On December 2, 2016, Donald Trump, then the president-elect, took a phone call to accept a congratulatory message. In one sense, there was nothing unusual in this—the call was just one among many conveying respectful warm wishes from world leaders. But this particular phone call resulted in shocked headlines around the world, because the person on the other end of the line was the legitimately elected president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen.
Now, with the world watching how the United States and China—the world’s liberal hegemon and its totalitarian challenger—each handle the coronavirus crisis, it is worth thinking about what the shifting U.S. relationship with China could mean for the U.S. relationship with Taiwan, and vice versa. Some China hawks (including me) have called for carefully using the current crisis to contain China. And if anybody wants to set the Chinese Communist Party’s hair on fire, the easiest way to do that is to say something nice thing about Taiwan.
Taiwan’s political status has recently been a sticking point for public health officials who wish to ingratiate themselves with China. Just this morning, the government of Taiwan found itself having to respond to a bizarre rant from the head of the World Health Organization (WHO). This comes less than two weeks after a top WHO official found himself in hot water for hanging up a Skype interview upon being asked about Taiwan and then calling Taiwan “China.” Even the academics running the widely used Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracking website tied themselves in knots last month over Taiwan. (On the website’s “country/region/sovereignty” list, only Taiwan is now stuck with the humiliation of an asterisk.)
Late last year, a deputy assistant secretary of defense—a position that does not require Senate confirmation—became the highest-ranking U.S. national security official in more than four decades to visit Taiwan. This was a commendable move on the part of the Trump administration. But it should be where the administration’s warming of relations with our Taiwanese allies begins, not where it ends.
Some background: In 1972, as part of President Nixon’s warming of relations with China, the United States first acknowledged the One China Policy—which holds that Taiwan is part of China. In 1978, President Carter severed formal U.S. ties with its ally Taiwan. The next year, to save the relationship, Congress passed and Carter signed into law the Taiwan Relations Act, which spelled out in more detail the nature of the U.S. relationship with Taiwan: It wouldn’t be considered a fully independent, sovereign state, but the U.S. would still maintain a significant relationship with the “governing authorities on Taiwan.” To this day, Taiwan and the United States do not have official embassies in each other’s countries. As far as we know, the two countries’ heads of states have not talked to each other directly since 1978 (Trump was not yet inaugurated at the time of his phone call with Tsai).
There are three U.S. allies who live with existential threats every day. Israel enjoys a nuclear deterrent and an American commitment to its security beyond any reasonable doubt. South Korea hosts thousands of American troops. Taiwan has neither. There is a “strategic ambiguity” to the U.S. relationship with Taiwan, which is to say that the United States may or may not defend Taiwan if China invades. China cannot be sure that the United States will stay out of a conflict if it invades Taiwan, while Taiwan does not have a guarantee that the United States would intervene if it declares independence. President George W. Bush briefly ended the policy and gave a verbal commitment to Taiwan’s defense in April 2001, but within three years, the ambiguous status quo had been restored.
This status quo must change. Its American supporters used to argue that the people of Taiwan identify themselves as Chinese and prefer the One China Policy and the idea of eventual reunification. This argument no longer holds water: The people of Taiwan increasingly identify themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese. Less than one in ten of them support reunification now or eventually. Tsai’s election in 2016 was a turning point in Asian politics, as she was the first candidate from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party to be elected with a majority in the legislature—although she has moderated her party’s stance on the issue.
Alongside Japan, and perhaps even more than Japan, Taiwan has the most pro-U.S. population in Asia. Taiwan’s regime is, in fact, the most similar to that of the United States in all of Asia. And Taiwan always scores high marks for freedom and democracy in Freedom House’s indexes.
The Trump administration has taken minimal—yet successful, and more than any of its predecessors since 1979—steps toward changing the status quo of relations with Taiwan. The COVID-19 pandemic in China provides a golden opportunity for the United States to build on that initial success. All of a sudden, because of its mishandling of and untruthfulness about the outbreak, China is on the defensive on the world stage. Now is the time to act.
There are two different ways by which the United States could end the “strategic ambiguity” and move toward full recognition of Taiwan.
The first way to do it is incrementally. Last year, it was a Pentagon official who visited Taiwan. Next time, a higher-ranking official should visit. Recently, the two militaries held a joint cyber exercise. This is a good start, but they should move toward joint kinetic exercises. Taiwan’s military equipment is mostly American-made, and there is no better teacher on how to use it than the United States—and the Taiwanese military could benefit from joint air and sea exercises. Additionally, the United States can increase the sale of its military equipment to Taiwan. As most experts predict the rise of China to be a naval challenge first and foremost, the U.S. Navy needs to increase its presence in the Taiwan Strait.
The second way would involve being less incremental, but rather going big. The United States can begin with sending senior ranking officials to Taiwan. For instance, for the upcoming inauguration ceremony for President Tsai, who was reelected in a landslide despite Chinese interference against her, President Trump should send the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, and perhaps Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner to participate. (This assumes the May 20 ceremony will happen at all, amid concerns about the pandemic.) President Trump’s Middle East tour in 2017 was groundbreaking because his flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel became the first official and direct air travel between the two countries. A cabinet secretary, or maybe even the president himself, should fly directly from Beijing to Taipei. This will parallelize Taiwan’s and China’s standings. Additionally, it will remind the Chinese that the Taiwanese will have the last word in diplomacy with the United States. Taiwanese senior national security officials have on rare occasions met with their American counterparts in the past in the United States—the most high-profile visit was the Taiwanese minister of defense’s meeting with then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. It is only natural for American officials to do the same.
Militarily, the United States can decisively end the strategic ambiguity—remember that President Bush’s 2001-2003 suspension of it did not lead to an escalation—and station a considerable number of troops on Taiwan. The U.S. should also explicitly extend its nuclear security umbrella to cover Taiwan. (There is precedent: In the 1950s, when China came close to invading Taiwan twice during the Taiwan Strait Crises, President Dwight Eisenhower ended the crises by issuing nuclear threats to China in case of an invasion.)
The first approach has the advantage of risk-control. The United States will know China’s red lines before crossing them. It also has the “boiling-the-frog” benefit of preventing a shock to China that would prompt it to retaliate; instead, Beijing could domestically adjust to the emerging developments.
The problem with the first approach, though, is that China can assert its red lines, making it very difficult for the United States to defy them.
By contrast, the second approach will have established enough deterrence before China has the chance to stop the process. The second approach will reinforce American credibility and tip the balance of resolve in the United States’s favor. Stationing American troops on the island is a key factor: Even if the United States extends a nuclear guarantee to Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party might still take a gamble and invade Taiwan. But if such an invasion led to thousands of dead Americans over a few days, the American people would be outraged and would demand their leaders punish China. This calculation will almost certainly prevent China from making any move.
Of course, this is not a risk-free proposition. Despite American superiority, domestic political realities might box Xi Jinping into using force at least to at least keep face.
When the United States makes a move, other countries follow. After the 2017 decision to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, several other countries also recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital within months. And the more states recognize Taiwan’s independence, the more embarrassing it would become for Beijing and the more difficult to make a move against Taiwan out of fear of retaliation and isolation.
Against China, America has no better ally than Taiwan. It is long past time that we act like we know it.