Avoid War, Defend America, Recognize Taiwan | Opinion

The United States should immediately extend diplomatic recognition to the Republic of China. This move will advance the interests of 23.8 million people of Taiwan, help defend 331.0 million Americans and deter one angry and increasingly dangerous tyrant in Beijing.

On January 1, 1979, the United States switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing as the sole government of China. American strategists thought they needed the help of the People's Republic of China in the Cold War.

That may have been a good move at the time, but continuing the support of Beijing after the fall of the Soviet Union has been, as Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania once told me, "our greatest foreign policy failure."

The core assumption of a half-century of American "engagement" policies—that a communist regime would become benign as it integrated into the liberal international system—could not have been more wrong. China, partly through the support of America, has become a strong state. That strong state, however, now spreads deadly disease, commits genocide and other crimes against humanity, attacks neighbors with the intention of grabbing territory, closes off the global commons, pursues criminal and predatory trade policies, distributes illegal narcotics and other contraband, steals intellectual property and proliferates weapons of mass destruction.

Xi Jinping, the current Chinese ruler, is not competing with others in the existing international system—or even trying to adjust it. He is attempting to overthrow it altogether. Xi is now openly promoting imperial-era views that the Chinese emperor had the right and obligation to rule tianxia, or "all under heaven," thereby suggesting China should now be considered the world's only sovereign state.

Not surprisingly, this month, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe declared in a statement that "China poses a greater national security threat to the U.S. than any other nation." In these precarious times, America needs to strengthen friends, like Taiwan.

Taiwan is more than just a friend. Since the latter part of the 1900s, the United States has drawn its western defense perimeter off the coast of East Asia—and Taiwan, at the intersection of the South China and East China Seas, sits at the center of that crucial line. The island is "the cork in the bottle," as Admiral Ernest King's famously termed it decades ago. Today, Taiwan helps keep China's navy and air force confined to the country's peripheral areas, so at a time of Beijing's "Wolf Warrior diplomacy," Taiwan's anchoring of the U.S. western defense perimeter is critical.

Yet there is an even more important reason to recognize Taiwan. China's Communist Party is relentlessly attacking not just particular democracies, but the concept of democracy itself. Taiwan freed itself from the authoritarian rule of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-shek, and now boasts one of the most vibrant democracies anywhere.

America, therefore, has an interest in recognizing—and thereby strengthening—that society. The free world, in these perilous times, cannot afford to lose any democracy to China, let alone one as important as Taiwan.

Moreover, recognizing Taiwan would strengthen America's commitment to its core strength, its ideals. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, when they laid the groundwork for diplomatic recognition of Beijing, had announced, in Waldron's words, "a blueprint for a house that could not be built." In other words, they could not build an enduring relationship with Communist China and, at the same time, honor fundamental American values.

So why would America not establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan? Many argue that Washington can recognize only one "China," either the People's Republic of China or the Republic of China, at any one time. After all, each formally denies the legitimacy of the other.

Yet the U.S. recognizes states—India, Nepal, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia—with claims to territory and sea zones that China also claims.

So there is no diplomatic principle that would prevent Washington from recognizing two competing "Chinas." In essence, Washington does not have to "switch" again; it would recognize Beijing and Taiwan for the territories that they in fact control.

Most everyone believes Taiwan is China's reddest of "red lines." As Beijing propaganda tells us, the island is "sacred" Chinese territory, which is why Chinese officials talk about "reunification."

"Unification" is more like it because, as Gerrit van der Wees, who teaches Taiwan history at George Mason University, tells Newsweek, "Taiwan has never in its history been part of the People's Republic of China."

Taipei, Taiwan cityscape
Taipei, Taiwan cityscape Carl Court/Getty Images

In fact, Taiwan has never been generally recognized as part of any Chinese state. The Ming dynasty did not exercise control over Taiwan. The Manchu Qing emperors, who dethroned the Ming, ruled Taiwan, but they did not consider themselves "Chinese" and neither did the Chinese people, who then viewed them as foreigners and invaders. The Japanese took Taiwan from the Qing in 1895 and held it until 1945, when Chiang's Nationalists occupied the island pending a formal resolution of its status. "The 1952 Treaty of San Francisco left the island's status 'undetermined,'" van der Wees notes.

Moreover, people on Taiwan, despite the formal name of their state, by and large do not think that they are part of China, a perception grounded in self-identity. A poll released in February shows 83.2 percent of Taiwan's residents view themselves as Taiwanese-only. Only 5.3 percent call themselves Chinese-only. The Taiwanese-only percentage has increased substantially in the last couple years—by about ten percentage points in some surveys.

Taiwanese self-identity has political consequences. "The overwhelming majority of people in Taiwan hope the United States and other democratic countries will recognize Taiwan as an independent country," said Mark Kao, a Taiwan activist and president of the Formosan Association for Public Relations, to this publication, a view consistent with recent polling.

Despite popular opinion on the island, Beijing is determined to absorb it, by force if necessary. For decades, the U.S. was able to keep the peace by adopting fuzzy positions designed to not aggravate Beijing.

Today, Washington recognizes Beijing as the legitimate government of China, acknowledges the fact 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 the island's status must have the support of the people of Taiwan.

Also fuzzy is the U.S. policy of "strategic ambiguity." Pursuant to this long-standing approach, Washington does not tell either Beijing or Taipei what the U.S. would do in the case of impending conflict. The idea is that America should keep Chinese aggressors guessing as to whether it will defend the island republic and, at the same time, not encourage "independence-minded" Taiwanese to disrupt the status quo and thereby provoke Beijing.

The policy has obviously worked until now, and analysts say America shouldn't fix what's not broken. That view is deeply mistaken. Strategic ambiguity worked in an unusually benign period. During the latter stages of the Cold War, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, Communist China's first two leaders, looked to the U.S., Taiwan's protector, to keep the Soviet Union at bay. Moreover, their two successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, needed U.S. money, technology and diplomatic support. Beijing, therefore, was in no position to invade the island.

Unfortunately, the following Chinese leader, the bold Xi Jinping, has made taking Taiwan a cornerstone of Communist Party rule and has talked incessantly about recovery of the island. For instance, in October 2013, within a year of taking power, he declared that Beijing would not wait indefinitely to rule Taiwan. "We cannot hand those problems down from generation to generation," Xi said to a Taiwanese political figure on the sidelines of a regional meeting. Some believe Xi has promised the People's Liberation Army that he will reunify Taiwan this decade.

An aggressive Xi Jinping does not feel especially beholden to America and, unlike his four predecessors, he has propagated the narrative that a resurgent China can do most whatever it wants. Therefore, Taiwan, for the first time since the early 1950s, faces a determined Chinese aggressor. Moreover, now that Xi has, according to his view, brought Hong Kong to heel, some are worried he will turn his attention to Taiwan. In these troubling new circumstances, strategic ambiguity is unlikely to deter a militant Chinese state.

So what could be worse than a belligerent and confident Chinese leader? How about one who suddenly sees a closing window of opportunity? China's economy is struggling, its demography is in the initial stages of accelerated decline, the environment is exhausted, people are increasingly restive and the regime is losing support around the world. Ominously, in January, the official Xinhua News Agency ran a piece entitled, "Xi Stresses Racing Against Time to Reach Chinese Dream."

The way to stop Xi is to make it clear that he will have to go through the U.S. and its friends to take Taiwan. Washington's diplomatic recognition of Taipei and an end to strategic ambiguity, therefore, would go a long way to stopping China cold in its tracks, preserving democracy, defending America and keeping the peace.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter: @GordonGChang.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.