"Diplomatic recognition" may sound like a question that only the striped-pants set could love, but in fact it embodies critical political realities. Nowhere else is the issue posed more dramatically for the United States than by the Republic of China on Taiwan, derecognized by the Carter administration when it established relations with the Peoples Republic of China in 1979. This American concession to Beijing was a mistake at the time, which we can and should correct. Since then, the US and the ROC on Taiwan have not carried on formal diplomatic relations. Instead, their extension trade and economic relationships have been carried on through supposedly private channels, known on the US side as the "American Institute on Taiwan." The Taiwanese have offices in the US known as "Taiwanese Economic and Cultural Relations Offices," which function in virtually every significant way exactly as do embassies from countries which the US does recognize.
The issues handled by the AIT and TECRO are enormous. Taiwan is America's seventh largest international trading partner, and is a critical supplier of semiconductors and other vital components necessary for the continued progress of the information-technology and telecommunications revolutions. Similarly, with most other countries, Taiwan is forced to rely on informal offices which in every way proclaim that it is not accorded the full status of a recognized sovereign nation. President Carter's decision to downgrade relations with Taipei had its antecedents in President Nixon's initial overtures to the PRC. Nixon believed that "playing the China card" would gain for the US an unusual and highly unexpected ally in the global struggle again the Soviet Union and its satellites.
By outflanking the Soviets geographically, President Nixon forced the Soviets to realign their defensive configurations along the Sino-Soviet border, placing substantial strains on their military capabilities. Moreover, the US obtained prime locations near that border for eavesdropping on internal Soviet communications and weapons testing. The PRC obviously also benefited significantly, by using the obvious American interest to end its own relative international diplomatic isolation.
Illustration: Mountain People
China's first "payment" from the US came, in effect, at the United Nations in 1971. The PRC had wanted to hold "China's" UN seat ever since1949, when the Red Army captured the mainland from Nationalist Chinese forces led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and drove his remaining supporters to the island of Formosa (only recently returned to Chinese rule in 1945 after 50 years of rule by Japan). Not only would UN membership represent for the PRC an important measure of international legitimacy, it would also make it one of the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, with the power to veto any resolution that could conceivably threaten the PRC's interests. The US had vigorously opposed the PRC's membership campaign, arguing that the ROC, even though its jurisdiction was limited to Taiwan and some nearby islands, was still the constitutional government of all of China, and that its stay on Taiwan was only temporary.
As the years passed, this argument became harder and harder to sustain, and even close allies of the US began to shift their formal diplomatic relations to Beijing, and away from the ROC. When word of Henry Kissinger's secret trips to Beijing became public in 1971, it became apparent that "Red China" would inevitably succeed in its 22-year campaign to replace "Nationalist China" in the United Nations. Nonetheless, then-Ambassador George Bush, representing the US, proposed a compromise: both Chinas would have UN General Assembly seats, but the PRC would assume China's place as a Security Council permanent member.
This "dual representation" approach was seen at the time as the only way to prevent the adoption of a Communist-bloc resolution that would simply replace the ROC with the PRC in the UN. Unfortunately, in light of subsequent events, the ROC rejected the compromise, and withdrew from the UN moments before the General Assembly handed its seat to the PRC. (In fact, this vote was a plain violation of the UN Charter since it effectively expelled a member of good standing without a vote of the Security Council.)
Although Bush's 1971 compromise concerned UN membership rather than diplomatic recognition, we should now update the idea, and extend full relations to Taiwan as well as to the PRC. Concern about recognizing the ROC stems entirely from PRC insistence that it will break diplomatic relations with any country that does so. While Taipei itself long ago adhered to this policy, it now fully accepts dual recognition both as unobjectionable and inevitable.
Confronted with the PRC's intransigence, most foreign governments follow a pragmatic approach, seeking full political relations with the much larger PRC, while carrying on only commercial and cultural relations with Taiwan. A small number of states continue to have diplomatic relations with Taipei, mostly countries with no interest in the cross-strait dispute, but they are under constant pressure from Beijing to acknowledge the error of their ways and recant. This unfair isolation weighs heavily on Taiwan, which now, unlike China, has a rich and vibrant democracy, with a vigorous, independent press and free, hotly contested elections.
Despite the ROC's growing role in world trade, especially in high-tech industries, the size disparity between it and the PRC almost certainly means that Beijing will sustain its lead in the ongoing diplomatic struggle unless an outsider shuffles the deck. The only candidate to do so "the only country willing and able to withstand the torrent of abuse that would flow from Beijing following dual diplomatic recognition" is the US. Others will follow, but only the US can reignite the debate.
But why should the US undertake this arduous and (at least initially) thankless stratagem? There are several important reasons, all of them hard-core American national interests. First, recognizing Taiwan in fact simply recognizes reality, the best grounding for any foreign policy. By any accepted definition of customary international law and practice, the ROC is a "state": it has a stable government carrying out normal domestic functions over a defined territory with a stable population. It has a currency, a capital city, and all the other indications of statehood, as well as the clear capacity to make and honor international commitments with other states. Arguing that Taiwan does not qualify as a "state" ignores the unmistakable evidence. In fact, it is precisely the overwhelming reality of Taiwan's sovereign status that most aggravates Beijing's hard-liners, and incites their apocalyptic rhetoric. Would Beijing, responding to US recognition of the ROC, end diplomatic relations with us? If so, the PRC would demonstrate indisputably that it remains a rogue state, unentitled to the normal treatment it so much desires from America and the world. In fact, it is extremely unlikely that the PRC would break ties with the US; it would fulminate mightily and could exact some economic costs, but it would ultimately acquiesce. Once the US established the principle of dual recognition, many others would follow.
Second, the US must remove the ambiguity that currently exists about whether we will defend Taiwan in the event of a PRC military attack, a by-no-means unrealistic prospect. This ambiguity, worsened dramatically in the last seven years by President Clinton's unprecedented deference to Beijing, encourages the PRC to believe that it might actually succeed at a propitious moment, and thus contributes to instability. Full recognition of Taipei would underscore the strength of America's military commitment, and thus help stabilize the straits. Moreover, recognition would clearly indicate to others in East Asia that the US was firmly committed to resisting PRC military or political adventurism generally, thus strengthening the US hand in the region. This is not a "containment" or "encirclement" policy toward Beijing, but simply a logical way to protect important American political and economic interests in the region.
Third, recognizing Taiwan will no more subvert the "one China" policy than did our Cold War recognition of the two Germanies. In fact, the question of "when" and "under what circumstances" reunification might take place inevitably shades into the question of "whether" it will do so. Optimism that democratic transformation in China is inevitable does not necessarily mean it will be expeditious; the continued fears of Hong Kong democrats are the only evidence anyone really needs to underscore the legitimacy of Taiwanese warnings about the premature creation of "one China."
American policy should not be to prejudge the outcome for "China" one way or the other. If both sides of the Taiwan Straits decide to reunify, we can welcome that development; if they do not, we can welcome that as well. But until then, America should set its own foreign policy and not follow the dictates of Beijing or anyone else.
John Bolton is the senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. During the Bush administration, he served as the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs.
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