America doesn’t recognize Taiwan, but is sworn to defend it against the world’s most populous country. That’s odd, but so is life.
The list of America’s international buffooneries is rich and diverse, from George W. Bush’s failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to Donald Trump’s adoration of Vladimir Putin and flirtations with Kim Jong Un. But for sheer absurdity that endures for decades, it is tough to top Taiwan.
America’s policy toward the island (actually an archipelago) is again in the news this week because of a visit by its president, Tsai Ing-Wen, who was in the United States last week enroute to Central America and is returning this week on the way home in two of history’s most circuitous “transits.”
The visits are being officially thus described in order to avoid calling them visits — since the United States doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, known as the Republic of China. It recognizes instead the concept of “One China,” which seems to suggest a conviction that Beijing should rule what it views as its breakaway province. Except that no such conviction exists — certainly not while the “People’s Republic of China” remains a communist dictatorship.
Instead, the United States is committed to defend Taiwan against any invader. Not just committed, but required by law, according a public reaffirmation by President Biden in October 2021. That invader would not be Japan; we’re talking about China, the world’s most populous country and second-largest economy and a nuclear power.
That’s rather awkward, is it not?
The ostensible reason for such commitment is that Taiwan is (since martial law ended in the 1980s) a lively two-party democracy. It is one of the richest places in the world with a projected $74,000 per capita GDP this year that is almost 50% higher than Japan’s (and more than three times China’s.
As such, it constitutes a massive rebuke to those who argue that there is something about Chinese culture that aligns especially well with a communist dictatorship, which is what we have had in China since 1949. That’s when the Chinese nationalists, defeated in war, decamped to Taiwan — leaving the Chinese Communist Party to establish a regime whose exact degree of horribleness has seen various ups and downs.
In that evolution, ours is a somewhat dreary iteration in which the current leader Xi Jinping is in the midst of a grim trifecta: he is more personally powerful and ruthless than his predecessors, recently receiving a rare third five-year term; he is rolling back some of the free market reforms they pursued; and after unsportingly stripping Hong Kong of its autonomy he has ratcheted up nationalist rhetoric, which mostly relates to Taiwan and rattles nerves there.
It is in that context that Tsai’s “transit” — while not the first of her presidency — is especially meaningful.
No doubt, given Xi’s saber-rattling, she would like to meet Biden, to hear him reaffirm his reaffirmation in person. But instead she will meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
McCarthy is not from the governing party, of course — providing Biden with somewhat more plausible deniability than when McCarthy’s pre-midterms predecessor, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan last summer. That visit (no one called it a “transit”) caused China to hold huge military exercises around Taiwan, including firing petulantly ballistic missiles over Taiwan for the first time. McCarthy may be a Republican, but he is the second-in-line for succession to the presidency. And hosting Tsai at home appears to be enraging China all the more, and it has promised to “fight back.”
This handling of the visit is part and parcel of America’s ungainly effort to both placate China and not sell out Taiwan. (And assuming McCarthy coordinated this with the White House, the meeting stands as a rare example of bipartisan collaboration these days).
Might China actually attack Taiwan — especially with Russia’s shambolic-yet-devastating invasion of Ukraine offering both a precedent and a cautionary tale for empires tempted to overreach?
Some experts look at the increased investment in China’s military and conclude that Xi is preparing to give himself an option to actually do it, perhaps by 2027.
Of course, China’s leaders have long said the aim is to be peacefully reunited with Taiwan (then again, Putin denied plans to invade Ukraine). China will not be peacefully reunited with Taiwan unless the Chinese Communist Party no longer rules China. So the status quo will remain for the foreseeable future, unless China decides to force the issue.
There’s another reason why even Americans less enamored with protecting democracies, and even Republican apologists for dictators and authoritarians, will have a difficult time swallowing that. It’s because Taiwan dominates the global semiconductor industry, producing 60% of the world’s supply and 90% of the most advanced chips. This is not a facility that the United States wants to see in the hands of China. That’s another lesson of the Ukraine war: Don’t become dependent on nasty governments that might shake you down. A dependency on China for the building blocks of computers is not acceptable.
That’s why the Biden Administration passed the CHIPS Act (which provides about $280 billion to stimulate a domestic industry), why it has imposed all kinds of restrictions on the export of semiconductor manufacturing technology to China, why CFIUS (the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States) so carefully vets investments from China, and why Congress is considering a committee to vet outgoing investments to China as well.
There is probably no escaping a new cold war between the democratic world and the autocratic world. China wishes to be the leader of the latter, and Putin’s missteps and over the past year have it a great opening. Its leaders also need to divert attention from a slowing economy and a bad post-pandemic.
The question is how to prevent all this from becoming a hot war — and that attaches to the ungainly arrangement over Taiwan.
We live in a world that seems to bend toward the binary, where extremes increasingly dominate and the discourse is black and white. The messy arrangement with Taiwan — with a gray illogic all its own — is anything but that. But it has kept the peace for a good while as Taiwan prospered and China reemerged. It would be madness to provoke China now. Not everything is binary after all.