The chorus of opinion leaders and pundits in the United States calling for Washington’s “abandonment” of Taiwan is getting louder, a symptom of a growing, but false, perception in the U.S. that China holds the key to all of Washington’s problems. This isn’t only a dangerous misreading of Beijing’s intentions, but also reflects a lack of public understanding about Taiwan’s sovereign status.
Unification — by force if necessary — with Taiwan is a top priority for Beijing.
Yet, although relations between Taipei and Beijing have thawed in recent years under President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration, Chinese military capabilities and missile deployments across the Strait have not only increased with growing sophistication and lethality, but Beijing’s military ambitions have extended beyond the Strait.
The arguments coming from the abandon-Taiwan camp were taken to a new low by a New York Times op-ed piece last month titled “To Save Our Economy, Ditch Taiwan.” In the article, the author expresses the hope that if the U.S. were to “give up” Taiwan, Beijing would accommodate Washington’s interests — to the point that Beijing would write off $1.14 trillion of Washington’s debt and halt its support for Iran, North Korea, Syria and Pakistan.
The writer’s argument depends on his assumption that the current cross-strait “status quo” is unsustainable. In other words, Taiwan’s absorption by China is inevitable and therefore the U.S. should ditch Taiwan.
His assertion misses an important fact: Taiwan, under its existing constitutional framework, exists as an independent, sovereign state. The absence of official diplomatic relations does not negate this objective reality.
If Washington were to revoke the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. would essentially be condoning the absorption of one state by another state.
However, neither the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) nor the Democratic Progressive Party would ever subjugate the Republic of China/Taiwan to Chinese Communist Party rule.
The partisan political environment in Taipei doesn’t serve Taiwan’s national interests when political parties vilify their opponents’ position to the extreme. However, partisan bickering is a facet of every multiparty democracy. And the U.S., of all places, should understand how democracies work.
Moreover, if Beijing wants to genuinely engage in political dialogue with Taiwan, then it should do so with dignity by first accepting that it is engaging another sovereign government. This is the only way to build cross-strait political trust.
As Washington moves to re-establish its presence and develop comprehensive ties with the Asia-Pacific region, the need for clarity on Taiwan’s sovereignty will become an important factor for perceptions of the United States’ staying power in the region.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell stated at a House of Representatives hearing earlier this year that how the United States manages the U.S.-Taiwan relationship “will have a great impact on the way our partners view us across the Asia-Pacific region.”
Ambiguity from Washington over Taiwan’s sovereignty would only embolden Beijing’s claims.
If some are proposing the “abandonment” of Taiwan, then an equally radical solution should be on the table.
To clear any doubt about U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific and check Beijing’s wanderlust, Washington should recognize that Taiwan, under its existing constitutional framework, is an independent, sovereign state.
This would be a bold move by Washington that would help create the conditions for negotiations on equal footing and facilitate enduring peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and the Asia-Pacific region.
Russell Hsiao is a senior research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute. This article was also published in the Taipei Times.