“Reunification is a historical inevitability of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” declared Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office in May, promoting the idea that Taiwan will be absorbed into the People’s Republic of China.
In history, however, there is nothing foreordained, predestined, or inevitable. Just ask Henry Kissinger.
When Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in July 1971 demanded the U.S. recognize Taiwan as “an inalienable part of Chinese territory,” Kissinger, while in Beijing, decided not to anger his insistent host. “As a student of history, one’s prediction would have to be that the political evolution is likely to be in the direction which Prime Minster Chou En-lai indicated to me,” he said to the premier. “We will not stand in the way of basic evolution.”
In short, Kissinger thought big China would inevitably take over small Taiwan, thereby removing a stumbling block to Sino-U.S. friendship. The Chinese apparently shared Dr. Kissinger’s view of history’s next steps. Due to their general alignment of views, the U.S. and China could come together to issue the Shanghai Communique of February 1972.
The American position evolved from that foundational document with, among other things, the enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 and the issuance of the Third Communique of 1982 and President Reagan’s Six Assurances of the same year. The result was that Washington today recognizes Beijing as the legitimate government of China, acknowledges that Beijing claims Taiwan to be part of the People’s Republic, maintains that Taiwan’s status is yet to be determined, and insists that any resolution of Taiwan’s status have the support of the people of Taiwan. American policy, it is evident, still bears the hallmarks of Kissinger’s “creative ambiguity.”
“Ambiguity” pervades America’s approach to Taiwan. Today, Washington’s policy is said to be one of “strategic ambiguity,” in other words, not telling either Beijing or Taipei what the U.S. will do. The idea is that America should keep Chinese aggressors guessing as to whether it will defend the island republic. The policy, despite lacking needed clarity, has obviously worked until now.
That policy, however, worked in an unusually benign period. During the latter stages of the Cold War, two Chinese leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, looked to the U.S., Taiwan’s protector, to keep the Soviet Union at bay. Beijing, therefore, considered an invasion of Taiwan to be out of the question. Moreover, their next two successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, needed U.S. money, technology, and geopolitical support. They were not about to upset an unusually favorable external environment by moving on Taiwan’s territory.
Unfortunately, the following Chinese leader, the current one, has made taking Taiwan a priority. Xi Jinping, far more determined than his predecessors, has, accordingly, launched an assault on Taiwan’s freedom, democracy, and sovereignty.
In October 2013, within a year of becoming China’s supreme leader, he stated Beijing would not wait indefinitely to take over Taiwan. “We cannot hand those problems down from generation to generation,” Xi said to a Taiwan political figure on the sidelines of a regional meeting. In January of last year, he once again sounded the theme of inevitability by urging Taiwan’s people to accept that their island “must and will surely be” reunited with the motherland. Some China watchers believe Xi, who serves as the chairman of the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, has promised the People’s Liberation Army that he will take Taiwan by the time his rule ends. Others say he has pledged to absorb the island this decade.
Unfortunately, there are now factors pushing Beijing to act soon.
For decades, during the rule in Taiwan by the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party, Chinese communist leaders in the “mainland” were not under time pressure. Then, Taiwan’s leaders maintained they would cross the Taiwan Strait, defeat the Communist Party, and again rule China, vindicating Chiang Kai-shek, who suffered defeat in 1949 in the civil war at the hands of Mao Zedong. Even today, Taiwan’s formal name is the Republic of China. Taipei, in short, is only a temporary capital in the Kuomintang’s view.
In a strange way, the Communist Party was comfortable with the KMT, as the Kuomintang is known. Both ruling groups felt Taiwan and the “mainland” were part of a single nation, China, and both considered themselves “Chinese.” It also helped that the Communist Party and the Kuomintang shared Leninist roots.
The days of Beijing’s comfort are over, however, because Taiwan democratized, Tsai Ing-wen sits in the Presidential Office Building in Taiwan, and her Democratic Progressive Party is riding a historical wave of its own. Her supporters by and large think their country is not China but “Taiwan.”
This conception of two separate countries is grounded in self-identity, and Beijing can see that Taiwanese identity in the island republic is strong and growing stronger. For instance, a poll released in February shows 83.2 percent view themselves as Taiwanese-only. Only 5.3 percent of the population call themselves Chinese-only. The Taiwanese-only percentage has increased by more than ten percentage points in the last couple years.
