Gary Schmitt is co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
On Friday, Tsai Ing-wen will be sworn in as president of Taiwan, having won by 25 percentage points over her nearest competitor. In addition to being the first woman to hold the office, Tsai will be the fourth president selected by popular vote. Her inauguration will also mark the third time the presidency has been passed from one party to another. By virtually any reasonable standard, the Republic of China has become a normal democratic country. Yet its relationship with the United States is anything but normal.
Indeed, if you were to try to explain Washington’s Taiwan policy to someone from another planet, you surely would get a puzzled look. Largely shaped by decisions made during the 1970s and early 1980s, during a completely different strategic era and at a time when Taiwan was a one-party state with pretensions to someday rule over all of mainland China, Washington’s policy is a relic of a bygone era. It seems we can bring Cuba in from the cold but not Taiwan.
Typically, U.S. policymakers see Taiwan as a problem. But the nation has a number of qualities that should make it a contributor to the United States’ strategic position in Asia. First, it has become a model of democratic governance. Taiwan is deemed “free” by Freedom House and gets high marks for its level of civil and political rights. Second, it remains an important economy, the United States’ ninth-largest trading partner and home to some of the globe’s most innovative companies.
Third, if the United States’ “pivot” to Asia is to be taken seriously, then Taiwan, an island nation sitting astride vital sea-trade lanes and between two U.S. allies (Japan and the Philippines), can hardly be ignored. An intelligent defense plan would help build Taiwan into a key link in East Asia’s “first island chain,” lessening the ability of Chinese air and naval forces to move into the broader Pacific and threaten U.S. forces at sea and on Guam.
The United States’ policy toward Taiwan remains stuck in neutral because of a reluctance to put aside the fiction of “one China”: the idea that both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China claim sovereignty over both the Chinese mainland and the islands of Formosa, Kinmen and Matsu. The people of Taiwan have made it quite clear they have neither the ambition to rule the mainland nor even any inclination to unify with the PRC under the rubric of “one country, two systems.” To the contrary, polls consistently show that the percentage of Taiwanese who identify as exclusively “Chinese” has dropped to single digits — a trend that is no doubt generated and deepened by every election with the practice of self-rule.
Nor is there any appeal left to the “one country, two systems” formula, originally proposed by the PRC’s Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s, by which Beijing would exercise sovereignty generally but allow areas such as Hong Kong and Taiwan to retain their distinct political and economic systems. Putting aside the fact that this formula was barely conceivable even when Taiwan was still a one-party state like the mainland, Hong Kong’s increasingly unhappy experience since falling under PRC sovereignty in 1997 has eliminated any confidence among Taiwanese that Beijing would keep its hands off the island’s democracy.
During her campaign and time as president-elect, Tsai has made it clear that she has no intention of roiling the waters with the PRC by pushing forward with an explicit claim of independence. But there is little doubt that a U.S. policy to further normalize relations with Taiwan would increase tensions with Beijing. Even now, the PRC is once again in the business of trying to coerce Taipei’s few remaining partners into abandoning diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and attempting to use the “one China” principle as a condition for Taipei participating in meetings of U.N. institutions, such as the World Health Organization.
However, it is an illusion to think there is a way forward that does not involve tension with the PRC. As the past few years of Chinese behavior have made clear, strategic competition is inevitable and is understood as such in Beijing. The only question is whether we use all of our assets or fail to, as the Chinese employ all of theirs.
Answering this question is all the more urgent in light of the more assertive and ambitious policies of China’s current leader, Xi Jinping. Failing to support Taiwan will not ease tensions but only invite greater instability and uncertainty among allies and potential allies in the region.
It is in the United States’ interest to strengthen ties with Taiwan militarily, economically and diplomatically. Given Taiwan’s democracy, it is also the right thing to do.