Don't Rush to Fully Normalize Relations With Taiwan | Opinion

This is a time of great tension and uncertainty in U.S.-China relations. Beijing and Washington are engaged in increasing controversies over trade, technology, investment and cyber regulation. Beijing's construction of military bases in disputed areas of the South China Sea and its refusal to accept the decision of a UN Law of the Sea tribunal rejecting its vast claims over that body of water have heightened military apprehensions in Asia. The intensifying coercion imposed on the Chinese people by the Xi Jinping regime during the past eight years, suppressing all dissent and punishing human rights advocates and their lawyers, has magnified the concerns of liberal democracies. Moreover, the world's growing awareness of the regime's multifaceted "transformation" of millions of Muslims in China's Xinjiang region has gradually produced revulsion in Washington and other major capitals. There is also a broad international challenge to Beijing's recent enforcement of an oppressive National Security Law in Hong Kong and beyond.

Immediate prospects for resolving any of these disputes are slim. After veering from pillar to post on various aspects of China policy, the Trump administration has finally decided to mobilize the American people against the "People's Republic of China" (PRC) or, as the Trump group now sometimes calls it, "the Chinese Communist Government." Trumpists hope that dramatizing their "whole of government" campaign will bolster Trump's chances for re-election. In 1972, President Nixon also made China the focus of his re-election campaign, but he sought to improve a long-hostile relationship. Trump, by contrast, is playing the China card to "decouple" the U.S. from the PRC. And Xi Jinping's government, while expressing concern about this disturbing trend, refuses, unlike Deng Xiaoping's government of the 1970s, to brook any compromise.

Yet none of these disputes, even the South China Sea, has as much explosive potential as contemplated changes in America's relations with Taiwan. Given the anti-PRC atmosphere in Washington, there is even interest in possible establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Taiwan. Such "recognition" of the island's government, whether under its current name—the Republic of China (Taiwan)—or as a newly-branded Republic of Taiwan, would very likely trigger a long-threatened military reaction from Beijing that could envelop the PRC, the United States and Taiwan in a devastating nuclear war.

To understand why requires recalling recent history.

When in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces lost the Chinese Civil War on the mainland to Mao Zedong's Communists, Chiang's central government, called the Republic of China (ROC), fled to Taiwan. The ROC had reincorporated Taiwan into China four years earlier, after the Allied Powers, victorious in World War II, authorized Chiang's military to occupy the island, which had been a Japanese colony for half a century. China had been forced to transfer sovereignty over Taiwan to Japan in the 1895 peace treaty that ended the First Sino-Japanese War. Following Japan's 1945 defeat in World War II, Tokyo surrendered sovereignty over the island but, because of the ongoing Chinese Civil War, the post-World War II treaty arrangements never specified whether that sovereignty was transferred to the ROC, then occupying the island, or to the PRC, which established its national government on October 1, 1949, or to some other status.

Taiwan's legal status was thus in doubt as Mao's PRC forces were preparing an assault that might overcome Chiang's control of the island and terminate the civil war. The highly debated question in Washington was whether the United States, which had long equivocated about how to respond to China's civil war, would intervene in the Taiwan Strait to defend the ROC. In January 1950, President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson announced, amid great controversy, that the U.S. would not intervene. Despite the fact that no peace treaty had transferred Taiwan's sovereignty to either of the still-contending Chinese governments, Washington maintained that Taiwan had, in fact, been restored to China when Chiang's forces were placed in control of the island. That, stated Secretary Acheson, was done in accord with the allies' wartime commitments, and "nobody raised any lawyer's doubts" about it. The U.S. thus concluded that, since Taiwan should be deemed Chinese territory, Washington should not intervene, since intervention would subject it to international condemnation for violating China's territorial integrity.

Yet less than six months later, when North Korea invaded South Korea, the U.S. immediately reversed its position. Because it perceived the North Korean attack to be not only the initiation of civil war in Korea, but also an all-out attack by the communist bloc that threatened Taiwan as well as French-controlled Indochina, President Truman announced that the legal status of Taiwan, referred to by its Anglo-Portuguese name "Formosa," had actually never been determined and that it would await "restoration of security in the Pacific, a peace settlement with Japan or consideration by the United Nations"; in the interim, America's Seventh Fleet would defend Taiwan.

That stunning reversal remained the official U.S. position for over 20 years. It was the principal obstacle to establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the PRC, even after the ROC was replaced by the PRC as the Chinese representative at the UN. Chairman Mao insisted that if the U.S. wanted to normalize bilateral relations, the U.S. would not only have to give up its diplomatic relationship with the ROC, but also formally concede that Taiwan is Chinese territory—a position that Chiang Kai-shek himself shared. That was the challenge confronting President Nixon when he made his world-famous visit to China in February 1972. There, in the Shanghai Communique, he waded into the problematic waters of whether Taiwan is part of China. The U.S. not only "acknowledged" the PRC claim that all Chinese on either side of the Strait believe that Taiwan is part of China, but also went on to state that "the United States does not challenge that position."

