Taiwan: A Status Upgrade Is Now Affordable


The two Chinas have diverged dramatically. The Republic of China (ROC, better known as Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could hardly be more different. Taiwan is small, democratic, and a model international citizen. The PRC is a huge authoritarian state that is coercing several of its neighbors and alarming most of the others. U.S. policy has undeservingly disadvantaged Taiwan and accommodated China. That imbalance should be corrected immediately.

U.S. restrictions on Taiwan are excessive. Beijing often characterizes U.S. policy toward Taiwan as treachery. Washington, the Chinese say, emboldens Taiwan independence through weapons transfers and a plethora of politically significant gestures such as granting then ROC President Lee Teng-hui a visa to visit and speak at his alma mater Cornell University in 1995. What the Chinese do not acknowledge, however, is the effort the U.S. government has made to limit U.S. policies involving Taiwan that would offend Beijing. These efforts amount to self-restraint that goes above and beyond formal obligations.

In order to establish and maintain a constructive relationship with the People’s Republic of China beginning in 1979, it was necessary for Washington to sever official diplomatic relations with Taipei. In accordance with Beijing’s demand, the U.S. government does not officially recognize Taiwan as an independent country and denies Taiwan some of the main symbols of statehood. Although unfair to Taiwan, this is a necessary part of the U.S. deal with China. In some instances, however, Washington has taken this policy too far. It is not necessary to proscribe every prospective connection with Taiwan simply because Beijing might interpret it as implying statehood. While it is advisable to avoid gratuitously antagonizing the PRC where possible, overindulging Chinese sensitivities will never be a sound basis for U.S. policymaking. It is enough that Washington has accommodated the Chinese on several large issues involving Taiwan, such as the “one China policy.” China should not have veto power over every aspect of U.S.-Taiwan relations. One wonders if U.S. policy has tried too hard to please Beijing, with the cost paid by Taiwan’s people not only in the countless indignities of not being treated as a real country, but also in economic opportunities, health, safety, and military security.

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If these restrictions have bought goodwill from China, that is not apparent in current U.S.-China relations. After decades of U.S. attempts to minimize hurting the feelings of the Chinese Communist Party leadership, here is where we find ourselves today. The Chinese president publicly calls for an end to U.S. military alliances and the start of a new arrangement in which Asia manages its own security. Beijing shelters rogue state North Korea from international pressure because China prefers a nuclear DPRK to a collapse of that odious regime. China makes an expansive and illegal claim over most of the South China Sea and attempts to enforce it by ramming, detaining and sabotaging foreign vessels. The Chinese government demands that Japan recognize China’s claim over the disputed Senkaku Islands and increases tensions by flooding the area with ships and aircraft, while simultaneously Beijing ignores Vietnam’s claim over the Paracel Islands, which the Chinese seized by military force. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Chinese government denies complicity in a massive cyber theft campaign that goes beyond strategic intelligence gathering to include industrial espionage. Finally, China continues to insist that Taiwan must submit to rule by the authoritarian government in Beijing, regardless of the will of the people of Taiwan, and backs up that insistence with a standing threat to unleash war. Clearly, despite U.S. attempts to not treat China as an adversary, China is in important ways behaving as an adversary anyway.

There are several areas where an upgrade of U.S.-Taiwan relations would serve American interests. Washington should be less inhibited about U.S. and ROC military leaders meeting for consultations about jointly defending Taiwan in the case of a PRC attack. It is appropriate that Beijing sees PRC bellicosity leading directly to increased U.S.-Taiwan defense cooperation. More frequent and higher level U.S. official visits to Taiwan would demonstrate stronger U.S. political support. As a corollary, restrictions on visits to the United States by the ROC president should be reduced. U.S. arms transfers to Taiwan usually cause a temporary downturn in U.S.-China relations. Since the bilateral relationship is already poor, we currently have a negative window of opportunity within which Washington would incur minimal additional damage by announcing a substantial weapons sale package. U.S. government officials could begin to acknowledge in public speeches that Taiwan is part of the “rebalance” strategy. For example, Taiwan has distanced itself from coercive PRC behavior over territorial disputes in both the East China Sea and the South China Sea, even though Taiwan shares the same claims as Beijing. Washington should continue publicly supporting Taiwan’s membership in the TPP to the extent that Taipei qualifies on economic grounds. The U.S. government should adjust its position that the Taiwan issue be settled to the agreement of “people on both sides of the Strait.”  Instead, it should be “the people of Taiwan.”

Such an upgrade of U.S.-Taiwan relations is overdue. Now is a good time to implement it. Not only is the usual worry about hurting U.S.-China relations dormant, but additionally an improvement in U.S.-Taiwan relations, one of Beijing’s biggest fears, would signal to the Chinese government that outlaw behavior will not serve China’s interests.

If the United States intends to remain an influential strategic player in the Asia-Pacific region, U.S. Asia policy must respond to the regional perception that China under Xi Jinping is attempting to force some of its neighbors into accepting Beijing’s preferences on international disputes. Increased security cooperation between Washington and its regional friends is one way of “rebalancing” by demonstrating that determination to resist outlaw behavior is as strong as China’s inclination to bully smaller countries. Reducing the official distance between Washington and Taiwan can send this message while redressing some of the dissonance between American values and American policy.

Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Center.

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