Written by Gerrit van der Wees.
The year 2018 is promising to be a watershed for US-Taiwan relations. The key event setting things in motion was the passage of the Taiwan Travel Act by Congress, which was signed by President Trump on March 16th 2018. Together with a number of related developments this represents a significant turning point for the island of Taiwan, and in particular its relations with the United States.
Congress: Bring Taiwan in from the Cold
The fundamental shift occurring at the moment is being made possible by a number of key changes in the political landscape. First: for several years, the US Congress has expressed increasing unhappiness about the way a free and democratic Taiwan was kept lingering in diplomatic isolation internationally. This in spite of the fact that the country had made its momentous transition to democracy in the early 1990s.
Leading members on both the Democratic and Republican side argued that the US could and should do more to bring Taiwan in from the cold, and that at the same time a number of increasingly anachronistic unwritten rules and guidelines governing bilateral unofficial ties with Taiwan should be ditched. Those rules included regulations that high-level US officials could not meet their Taiwan counterparts, and that US government officials could not refer to Taiwan as a “country” or allow the display of “symbols of sovereignty.”
This prompted the introduction of the Taiwan Travel Act in the House on January 13, 2017 and its companion bill in the Senate on May 4, 2017. With strong bipartisan support – unique in present day Washington – the legislation moved through the House and Senate and passed the House on January 9, 2018 and the Senate on February 28, both by unanimous consent.
How the West got China wrong
A second change in the political landscape was the rather fundamental rethink of US policy towards China which surfaced in early 2018. Until rather recently, the prevailing line of thinking was that by engaging China, the West would be able to make it a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community. The expectation was also that economic development and increased access to information through the internet would lead to political liberalization in China.
Prominent observers and former policymakers have now started to make the argument that during these past decades, the West got China wrong. In their seminal article “The China Reckoning” in the March/April 2018 edition of Foreign Affairs, former Obama administration officials Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner write:
Nearly half a century since Nixon’s first steps toward rapprochement, the record is increasingly clear that Washington once again put too much faith in its power to shape China’s trajectory. (…) Neither carrots nor sticks have swayed China as predicted. Diplomatic and commercial engagement have not brought political and economic openness. (…) China has instead pursued its own course, belying a range of American expectations in the process. That reality warrants a clear-eyed rethinking of the United States’ approach to China.
Likewise, in a major article on March 1, 2018 The Economist argued that since Nixon’s opening to China, the West had hoped that diplomatic and commercial engagement would bring political and economic openness, but that the gamble has failed.
Furthermore, in his Washington Post article on the topic on February 28, 2018, DC commentator Charles Lane argued that the United States needs a long, sober policy rethink, and that it should “reinvest in traditional alliances with democratic nations in the Asia-Pacific region.”
China: Emperor Xi Jinping throwing his weight around
Thirdly, this fundamental rethink of how China is perceived was prompted by the fact that a rising, powerful and influential China was increasingly both challenging and flouting the international order and establishing its own order through its economic and military might. The developments in the South China Sea are one example.
Domestically, the government of Xi Jinping didn’t move towards more liberalization as some analysts had hoped, but instead clamped down on democratic dissent. Since 2012 the Communist Party has increasingly restricted civil liberties and freedom of expression, not only on mainland China itself, but in the territories of Tibet, East Turkestan and Hong Kong.
For many Western observers, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the decision in March 2018 by the National People’s Congress to pass a Constitutional amendment removing the term limits for the President and Vice-President, enabling Xi to stay on for life.
Trump Administration: less bound by convention
A fourth factor enabling a fundamental shift in policies towards Taiwan is the advent of the Trump Administration in the United States. While earlier administrations were primarily focused on “engaging” China — often at the expense of relations with Taiwan — Mr. Trump is less bound by conventions and traditional ways of doing things and considers China much more like a strategic competitor.
This is creating an atmosphere in which civil servants and policymakers can do much more out-of-the box thinking and reimagine relations with Taiwan so as to reflect the present-day reality that Taiwan is a vibrant democracy, instead of clinging to dusty policies and unintelligible “One China” mantras dating back to the 1970s.
In this context it is important that at key positions within the Trump Administration, there are people who have advocated a fundamental rethink of US-Taiwan relations. Among these are Randall Schriver, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian & Pacific Security Affairs, Alex Wong, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian & Pacific Affairs, and the newly appointed White House National Security Advisor, John Bolton.
First and foremost, attention should go towards dismantling many of the outdated restrictions and guidelines governing US-Taiwan relations. The current lack of diplomatic recognition should not inhibit contacts and communications “at all levels” of government (as stated in the Taiwan Travel Act). In fact, as Taiwan is a key democratic and strategic ally in the region, there should be ample communication. The restrictive “guidelines” should be a thing of the past.
Towards normalization of relations
But even more importantly, it is key that the US starts moving towards normalization of relations with Taiwan. The “One China” policy and de-recognition in 1979 were predicated on the fact that at that time, Taiwan was ruled by a repressive Chinese Nationalist regime that still claimed sovereignty over China. The US and other Western powers had to choose between two competing regimes claiming to rule China.
This situation changed fundamentally in the early 1990s, when Taiwan morphed into a vibrant democracy. In spite of that momentous and historic transition, the international community perpetuated the international diplomatic isolation of the island-nation and of its people.
The U.S. and Western Europe thus need to pull themselves out of the self-imposed strictures of the “status quo” and start a process toward more normal relations with Taiwan, treating it like any other one of our other friends and allies in the world. We also need to help end the exclusion of Taiwan from international organizations like the WHO, ICAO, Interpol and the United Nations itself.
Taiwan has much to offer and would be a positive and constructive force in the international family of nations.
Such a move would actually also be good for China and the region: while initially there would undoubtedly be strong protests, a normalization of relations between the rest of the world and Taiwan should give China an opportunity to move away from the old contradictions and animosity dating back to the Chinese Civil War.
Beijing needs to come to grips with the new and democratic Taiwan and develop a more constructive policy based on mutual recognition and peaceful coexistence as friendly neighbours. That would bring a much more lasting peace and stability to the region than the present nebulous and precarious “status quo.”
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat, who served as editor of the Taiwan Communiqué from 1980 through 2016. He now teaches history of Taiwan at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. Image credit: CC by White House/Flickr.