For 37 years we have engaged in the pretense that – diplomatically speaking – Taiwan doesn’t exist.
In order to engage in this charade and thereby placate China, we abrogated our mutual security treaty with Taiwan, recalled our ambassador, and shut down our embassy. We established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1979, agreeing to virtually all of Beijing’s demands, including recognizing it as the sole legitimate government of China.
Of course, China may regard Taiwan as its sovereign territory, but the island hasn’t been governed from Beijing since 1895, and the vast majority of its 23 million people want to remain free and independent of Communist Party control.
So what did we get in return for selling out Taiwan, which had been our loyal ally for decades?
By moving our embassy to Beijing, we were able to play the “China card” against the Soviet Union. But we had already been playing that particular “card” since 1972, when Nixon first went to China. There is no doubt that it was a useful gambit in the great game of geostrategic poker called the Cold War – although it was President Reagan’s later policies vis-à-vis Moscow that were decisive.
In any event, the “China card” justification for keeping Taiwan out in the cold vanished 25 years ago, with the 1991 implosion of that failed state known as the Soviet Union.
The real reason that Taiwan was sacrificed in 1979 was twofold: First, we cherished the hope that China would gradually and peacefully evolve into a country that was merely authoritarian, where basic human rights were respected and civil society would flourish. We even imagined, in our hubris, that the Chinese Communist Party, swayed by our powerful example of ordered liberty, might even one day allow other political parties to form and compete in open and free elections.
That comforting vision of China’s democratic future died on the streets of Beijing on June 4, 1989. That was the day that China’s “reform-minded leaders” carried out the Tiananmen Massacre, horrifying the world by butchering their own children to stay in power.
Second, and even more important, American companies were mesmerized by a vision of one billion Chinese customers. Nearly all the Fortune 500 companies imagined their goods and services flooding into China. Boeing envisioned selling ten thousand planes to China’s government-owned airlines. GM toted up the profits from selling ten million cars to China’s newly flush entrepreneurs.
It is a mistake to count your customers before you actually have them, however, especially in tightly-controlled China. China’s markets haven’t proven to be nearly as easy to penetrate as we had imagined. But instead of cutting our losses, our politicians doubled down. Urged on by President Clinton, we gave China permanent Most-Favored Nation status in 2000, guaranteeing that Chinese goods would be given low-tariff access to the U.S. market. We even allowed China to join the World Trade Organization later that year on Beijing’s promise – the latest in a long succession of such promises, always broken – to finally open up its markets.
So it was that, instead of dominating the Chinese market, we handed China the weapons it would use to dominate our own. Through currency manipulation, government subsidies, and a willingness to sacrifice its workers and the environment in pursuit of profit, China has swamped our markets with cheap manufactured goods.
At the same time, Beijing cleverly continues to skew its market against foreign companies through technology theft, unwritten rules, and other machinations. As the Economist noted several years ago, “The meddling state lets multinationals in, only to squeeze them dry of their valuable technologies and then push them out.”
Even today this game of bait-and-steal continues. Late last year, Boeing announced that it was moving an important part of its aircraft production to China. This foolish move, made in response to China’s demands, will end badly for American workers. Is there any doubt that Beijing’s heavily subsidized aircraft manufacturing industry will soon be producing passenger jets identical to Boeing’s in every particular except the decals? And the price tag?
In pursuit of a single large order of passenger jets, Boeing has set itself up to eventually lose not only the China market, but a large percentage of its international market share as well. It is only a matter of time. Aircraft manufacturing is one of the sectors of the world economy that China one day hopes to dominate as it vigorously promotes its own “national champions” in high-tech manufacturing. China, unlike the U.S., promotes and protects its manufacturing base.
The same China experts who designed our failed China policy, and perpetuated it for three long decades, are now warning us that China’s leaders will be angry if we try and change the status quo with regard to Taiwan.
One might respond that, given that they are shutting out American businesses, violating currency agreements, and dumping cheap goods on the U.S. market – not to mention carrying out cyber-espionage and cyber-attacks against us, making baseless territorial claims against our allies, and militarizing sandbars in the South China Sea – that China’s leaders seem pretty hostile towards us already.
While our China policy has failed, our Taiwan policy, against all odds, has succeeded. Even after we broke off diplomatic relations, it has continued to thrive. Taiwan is a modern democratic state, one which shares our values and institutions. As such, it is an island of democratic hope in a sea of Chinese despotism.
In taking President Tsai’s call the President-elect has taken the first step towards a more realistic China policy. Renewing our alliance with Taiwan strengthens our position in the Asian-Pacific, provides a vital linchpin in our defenses along the Pacific Rim.
For a president who wants to put America first, there is only one relevant question: Is it in America’s interest to distance ourselves from dictatorial China and draw closer to democratic Taiwan at this time?
The answer is unequivocally yes.
Ambassador John Bolton suggested back in January that “If China won’t back down in East Asia, Washington has options that would compel Beijing’s attention,” suggesting it may be time to “play the ‘Taiwan card.’”
It would seem that Trump, by his actions, has just quietly laid this ace on the table.
Steven W. Mosher is the President of the Population Research Institute and a former Commissioner of the Commission on Broadcasting to the People’s Republic of China.