Taiwan: the Forgotten Country
Taiwan is a democracy that is not diplomatically recognized as a country by the United States. Taiwan has not been a member of the United Nations since 1971, and it is recognized as an independent country by only 20 other countries; so Taiwan is a stigmatized, outcast pariah. What did Taiwan do to deserve this treatment, and is there any reason why it should continue?
Taiwan, formerly known as Formosa, is a large island 100 miles off the southeastern Chinese coast. It is approximately 245 miles long, 90 miles wide at its widest point, and supports a population of 24 million. In the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries Taiwan was variously independent or colonized by either the Netherlands or China. Taiwan was conquered by the Japanese in 1895, who ruled the island until 1945. From 1945 to 1949 Taiwan was essentially independent of any foreign influence. In 1949 the Communists emerged victorious in the Chinese civil war, and Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and what remained of the Nationalist army fled to Taiwan.
The Nationalists set up a government on the island which slowly became democratic, and by 2000 Taiwan was declared a full democracy by Freedom House, the nonpartisan organization that tracks global freedom. However, the Chinese Communists, who have continuously ruled mainland China since 1949, view the island as a Chinese province, not as an independent country. Over the past 70 years the Chinese have worked to globally isolate Taiwan. In 1971, accommodating the growing power of China, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly voted to strip Taiwan of UN membership. The United States, which had opposed the 1971 UN vote, began a duplicitous, two-faced policy toward Taiwan following Nixon’s 1972 China visit. We ended our diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and endorsed the ‘one-China’ policy, recognizing the communist Peoples Republic of China as the legitimate government, and agreeing that Taiwan was part of China, not an independent country. At the same time we sell weapons to the Taiwanese, and United States Navy ships continue to patrol waters close to Taiwan, potentially protecting it from a possible Chinese invasion.
This inconsistent ‘realpolitik’ policy has been carried out by nine different American administrations of both political parties over the last 48 years. Some observers think we should entirely abandon Taiwan in order to placate the Chinese, hoping that this appeasement-type strategy would somehow reduce Chinese aggressiveness. This proposal ignores that China is a dictatorship, and appeasement historically fuels more dictatorial aggression.
Perhaps it is time to go in the other direction: fully embrace Taiwan as an independent country. There are a number of reasons for doing so. As mentioned above, Taiwan is a democracy, promoting Western values at a time when democracy is globally diminishing. If the United States wants global democracy to flourish, we should at least support the remaining democracies. It is shameful that the world’s leading democracy does not consistently do so.
Secondly, we need more allies in eastern Asia. President Obama, in his ‘turn toward Asia’ contemplated the idea of renewing the old USSR-containment strategy, surrounding China with American allies, but it was never activated. Democratic Japan and South Korea are our longtime allies, but we need further links in the containment chain going down the Chinese coast, and Taiwan is the next link. We should have a formal military alliance with Taiwan, like we do with Japan and South Korea. Such an alliance could become a model for further alliances with the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Finally, there is our inconsistent President, Donald Trump, who has blown hot and cold on China. He sometimes treats Xi as a close ally, while starting a trade war with the Chinese and accusing them of dirty dealing. In his two years in office Trump has done many surprising things, so perhaps he could add another surprise: become consistent on this issue by granting Taiwan full diplomatic recognition as an independent country, publically welcoming Taiwan back into the realm of legitimate nation-states, which it clearly deserves.