Both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC), the latter being the formal name of what is more commonly known as Taiwan, recently celebrated the 110th anniversary of the Chinese revolution that resulted in the overthrow of the Qing Empire and created a Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen. Subsequently, China erupted in a civil war between the governing Nationalists under Gen. Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists led by Mao Zedong. The Communists prevailed and the Nationalists, in 1949, withdrew to the island of Taiwan, then known as Formosa, which had been ceded to Japan in 1895 by the Qing Emperor after the Sino-Japanese war. Chiang established the ROC government in exile in Taiwan which had been part of the Empire of Japan until World War II.
Assisted by U.S. aid to this World War-II ally, Taiwan became a thriving democracy with a free-market economy, the seventh- largest in Asia and 20th-largest in the world. It now boasts advanced technology and research facilities and is one of the world’s leading producer of microchips. The United States formally recognized the ROC government in exile until 1979 when, in a joint U.S.-PRC Communique, the U.S., bowing to Chinese pressure and as an economic expedient, accepted the so-called One-China policy and switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, tacitly accepting Beijing’s demands that it consider Taiwan a part of China and recognizing the Beijing regime as the sole legal government of the one China.
This was viewed by many as a betrayal of a faithful ally and friend, even though the Communique stated that the U.S. intended to maintain continued cultural and commercial relations with Taiwan but on an “unofficial” basis. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act describes this relationship and commits the U.S. to assist Taiwan in maintaining its defense capabilities. It did not contain language supporting Taiwan’s independence but nevertheless insisted that any issues regarding reunification between Taiwan and the PRC be resolved peacefully. It was not made clear, however, what the U.S. would do if the PRC used less than peaceful methods to effect reunification and the policy toward Taiwan has been cloaked in ambiguity since.
This brief review of a piece of history is provided in order to emphasize the fact that Taiwan has never been under Chinese Communist rule and Beijing’s insistence that it is part of China does not justify making it so by force against the wishes of the people of Taiwan, most of whom have never lived under Communist rule. PRC President Xi Jingping marked the occasion of the anniversary of the Chinese Revolution by warning that “Reunification of the nation must be realized and will definitely be realized.” This followed a four-day military exercise during which the People’s Liberation Army flew bombers, fighter jets and other warplanes toward the island in a clear warning that Beijing was running out of patience over Taipei’s failure to “reunite” and its talk of independence. He warned again that no external interference in this “internal matter” would be tolerated, obviously directing this warning to the U.S.
Meanwhile, it was revealed that a small number of U.S. special forces and marines have been secretly training local military forces in Taiwan for about a year. Some experts believe that the PRC will soon have the capability to successfully occupy the island by force if they don’t already have it and will act sooner rather than later. The Chinese navy is undergoing rapid expansion and is on track to surpass ours in both size and capability.
The PRC is dealing with significant internal problems including a slowing rate of economic growth, a growing debt problem and overbuilding in its huge real estate sector, an aging and somewhat restive population with high expectations for improved standards of living and serious pollution problems. Mr. Xi is clearly not anxious for an armed conflict with the United States which would be devastating for trade which its economy depends on for its required growth. On the other hand, he is committed to reunification with Taiwan and any perceived backing down from this position could weaken his people’s perception of him as a strong leader who will lead China to displace the U.S. as the world’s pre-eminent economy and military power.
The U.S. and the western world, however, cannot stand idly by if the PRC decides to reunify Taiwan by force as we essentially did while Beijing cracked down on promised freedoms for Hong Kong, claimed sovereignty over most of the South China Sea including areas claimed by its neighbors and built and militarized islands there. Japan has indicated that it would regard forceful occupation of Taiwan by Beijing as a threat to its own nearby islands. But Beijing will not be dissuaded by diplomatic bluster or the threat of economic sanctions and it would regard U.S. inaction as a sign of weakness and confirmation of its belief that the U.S. is a declining power and that it is China’s destiny to assume its rightful role as world leader.
The best way to defend Taiwan and preserve its independence is to commit to doing so and persuading other Indo-Pacific nations to join us which they will likely do if we firmly commit to leading them. And the best way to deter the PRC from testing our resolve is to expand Indo-Pacific alliances like AUKUS (Australia, U.K. and U.S.) and the Quad (Australia, India, Japan and U.S.). Faced with strong and determined alliances, Beijing’s Communist regime is unlikely to risk provoking a conflict that would be devastating to its economy and to its international and domestic reputation. No one should want to provoke a war but time has run out for us to rely on diplomatic ambiguity as a policy to prevent one.