The Sino-American trade war is only just beginning. Initial reports show that the American side is faring better than the Chinese, but these reports are hardly conclusive. As David P. Goldman has assessed, China still has a great deal of maneuvering room with which to bludgeon the United States.
What Washington needs in its ongoing trade war is greater leverage. And, that leverage will not be found in the economic realm.
True leverage would keep China’s leadership off-balance. To that end, the United States should recognize Taiwan’s independence.
Beijing has long insisted that Taiwan is part of China and that the two “will be united” . . . someday. Chinese President Xi Jinping, moreover, won’t rule out the use of force in achieving this long-standing aim. Beijing believes it is a fait accompli that Taiwan will be returned to Chinese rule just as the British ultimately gave up prosperous Hong Kong. And once Taiwan is brought under its dominion, China will have secured its maritime border.
One China, Two Systems?
The United States, for its part, has for 40 years tried to thread the needle between appeasing China and backing Taiwan’s independence in all but name.
Under the naïve leadership of President Jimmy Carter, U.S. policy shifted away from active support of Taiwanese independence. Instead, Carter embraced the Chinese concept of “One China, Two Systems.” This was a shocking giveaway to Beijing, trading real leverage for empty rhetoric. Ever since, Taiwan has existed in a precarious diplomatic gray zone: it is neither totally sovereign nor subordinate to China. What’s more, China has been emboldened to wage a ceaseless, decades-long economic war upon the United States.
“One China, Two Systems” is a lie. There is only one China, with its Communist system, and one Taiwan, with its democracy.
Given 40 years of history, China wouldn’t expect the United States to be so bold so suddenly—even with a disruptor like Donald Trump in the White House. In the past, the Chinese have said Americans would be unwilling to trade Los Angeles for Taipei—a thinly veiled warning that Beijing would respond to U.S.-backed Taiwanese independence with nuclear weapons.
Would the Chinese go nuclear over Taiwan’s independence? China certainly poses a serious nuclear threat. Beijing has spent much time and effort building its “underground Great Wall,” an intricate, 3,107-mile system of concrete tunnels where the Chinese store and transport an unknown number of nuclear weapons.
And certainly, China would increase its military brinkmanship. But China would also have to contend with the judgment of the world as its leaders make short-sighted decisions in competition with the United States.
And what would the United States do? Until recently, our options were limited. U.S. missile defenses are sparse. But what we do have is deterrence. It should come as no surprise that China has expressed concerns about the Trump Administration’s decision, at long last, to pull the United States out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Cold War-era treaty barred the United States from developing intermediate-range ballistic missiles. China never signed the INF Treaty and so has pursued its mid-range missile program unhindered.
Today, as tensions between Beijing and Washington intensify—and as China has grown wealthier and more militarily capable—Beijing has become more bellicose toward Taiwan. Xi Jinping has not only vowed that Taiwan will be brought to heel at some point in his lifelong presidency, but under Xi, China’s military has made investments in amphibious warfare capabilities that would make an invasion feasible. China-watcher Ian Easton is concerned that China will act aggressively toward Taiwan within the decade.
Thus, the Trump Administration must take bold steps in not only increasing its defense of the besieged island of Taiwan, but Washington must officially recognize Taiwan as a separate state from China—privy to all of the same protections and benefits that are given to sovereign states.
Fall Like a Thunderbolt
Douglas MacArthur once described Taiwan as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” From the U.S. perspective, the island provides an advantageous geostrategic position for American and allied forces to undermine China’s hegemonic grand strategy. Lose that, and China has the ability to push beyond its maritime borders and threaten Japan, the Philippines, and other distant places.
For their part, the leaders of Taiwan have long abandoned the pretense that theirs is the only legitimate government of China and favored independence from their larger, authoritarian neighbor.
As the great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu once said, “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” If Trump were to suddenly announce a complete reorganization of America’s defense posture in northeastern Asia, the Chinese would be off-balance.
America’s goal is to either force China to comport with a “rules-based order” (which is unlikely) or to weaken China so much that it cannot threaten the U.S.-led international order any longer. Recognizing Taiwanese independence would completely upend the Chinese position.
Consider, too, if the United States announced that it would most—if not all—of its forces from South Korea and reposition them in Taiwan, this might also prompt Kim Jong-un to seek accommodation with the West rather than continue to let himself be used as China’s pawn.
Each time tensions between China and the United States increase, North Korea has conveniently been stirred into taking action that distracts Washington from dealing more forcefully with Beijing. At some point, Kim will want to remove himself from China’s vice-grip and secure his own interests.
Right now, the Chinese are convinced they can weather the Trump trade storm. But as Trump said in The Art of the Deal, “My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after.”
The president can live up to those words with Taiwan. Let’s keep the Chinese off-kilter, right a historic wrong perpetrated by short-sighted U.S. leaders, draw Taiwan closer to the United States—and in the process ensure that China will never achieve hegemony over the Asia-Pacific, let alone the world.
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