers of this column, which I have had the privilege of contributing to for the past five years, will be aware that I harbor some contrarian views and, on occasion, delight in sharing them.
This is one such moment. The truth is that I support Taiwan’s independence. Prudence would demand, of course, that I camouflage such “politically sensitive” thoughts. But one can deny the existence of an idea for only so long before it becomes unbearable, especially when it is backed by empirical evidence of the type that sticks to grey matter like superglue.
The fact of the matter is that Taiwan is an independent country, and its official title is the Republic of China (ROC). That’s right, my dear friends, in spite of what you may have read online or heard on your favorite cable news network, there are actually two countries in the world with “China” in their names.
I should know. I lived in both the PRC and ROC and wrote a book dealing with their protracted standoff and its troubling implications. Strictly speaking, every government that has a “one China” policy is deluding itself — rarely a good idea in the unforgiving world of foreign policy and international security.
Is pretending Taiwan doesn’t exist as a country going to help achieve President Joe Biden’s goal to “set our world firmly on a path toward a brighter and more hopeful tomorrow”? Seems unlikely.
Obviously, the dominant view of many elder statesmen diverges from my own. Since 1979, American leaders have gone to great lengths to deny objective reality and distort the facts of the matter. The tragic result is that Taiwan’s liberal democracy is treated like an embarrassing liability rather than a shining success, and anyone in Washington who commits a Taiwan policy-related thought crime risks having their careers kneecapped. Those US government employees who have misunderstood the meaning of “no symbols of sovereignty for Taiwan!” will know this well. The situation is little better for journalists, business professionals, and university professors.
We Americans pride ourselves on being intellectually open and innovative, capable of thinking outside the box, and eager to reject received wisdom. Isn’t it remarkable, then, that our best and brightest have embraced an easily disproven myth — a lie — as if it were a scientific truth?
Anyone who has visited Taiwan can instantly see that it is an independent country. And anyone who knows even basic history can tell you Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China. If you want to say the PRC has a legitimate claim to Taiwan, be my guest. But you might as well just say the Earth is flat.
There are many reasons why I support Taiwan’s independence, and they have nothing to do with the country’s domestic politics. It’s none of my business who the voters in Taiwan choose to represent them, how they identify themselves, and what they decide to call their country.
What matters is the principle of self-determination. What is self-determination? It is nothing less than the vital source code behind the US Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. America’s founding fathers believed that people have a fundamental right to shape their own destiny. That’s why, in the wake of World War Two when America became the dominant superpower, self-determination became the cardinal principle of international law. It even became a global norm enshrined in the United Nations Charter.
That principle is diminished when leaders across the free world deny the legitimacy of Taiwan as a nation-state. Taiwanese citizens have enjoyed democratic elections and peaceful transfers of power for decades. Today, Taiwan ranks among the top ten most successful liberal democracies in the world. How much more legitimate can you get?
The people living in Taiwan clearly have agency and a legal and moral right to decide their own political futures in an atmosphere of freedom. They should be free from coercion, intimidation, and outside interference. We know from thousands of years of recorded history — including China’s own modern history — that anything else is toxic and will result in violence, oppression, and terrible suffering.
Taiwan independence comes in two basic forms: de facto (maintaining the ROC name, flag, and constitution) and de jure (legally changing the country’s name, flag, and constitution). I think they are both great. The latter is generally regarded as risky because the CCP could use it as a pretext to murder enormous numbers of Taiwanese people (and Americans too). But I suspect the CCP is just as likely to invade Taiwan because it fears and loathes the continued existence of the ROC. According to Xi Jinping (習近平), Taiwan must be annexed for China’s own sake, and it has nothing to do with what the people living there want.
Is supporting Taiwan’s independence provocative? That depends on one’s attitude toward democracy and self-determination. In my view, what is actually provocative is the CCP’s attempts to forcibly isolate, intimidate, and pressurize the Taiwanese people into relinquishing their fundamental rights.
I cannot see how denying objective reality serves the best interests of the United States or our Taiwanese friends. Doing so makes both of our nations weaker and tempts a world catastrophe. If the continuation of peaceful US-PRC relations demands our unceasing adherence to an elaborate falsehood about Taiwan and “one China,” then the relationship, like any built on a pyramid of lies, is doomed. The sooner we begin establishing policy on the granite foundation of truth the better.
Taiwan is an independent country. It has a legitimate government that enjoys popular sovereignty, and it deserves to be treated by others as a sovereign equal. The future will be brighter and more hopeful for all of us when Taiwan is welcomed into the international community.
Ian Easton is a senior director at the Project 2049 Institute and the author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia.
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