America Can't Dump Taiwan

Image: Taipei 101. Photo by David Hsieh, CC BY 2.0.

Washington needs to stop double-dealing with this beacon of democracy.

President Bill Clinton set off a political firestorm in Taiwan and the United States [in 1998] when he chose to state what are known as the "three no's" as official U.S. policy toward Taiwan. . . .The words President Clinton chose to use in Shanghai—words used by no previous President—have put the people of Taiwan at a severe disadvantage in their 50-year struggle with the communist government of mainland China.

Stephen J. Yates

This is a delicate and dangerous time for Taiwan—perhaps the most difficult period since the cross-strait crisis in 1995-96 that saw live fire exercises by Beijing, juxtaposed with a “shock and awe” display of American sea power.

This is a delicate time because Taiwan has a new president, Tsai Ing-wen, leading a political party that seeks to distance itself from the mainland and any “One China, Two Systems” policy. Tsai is being carried along by a wave of Taiwanese nationalism that itself is being propelled by a combination of economic stagnation on the island, and the spectacle of a “One China, Two Systems” Hong Kong being ground under Beijing’s authoritarian boot.

This is a dangerous time because a bullying Xi Jinping has responded in the worst possible way to Taiwan’s peaceful transition of presidential power—with a cut-off of diplomatic ties, punishing sanctions on trade and tourism and a steady drumbeat of hostile propaganda. The mood on the island, which I just returned from after extensive talks with government officials, business executives, academics and people on the street, is one of quiet resolve. While there is no wish to provoke Beijing, there is even less desire to bend to its authoritarian will.

6,700 miles away on the U.S. mainland, it is critical there be no missteps in American policy towards Taiwan that might, on the one hand, inflame China or, on the other hand, throw Taiwan—once again—under Beijing’s bus. The inalterable fact here is that American foreign policy towards Taiwan since its formation as a political entity in 1949 has been highly uncertain.

On the one hand, Taiwan has periodically been used by the White House merely as a “bargaining chip” in a game of amoral realpolitik and “realeconomik” to woo and placate mainland China. The key offending presidents here include Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama; and some of the key “bargaining chip” documents include both the “three communiqués” and some ill-timed and poorly worded proclamations by Clinton—arguably the biggest sell-out to the People’s Republic of China of any American president in history.

For example, the first “Shanghai Communiqué,” signed February 28, 1972 sealed the Nixon–Kissinger deal to play an “enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend” China off the Soviet Union. While the communiqué itself did not completely surrender Taiwan to China, it was part of an overall set of initiatives that had begun with Taiwan being ousted from the United Nations and replaced by Beijing in 1971 with little push back from the United States. This was the end of Taiwan as a nation recognized internationally, and the beginning of what has been a long period of increasing isolation.

In a similar vein, President Carter’s 1979 “Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations” showcased this neutering trifecta: the end of America’s official diplomatic recognition of Taiwan as a nation, the withdrawal of troops from Taiwan soil, and the severing of America’s mutual defense treaty with the island.

As for Bill Clinton, his was a mixed, and ultimately shameful, bag. While he finally sent aircraft carrier strike groups into the Taiwan Strait during the 1995-1996 crisis at the urging of Congress, he had denied the president of Taiwan a visa in 1994.

Most injuriously for an increasingly isolated Taiwan seeking to participate in the international order, Clinton also publicly renounced any support for Taiwan independence in publicly embracing Beijing’s “Three Nos” policy in 1998. In doing so, a “throw-Taiwan-under-the-bus” Clinton stated: “we don't believe that Taiwan should be a member in any organization for which statehood is a requirement." Said Jim Mann in response to steps even Nixon and Carter wouldn’t take:

When it comes to misleading the American public, it's hard to top the Clinton administration…. Last week, during his stopover in Shanghai, Clinton made what was the most important presidential pronouncement on American policy toward Taiwan in more than 15 years. He gave the imprimatur of the presidency to what are sometimes called, in shorthand, the "3 no's." He said the United States will not support independence for Taiwan; any solution that creates "two Chinas"—or one China and one Taiwan; or its admission to organizations, such as the United Nations.

Of course, two years later, Clinton would heavily lobby to shoehorn China into the World Trade Organization—a move that resulted in a flood of illegally subsidized Chinese products, the closure of over fifty thousand American factories, stagnant wages and a good bit of the economic mess this country is now in.

A Countervailing Congress—and Strong President

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