In any event, people on the island have over time come to think of their society as separate and apart from China. And it is a society that inspires pride among its 24 million citizens. “Kissinger, who has never visited Taiwan, never understood the vitality of that beautiful island,” Stephen Young, a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan, America’s de-facto embassy in Taipei, told me.
In short, Beijing must be seeing Taiwan slipping away.
The island is slipping away fast, and not only because of political and social developments inside the island republic. Deng Xiaoping originally developed the “one country, two systems” formula for Taiwan, but China imposed it first in Hong Kong. As Chinese leaders have violated promises and smothered Hong Kong, 1C2S, as the plan is known, has become poison in Taiwan.
“Today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan” has become the rallying cry of young Taiwanese. The 1C2S idea has united most of Taiwan, including some in the modern-day Kuomintang, against Beijing.
The generally pro-China Kuomintang recently had a shot of recovering the presidency—until Beijing’s recent meddling in Hong Kong got in the way. Last year, President Tsai, completing her first term as president, looked as if she would not even get her party’s nomination for another run. Yet Beijing’s attempts to impose an extradition bill, triggering large protests in Hong Kong, assured her the nomination, especially when she declared she would never accept 1C2S. In January, she won reelection in a landslide, capturing 57.1 percent of the vote in what was essentially a three-candidate race.
Taiwanese activists, who gravitate to the Democratic Progressive Party and its allies, are not content with Tsai’s resounding victory, nor are they happy with a continuation of the status quo. “Taiwan is a country, but it is not normal,” Mark Kao, who has been fighting for Taiwan democracy since the late 1970s, told me in May. He would like Tsai to declare “independence.” By that he means change the name of the country to “Taiwan,” drop outdated claims to mainland China, and “then fight like East Timor.” “The struggle continues,” Kao says.
At the moment, only 15 nations recognize Taiwan diplomatically. If the island follows Kao’s suggestion, would Taipei pick up recognition? And should Washington recognize Taipei as the capital of, say, a Republic of Taiwan?
Beijing would launch a tirade and surely threaten war over American diplomatic recognition, but it is unlikely to take on the United States, especially if Washington inked a mutual defense treaty with the new Taiwan republic.
America has an interest in recognizing Taiwan. For one thing, Washington’s current policy is unsustainable. As China historian Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania told me a few years ago, President Reagan, unlike others around him, understood that Kissinger had announced “a blueprint for a house that could not be built.” Simply stated, Nixon’s advisor could not build an enduring relationship with Beijing and at the same time maintain American credibility in the world and honor American values.
Beijing has been unrelentingly attacking American values and democracy in recent months, and the U.S. cannot afford to allow Xi Jinping to take over any democratic state, especially one as important as Taiwan.
Moreover, for more than a century the United States has drawn its western defense perimeter off the coast of East Asia, and Taiwan sits at the center of that crucial line, at the intersection of the South China Sea and East China Sea. It is not “the turd in the punchbowl of U.S.-China relations” as an American admiral was reported to have said; it is “the cork in the bottle,” as Admiral Ernest King termed it. Taiwan helps keep China’s navy and air force confined to the country’s peripheral areas. At a time of increasing Chinese territorial aggression, Taiwan’s role in anchoring America’s western defense perimeter is critical.
Furthermore, Americans should view Taiwan as more than a complication in relations with Beijing, Kissinger’s view of the island. “We need to see this new and vibrantly democratic Taiwan in its own right and its own light, and not always perceive it as a sensitive subset of U.S.-China relations,” Gerrit van der Wees, who teaches Taiwan history at George Mason University, told me recently. “Of course, one has to clearly consider repercussions from the Chinese side, but these don’t always need to come front and center.”
One American president had the foresight to adopt the right approach. “I call for a detailed program of specific guarantees to our friends and allies on Taiwan,” said Ronald Reagan in 1979. America, he argued, should have “a long-range program with clear and unmistakable language; one which will earn and retain the support of the American people and which will help to restore the trust and confidence of the world in an America which once again conducts itself in accordance with its own high ideals.”
Reagan’s ideals, unlike those of history student Kissinger, are ones Americans understand, and they are realizing that accommodation with a belligerent China is neither possible nor desirable.
The United States, therefore, should immediately put an end to notions of Chinese rule over Taiwan, for the benefit of that island but also for itself. “Reunification,” despite what Chinese leaders say from time to time, is not “a historical inevitability.”
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.
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