Beijing’s squeeze on Taiwan grows ever tighter. Through 1971, the Republic of China occupied the Chinese seat on the UN Security Council. Then the Nixon-Mao deal turned the position, along with its valuable veto, over to the People’s Republic of China. Eight years later, Washington officially recognized the PRC. Since then the U.S. and Taiwan have had quasi-diplomatic relations through nominally private organizations.
For years, however, the ROC was still recognized by more than a score of smaller states, mostly in Africa and Latin America. In the early years, Taiwan was wealthier than the mainland and could back up its diplomacy with cash. However, after Mao’s death and the PRC’s adoption of economic reforms, Taipei lost that advantage and suffered a slow but steady loss of diplomatic partners.
In recent years, Beijing has increased its efforts to win over Taiwan’s friends. The ROC is now down to 17 recognitions, including the Vatican. Earlier this year El Salvador, Burkina Faso, and Dominican Republic switched Chinas; Panama did so last year. Unfortunately for Taiwan, it has little to offer politically in competition with the PRC. Taipei remains an economic powerhouse, but commercial ties will continue irrespective of political links.
In the recent past, Washington ignored the PRC-ROC diplomatic struggle. After all, the U.S. had already decided to recognize the PRC. American officials would look foolish if they blamed far less powerful and wealthy nations for doing the same thing.
Yet Trump administration officials have seemed to take personal affront to recent foreign shifts. In response, Washington has withdrawn American ambassadors from the Dominican Republic and El Salvador and its charge d’affaires (second ranking diplomat) from Panama after those countries recognized the PRC. The State Department explained that the diplomats “will meet with U.S. government leaders to discuss ways in which the United States can support strong, independent, democratic institutions and economies throughout Central America and the Caribbean.”
Rather than host such improbable “discussions,” why didn’t Washington lead by example and recognize the ROC itself? The answer is obvious: American policymakers don’t want to pay the price, even as they expect other nations to do so.
The PRC is placing increased pressure on Taiwan in the midst of a broad, across-the-board assault on Western values and interests. Much of Beijing’s focus is internal, with heightened restrictions on the internet, academic cooperation, NGO activity, religious practice, and legal activism. Presidential term limits have been repealed. A million Muslim Uighurs have been sent to reeducation camps in Xinjiang. A totalitarian “social credit” system is being created to control Chinese citizens.
Internationally, the PRC has been more aggressively pushing its territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific. The Xi government is exerting direct control from Beijing over Hong Kong, despite China’s promise to retain Hong Kong’s unique liberal system. Chinese officials have turned their nation’s economic clout into a political weapon, insisting that foreign companies treat Taiwan as part of China even in non-Chinese forums, such as English-language websites.
There is good reason for American policymakers to be concerned about the PRC’s dangerous course. Nevertheless, Beijing still poses no direct security threat to the United States, which remains well ahead of Beijing militarily. The PRC is in no position to attack the American homeland. No one imagines a Chinese invasion force conquering Hawaii or seizing America’s West Coast.
Rather, Beijing is developing the capability to deter American military action—called anti-access/area denial (A2AD)—in its neighborhood. Projection of power, through carrier and other groups, is extremely costly. Deterring intervention by, say, sinking carriers through torpedoes or missiles, is relatively cheap. That means the principal military competition between China and the U.S. is in East Asia. Ultimately, Americans have to decide how much they are prepared to spend to protect nations and interests not essential to America’s defense. Any willingness to pay a high price will fall dramatically as entitlement outlays explode in coming years.
The PRC’s internal transformation is primarily a moral issue, with only a minimal impact on America’s security. The result could be a more hostile adversary. But a democratic, non-communist China could be equally dangerous—with a more nationalistic political system in which politicians compete to “make China great again.” Until recently, at least, the country’s leadership used but also constrained its people’s nationalistic impulses. In a more democratic system, those limits are less likely to hold, potentially leading to a more aggressive foreign policy. In any case, though Washington can advocate for human rights, its ability to influence China’s internal development is limited at best.
What of issues that mix the international and moral? The U.S. has good reasons to back its companies against Beijing’s attempts to subject them to Chinese law. The PRC’s writ should not reach into America. Washington should consider appropriate retaliation if necessary.
America can also join with the United Kingdom and perhaps other European states to press the PRC to live up to its commitments regarding Hong Kong. However, Washington can ultimately do little to enforce its wishes in what is effectively a domestic matter. The “special administrative region” is part of China, which is unlikely to forever allow a destabilizing island of liberty to exist within.
Taiwan poses a tougher challenge. Diplomatic recognitions matter little. The issue is symbolically important but has little practical impact. Taipei’s autonomy is at risk, but not because Central American countries are moving their embassies from Taipei to Beijing. Punishing nations that shift their recognition makes no logical sense, unless Washington is prepared to punish countries that did the same in the past. And if the U.S. won’t recognize the ROC, its officials expose themselves as flagrant, embarrassing hypocrites.
Instead, the U.S. should address the more serious question of how to encourage Taiwan’s survival as a separate and autonomous polity, whatever its international legal status. Taipei is a valuable friend, but that is not enough to justify going to war with a nuclear power. Taiwan’s status is far more important to Beijing than Washington. The former always will take greater risks and pay higher costs to achieve its end.
A middling position would be to continue arming Taipei, helping it create its own deterrent capability. Doing so will anger Beijing, but that antagonism may be worth accepting. If so, the U.S. should not unnecessarily inflame Chinese sentiments elsewhere, especially for no substantive gain.
The American-Chinese relationship is destined to grow ever more complex and fractious. Washington should accept the cost of more turbulence when necessary, but not create counterproductive disputes when not. Nowhere will this issue be more difficult than Taiwan. If the administration is serious about helping Taipei, Washington must recognize its limits. It should stand back from China’s diplomatic offensive.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.