The Chinese want to regain Taiwan as much as Abraham Lincoln desired to keep the southern states in the Union. Since the day that Taiwan became home of Chiang Kai-shek and his displaced Chinese Nationalist forces, the United States has vowed to uphold Taiwan’s place as an independent country. China views Taiwan as a breakaway province. The United States sees Taiwan as a democracy besieged by a larger, bullying neighbor. Taiwan simply wants to be free and sovereign.
A Complex Relationship: China, Taiwan, and the United States
For its part, the United States strives to maintain a posture of strategic ambiguity. At first, the United States unequivocally stood behind Taiwan as a counterweight to Red China in the Cold War. During the Nixon Administration, however, U.S. policy toward China fundamentally changed. Nixon went to Mao and the two leaders opened up their countries to each other.
Later, as part of the Carter Administration’s diplomatic efforts with China, the United States no longer recognized its long-time ally of Taiwan as the legitimate government of China.Until then, Washington had only recognized Taiwan’s government as the government of China. But under Carter, Washington conceded the “one China, two systems” model that there is only one Chinese government—and that government is in Beijing, not Taipei.
The main objective of China’s Communist Party has been to reacquire Taiwan as a province of China, since the Nationalists retreated there in 1949. For Beijing, the post-1970s American policy was an incremental—but important—step toward China realizing such a goal.
Taiwan had lost its status as a country. Though it remained independent from Beijing’s control, Taiwan was no longer viewed as the legitimate government of China and, therefore, lost all rights and privileges awarded to sovereign states. Taiwan lost its place in the United Nations (and was, instead, replaced by China); Taiwan’s embassies were no more and were replaced with a meager trade commission in Washington, D.C. Yet, Taiwan was neither merely a province of China (as Beijing believed) nor its own state (much to the chagrin of most Taiwanese people).
American Support for Taiwan
To smooth over any ruffled feathers in Taipei after the United States entered into its new diplomatic relations with China in 1979, the United States Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act. The bill was created by Congress after legislators (rightly) expressed the belief that President Carter struck a bad deal with China not only in recognizing the Communist Party as the rightful ruler of China, but also in striking down the decades-old mutual defense pact between the United States and Taiwan.
According to Richard C. Bush of the Brookings Institute:
Although circumstances have changed [since 1979], [the Taiwan Relations Act] still reflects a strong political and legal commitment to Taiwan. Because China’s military is growing, the U.S. security role is far more important today than it was in 1979. Because Taiwan is a democracy, Washington’s task of balancing political values and security interests is more complex.
Even though America’s Taiwan policy effectively had been muddled by its newfound—and growing—relationship with Red China, former President Ronald Reagan sought unambiguously to declare American support for Taiwan with his Six Assurances. Delivered by presidential envoy, James Lilley, to Taipei in 1983, Reagan sought to explain that the United States:
1. Had not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to [Taiwan];
2. Had not agreed to hold prior consultations with [China] regarding arms sales to [Taiwan];
3. Would not play a mediation role between [China and Taiwan];
4. Would not revise the Taiwan Relations Act;
5. Had not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan;
6. Would not exert pressure on [Taiwan] to enter into negotiations with [China].
Since that time, the United States—across several administrations, both Republican and Democrat—has sought to assure Beijing (at least rhetorically) that it was opposed to recognizing Taiwanese independence. Yet, the actions of the United States have indicated that, if push-came-shove, Washington would protect Taiwan from Chinese attack.
This was best exemplified in the Clinton Administration’s decision to send two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers through the narrow Taiwan Strait separating the Chinese mainland from Taiwan in 1996. The Taiwan Strait Crisis occurred when the Chinese began getting belligerent with their Taiwanese neighbors because Beijing feared Taiwan was inching toward independence—and that the United States might recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.
At the time, many assumed that Clinton’s brazen action—putting two American aircraft carriers within range of Chinese missiles and planes (which, back then, could not mount a serious threat to America’s powerful military)—intimidated the Chinese. Instead, it aggravated them. From 1996 until today, the Chinese military redoubled its rapid modernization program so as to prevent the Americans from ever repeating their humiliating behavior from 1996.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
In fact, nearly half of the Chinese military’s budget is directed toward developing Chinese capabilities that could be used to invade and conquer Taiwan, according to Ian Easton of the Project 2049 think tank in Washington, D.C.
Make no mistake: China will not leave Taiwan alone to its own devices. What’s more, the Chinese believe they have a decades-long historical record of American actions supporting Taiwan when faced against a potential Chinese military threat. China has made it their mission to reacquire Taiwan—sooner rather than later. Given our long-standing support for Taiwanese independence, Washington had better be prepared to withstand Chinese attacks against the United States.
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