US policy toward Taiwan has for decades been an incoherent mess. The time has come to clean it up.
American diplomats have long adhered to the so-called “One China policy,” opposing independence for Taiwan and letting it be blackballed from international forums, in deference to Beijing’s claim that the island is a renegade Chinese province. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is committed to providing Taiwan with the arms it needs for defense against a Chinese attack, yet it has never promised to intervene on Taiwan’s behalf should such an attack occur. This lack of clarity has been deliberate — Washington calls it “strategic ambiguity” — but it long ago stopped making sense.
When the Carter administration established full diplomatic ties with China, the hope was that the regime in Beijing would gradually liberalize, democratize, and adhere to the norms of international cooperation. That hope proved delusional. China’s ruling Communist Party has not budged in the direction of liberal democracy. China may have become an economic powerhouse, but, as Jianli Yang and Aaron Rhodes write in an essay for The Hill, it remains “a rogue state; a coercive police state based on violence, not consent; a state incompatible with the ideals of the modern world.” China is guilty of massive and ongoing moral outrages, from its gulag of slave-labor camps to its brutal assault on Hong Kong’s liberty.
Taiwan, meanwhile, has metamorphosed from an authoritarian one-party state into a vibrant multiparty democracy. It is today a land of liberty, human rights, and due process of law.
While Taiwan behaves responsibly and peaceably, China is growing ever more menacing and belligerent. Twice last month, Chinese warplanes — including both heavy bombers and fighter jets — penetrated Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, without warning or provocation. Asked for an explanation, China’s Defense Ministry issued a threat: “We warn those ‘Taiwan independence’ elements: Those who play with fire will burn themselves, and ‘Taiwan independence’ means war.”
China’s show of hostility was presumably intended to intimidate the new US administration into toeing the “One China” line and preserving the fiction of Taiwanese subservience. On a number of occasions, the Trump administration had made a point of doing the opposite: Less than two weeks before President Biden’s inauguration, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lifted longstanding restrictions on contacts between US and Taiwanese officials, saying they had been designed to “appease” Beijing but were now “null and void.” He planned to drive home the point by sending Kelly Craft, the US ambassador to the United Nations, on a high-profile trip to Taiwan. (Amid the chaos of the presidential transition, the trip was scrubbed.) Pompeo’s actions infuriated China; the state-run Global Times newspaper described them as “last-ditch madness” that would lead to the “annihilation” of Taiwan’s people.
But if the Chinese government expected Trump’s successor to renounce the previous administration’s display of support for Taiwan, it was disappointed. Biden invited Bi-khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to Washington, to attend his inauguration — the first time since 1979 that such an invitation was extended. The State Department spokesman reacted to China’s incursion into Taiwan’s airspace with tough words calling on Beijing to “cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan” and emphasizing that “our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.”
It was a fine start. Biden ought to go further.
The president can use his bully pulpit to explain why there is no good reason to keep pretending that Taiwan is a part of China and not an independent country in every significant respect. He can point out that Taiwan has never been ruled by China’s Communist regime and that the great majority of Taiwan’s people don’t consider themselves Chinese but exclusively Taiwanese. He can observe that it makes no more sense to claim that Taiwan is really China than to claim that America is really Great Britain, or Lithuania really Russia.
The longer the United States and its allies pay lip service to the “One China” fabrication, the more emboldened China will be to insist that Taiwan “must” be united with the mainland, by force if necessary. When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein claimed Kuwait as Iraq’s “19th province,” the United States led a vast international coalition to force him to back down. Economically and strategically, Taiwan is more important than Kuwait ever was, and America and its allies would have no choice but to resist any attempt by China to conquer its island neighbor.
Which is exactly why “strategic ambiguity” should be scrapped.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and research fellow David Sacks argue that the best way to ensure that the United States will not have to fight to defend Taiwan is to leave no doubt that it is prepared to do so. “The United States should adopt a position of strategic clarity,” they urge, by stating unequivocally “that it would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan. Such a policy would lower the chances of Chinese miscalculation, which is the likeliest catalyst for war in the Taiwan Strait.”
At the same time, the Biden administration should call a halt to the shameful practice of treating Taiwan as an international pariah. Taiwan should have a seat at the table at the United Nations and its constituent agencies. It should be welcomed into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and invited to G-7 summit meetings. Its athletes should be entitled to compete in the Olympics under their own flag.
China is a bully. Taiwan is a friend. We can engage productively with the one without demeaning the other. Step 1 is to stop being ambiguous.