Taiwan’s history should factor into US-China foreign policy

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Perceptions can be as influential as reality in foreign policy decision making. The history of U.S. relations with China is a case in point. Public opinion on China has run the gamut since the United States first recognized the Peoples’ Republic.

When President Nixon signed the Shanghai Communique in 1972, China was in the process of closing down the Cultural Revolution, the violent and self-defeating effort to purge moderate voices. The visit to China by a conservative, “realist” president began to  transform Americans’ attitudes towards China. 

China became the object of pervasive media coverage in 1972; it was as if the ancient history of that country was a new discovery.  The Communist leader Mao Zedong was still alive, but the worldly Chinese Foreign Minister, Zhou Enlai, was now the preferred face of the Chinese government.

Mao’s death in 1976, and the trial of the “Gang of Four,” the perpetrators of the Cultural Revolution, encouraged the Carter administration to establish diplomatic relations. A visit in August 1979 by Vice President Walter Mondale put the finishing touches on the terms of the new relationship. Most importantly, the status of Taiwan as part of a “One China” policy was confirmed. 

In 1979, as assistant secretary of State for Congressional Relations, I sent a letter to Congress transmitting the Taiwan Relations Act. This proposed legislation would create a non-diplomatic institute to conduct trade and cultural relations with the province of Taiwan. 

The defense treaty with the “Republic of Taiwan” would be abrogated as was agreed in the 1972 Shanghai Communique. However, friends of Taiwan, most prominently Senator Barry Goldwater, insisted that the president had no right to do this without congressional approval. The courts disagreed

Goldwater also wanted to continue arms sales to Taiwan and this became part of the Act. Thus was born the policy of “strategic ambiguity,” a source of continuing tension with mainland China, a policy that is reportedly the focus of debate within the Biden administration. 

While a few politicians like Goldwater supported Taiwan, the government of Taiwan, dominated by the authoritarian Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party, was not popular. The Peoples’ Republic of China was seen as the emerging power and a convenient geo-strategic offset to the Soviet Union.

These perceptions began to change in 1986. I visited Taiwan earlier that year at the invitation of the “tang wai, or “outside of the party,” movement, a grouping of mostly ethnic Taiwanese agitating for democratic change. At the time I was president of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a democracy promotion organization affiliated with the U.S. Democratic Party. Little did I know that signing that letter in 1979 had made me a known quantity in Taiwan.

As I approached my hotel I noticed a sign hung on the building telling me to go home. Apparently I was no friend of the nationalists.

A note was awaiting me at the hotel desk  asking me to come immediately to the Foreign Ministry. Waiting there was the deputy foreign minister, a pleasant fellow and a graduate of Georgetown University. He asked me to cancel my speech to the tang wai as it would create serious problems. I asked him why and pointed out that then-Congressman Steve Solarz, (D-N.Y.) had given a similar speech the year before. 

I told him that I was under the impression that the government had issued a license for the event and the government could withdraw its approval if it wished. He said that that would cause a demonstration and even more problems. In the end he conceded that the event would proceed, but asked that I not bring my delegation onto the stage with me. I readily agreed.

I soon understood the government’s concern. The speech was not to be held in a hotel as was Solarz’s the year before. It was held in a soccer stadium before at least 20,000 people. My rather bland lecture on the benefits of democracy was transformed by a passionate interpreter who shouted quotes from John Stewart Mill as if they were a call to arms!

I left Taiwan the next day feeling that I had quite unintentionally been a part of a much larger movement. Two weeks later the tang wai made a unilateral (and illegal) declaration that it was now a full-fledged political party. From that point on it would be the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan. The KMT government eventually gave in and within the next year a new, multiparty democracy was born. 

A few weeks later in Washington, I was invited to have lunch with the Peoples’ Republic ambassador to the United States. Present was the president and chair of NDI’s major funder, the National Endowment for Democracy and a former State Department legal counsel who was now representing the Chinese Embassy. I was accused of interfering in the internal affairs of China and violating the “One China” policy. I explained the background of my visit and my support for longstanding U.S. policy. 

Then I offered the belief that one day, were the mainland and Taiwan to embrace democratic principles, they would more easily resolve differences and reunite peacefully. The ambassador, a compatriot of Mao on the Long March, was not impressed.

Today, perceptions of the mainland and Taiwan have come full circle. The Peoples’ Republic of China is an ascending great power, the foremost competitor of the U.S. and a growing military threat in East Asia and the South China Sea. President Xi has cracked down on Hong Kong democrats and is violently suppressing minorities in Xinjiang province and Tibet

Taiwan has become a respectable democracy, admired widely for its respect for human rights and its technical and commercial prowess. If perception influences policy, how then does the United States respond to the growing threat the mainland poses to Taiwan?

The short answer is carefully! No one wants a war with China. However, many are growing concerned that “strategic ambiguity” is losing its deterrent value. The challenge is to combine an aggressive diplomatic effort, strengthening alliances in the Asia-Pacific region with defense enhancements that raise the perceived costs for China. This is a delicate balancing act. However, abandoning an impressive Asian democracy, whether sovereign or not, is not an attractive option.

The author is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He has served as assistant secretary of State for Congressional Relations, president of the National Democratic Institute, undersecretary of State for Management and administrator of USAID.

Tags China–United States relations foreign relations Foreign relations of China One-China policy Political status of Taiwan Politics of China Politics of Taiwan Taiwan Taiwan Relations Act Taiwan–United States relations
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