Notwithstanding Washington drama and parlor games, the biggest story of the decade is that America’s response to China’s economic and military aggression has changed dramatically. With bipartisan support in Congress, President Donald Trump has moved forcefully to toughen allied solidarity in the Pacific and to resist Chinese economic warfare. But Washington has overlooked one key asset in this fight—Taiwan—and often instead mistook it for a liability. This distinction is fundamentally important as we ponder the durability of the Chinese Communist Party amid an economic slowdown and as the world marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre this week.
The island nation of twenty-four million free people is frequently threatened by China with reunification—a euphemism for military invasion and conquest, and an end to the de facto political independence that Taiwan has enjoyed since 1949. The United States doesn’t have a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, but it is bound by a 1979 law to sell it the arms it needs for its defense—a standard previous U.S. administrations have usually failed to meet.
Previous U.S. messaging has also been dubious. For example, in 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell went to Beijing and asserted that Taiwan wasn’t a sovereign nation. Additionally, Powell said the United States sought the “peaceful reunification” of Taiwan and China. In other words, leave your freedom at the door.
Armchair experts who have skimmed the Wikipedia entry on Chinese culture observe that Beijing’s rulers cannot afford to “lose face,” which would occur if Taiwan were to declare independence formally. Fair enough, but this sentiment is frequently extended radically to areas where Taiwan is left unable to secure its national interests.
Every year, China enhances its offensive military posture against Taiwan. Beijing also picks off more of the handful of remaining minor nations that have formal relations with Taiwan instead of China. This is important to note because official foreign relations are necessary for Taiwanese leaders to visit America (seldom Washington, DC) under the artifice of a “transit stop” on their way to state visits elsewhere.
Moreover, China prevents Taiwan from entering multilateral forums like the World Health Organization, and Taiwan’s status as something other than a real country often prevents it from securing trade deals with other nations or economic blocs like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. On top of that, experts dismiss Taiwan’s protestations and efforts to rectify these problems as dangerously provocative toward China.
Past U.S. presidents of both parties have effectively adopted what Bill Clinton’s top Asia policy official called “strategic ambiguity.” When Chinese officials asked Joseph Nye what the United States would do if they attacked Taiwan, he said, “We don’t know and you don’t know. It would depend on the circumstances.” An endless academic debate over whether to make formal our implicit likelihood to come to Taiwan’s defense—and whether this would increase or decrease the chances of peace or create a moral hazard—has led nowhere.