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Opinion ‘Strategic ambiguity’ is no longer a prudent U.S. policy on Taiwan

Vehicles travel past the Taipei 101 building, center, and other buildings in Taipei, Taiwan on June 3. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg)

Fifty years ago next week, a forgivable fib about a stomach ache presaged momentous changes. One thing, however, has not changed since Henry Kissinger, President Richard M. Nixon’s national security adviser, made his surreptitious trip to Beijing. Then, as now, the status of Taiwan was the focus of China’s intransigence. Now, as then, Taiwan tests the limited usefulness of U.S. ambiguity.

Having pleaded a stomach ache as his reason for seclusion in Pakistan, at 4 a.m. on July 9, 1971, Kissinger departed for Beijing and his talks with Premier Zhou Enlai, the urbane cosmopolitan who in the 1940s had negotiated with Gen. George C. Marshall. In Kissinger’s 1979 memoir “White House Years,” he said that Taiwan “was mentioned only briefly” in the first negotiating session. But nine of the 46 pages of the record of that meeting concerned Taiwan. Kissinger’s objective was to secure an invitation for Nixon to visit China, and Beijing had made clear that this would be contingent on a U.S. commitment to the principle that Taiwan was part of “one China.”

Since that commitment was made, there have been two developments, one surprising, the other not. Taiwan has grown into a vibrant, prosperous multi-party democracy. And Beijing has become a pedestal for a hero, President Xi Jinping.

July 1 marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Today, the CCP testifies to the irrelevance of Karl Marx, and the exclusive relevance of Vladimir Lenin, in China’s development and comportment. For Marxists, the myth of the revolutionary proletariat has been a disappointment for more than a century. China scarcely had a proletariat when its peasant society of 542 million was captured in 1949 by communists victorious in the civil war. In China since then, as in Russia 1917-1991, communism in power has relied on the theory that a communist party must be the “vanguard” of the proletariat, delivering top-down revolutionary consciousness to the disappointing masses. This is why, in a Leninist party-state, everything will be sacrificed to one principle: Nothing shall jeopardize the party’s primacy.

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As Raymond Aron explained in “The Opium of the Intellectuals,” his 1955 dissection of Marxism’s hold on many French thinkers, Marxist regimes always turn Marxism upside down. In Marxist theory, impersonal forces make history. In Marxist practice, history needs a helping hand from a dictatorial person — “the exaltation of a hero, the incarnation of the proletariat as saviour.” Uyghurs in concentration camps today recite Xi’s thoughts.

Having eliminated term limits for himself, Xi governs a surveillance state more annihilating of privacy than Lenin could have imagined. Prosperity is supposed to be the opium of China’s masses — prosperity reinforced by police, with genocide for especially recalcitrant groups. Taiwan remains formally part of “one China” — “one country, two systems” — a status as fictitious as Kissinger’s stomach ache.

A recent Economist article quoted a “senior American defence official” on China’s military buildup: “The world has never seen a military expansion of this scale not associated with conflict.” The article said: “Taiwan’s government is painfully aware that preserving their friendly, successful democracy is not in itself a vital national interest for anyone else.”

But the article also quoted historian Niall Ferguson’s judgment that the fall of Taiwan to an invasion by China could be “the American Suez,” a reference to the 1956 crisis that signaled the end of Britain’s great-power status. Britain, however, had already been supplanted by the United States. What nation or group of nations could replace a humbled United States?

The “Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act,” introduced by Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), notes that under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act there is a U.S. “expectation” — a conspicuously limp word — that Taiwan’s future “will be determined by peaceful means.” The Reschenthaler-Scott measure would authorize the president to use military force to protect Taiwan against “direct attack” or “the taking of territory under the effective jurisdiction of Taiwan” — nearby islands — by China. The measure urges, inter alia, combined U.S.-Taiwan military exercises, and a visit to Taiwan by the president or secretary of state. It invites Taiwan’s president to address Congress.

No administration welcomes such specific congressional intrusions in the formulation of foreign policy, so the Reschenthaler-Scott measure will not become law. Nevertheless, it can be an instrument by which congressional supporters say: After 50 years, U.S. “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan is no longer prudent. This principle is: A nation should know its own mind, and should make sure an adversary knows it, too.

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