Nevertheless, when negotiating normalization with Beijing in 1978, President Jimmy Carter, while agreeing to terminate the U.S.-ROC defense treaty as well as diplomatic relations with the ROC, secured Deng Xiaoping's temporary willingness to tolerate continuing American arms sales to Taiwan. Congressional adoption of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), several months after normalization, further documented abiding American concerns for Taiwan's defense against possible PRC resort to force. The TRA even presented an ambiguous possibility that the U.S. might itself come to Taiwan's defense, if necessary. The premise of the U.S. position, expressed in the 1979 normalization joint communique and two subsequent ones with the PRC, is that the U.S. will accept a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan Strait dispute that is freely consented to by both sides.

Offshore islands in the Taiwan Strait
Offshore islands in the Taiwan Strait Carl Court/Getty Images

In 1979, both sides of the Strait were governed by harsh military dictatorships. The American hope was that, over time, each government might evolve in democratic fashion and eventually find a cross-Strait modus vivendi. Since 1987, Taiwan has gradually and peacefully achieved the democratic, rule of law, human rights-protecting society for which it is now widely praised. The PRC, by contrast, has developed into an extraordinary economic powerhouse with a military that increasingly threatens Taiwan and a political system that, under Xi Jinping, has become the most successfully repressive regime in Chinese history. Nevertheless, despite the growth of a distinctive Taiwanese identity that has led most islanders to fear reunification with the mainland, the ROC, under the Nationalist government of President Ma Ying-jeou, from 2008 to 2016 made over 20 "semi-official" agreements with the PRC that opened up broad cross-Strait cooperation. That remarkable feat was based on the shared belief of the Nationalist government and the PRC that Taiwan is part of China, although many Taiwanese doubted the wisdom of this development and there was never any agreement on whether this notional "China" should be represented by the ROC or the PRC.

In 2016, this limited and abstract "one China consensus," usually referred to as "the 1992 consensus," dissolved with the island's election of President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, which had never accepted "the 1992 consensus." President Tsai, a moderate leader of a party long associated with the goal of establishing independent Taiwanese statehood, nevertheless made clear from the outset her desire to continue Taiwan's cooperation with the PRC, convinced, as she put it after her resounding 2020 re-election, that "both sides have a duty to find a way to exist over the long term." Yet she has steadfastly refused to endorse "the 1992 consensus," because to do so would deprive Taiwan of the future option to deny that the island is Chinese territory, to declare its formal independence from China and to establish diplomatic relations with other countries on that basis.

Beijing has long maintained that any formal declaration of independence by Taiwan would be intolerable and trigger possible nuclear war. President Tsai, a careful leader who has shown no interest in exercising what may justifiably be called the nuclear option, has countered by claiming that no formal declaration is necessary since Taiwan has long enjoyed de facto independence. Xi Jinping's reaction has been to cease many aspects of the cross-Strait cooperation and contact attained under President Ma, and to mobilize ever-greater military, political, diplomatic, economic and psychological pressures on the Tsai government in the hope of coercing it to belatedly embrace the "one China consensus."

The Trump administration, reflecting its inconsistent efforts to forge an overall policy toward the PRC, for most of its almost four years paid relatively little attention to Taiwan. Although continuing to sell arms to the island, the administration sought to avoid offending Beijing in most of its ostensibly "unofficial" contacts with the island. But that policy has now changed as part of its recent all-out efforts to challenge the PRC, and Washington has made many new moves to demonstrate stronger support for the island. It is in this context that the possibility of U.S. establishment of formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan must be discussed. Such a dramatic move, which might be thought to sustain President Trump's flagging re-election prospects, would be a leap too far and very likely lead to tragedy for all concerned.

It would be much wiser to continue the policy of gradually demonstrating increased support for Taiwan's current status. Much more can be done by Washington and other concerned governments to build on existing "unofficial" arrangements for political, economic, educational and cultural cooperation with Taiwan, as well as for expanding its opportunities to contribute to many functional international activities. New forms of imaginative links with Taiwan must be developed. Of course, pressure for Taiwanese participation in existing public international organizations should be increased, as should efforts to help it retain its remaining formal diplomatic relationships. But this will require the U.S. to return to vigorous alliance diplomacy and to institutions and arrangements that it has recently abandoned, such as the World Health Organization and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Otherwise, Beijing's growing role as gatekeeper will continue to frustrate global governance by excluding Taiwan, as WHO experience illustrates.

Most important, the United States should abandon the policy of "strategic ambiguity" that fosters uncertainty about whether it will come to the defense of Taiwan, since this ambiguity increases the risk that conflict might result from mistaken assumptions on Beijing's part. The U.S. can anchor its relationship with Taiwan in long-standing policies, while articulating a clear but moderate statement of its determination to defend the island against unprovoked attack. This would serve as a strong reminder to the PRC that public international law no longer permits nations to use force to settle territorial disputes. Such an assurance will do much more to protect the 23 million Taiwanese than would formal U.S. diplomatic recognition.

Jerome A. Cohen is founding director emeritus of NYU School of Law's U.S.-Asia Law Institute and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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