The Chinese threat to Taiwan is real, not hypothetical, as recent incursions into the island’s air defense zone demonstrate. To counter Beijing’s renewed belligerence, a successful strategy must go beyond eliminating “strategic ambiguity” about whether the United States will come to the island’s defense. A successful strategy will require clarifying Taiwan’s status, its critical place in Indo-Pacific politics, and its economic importance globally. The United States’ military contribution to Taiwan’s security is crucial, but it requires strong political support at home and abroad.
It begins by asserting that Taiwan is a sovereign and self-governing country, not a contested province of China. It meets the criteria of international law for statehood, such as a defined territory, a stable population, and the exercise of normal governmental functions such as a viable currency and law enforcement. Washington, Tokyo and others would be perfectly right to extend diplomatic recognition and the resulting legitimacy to Taipei.
The Shanghai Communiqué of 1972, the fundamental statement of today’s US-China relationship, is effectively dead. The statement said that “the United States recognizes that all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China”, and “does not dispute this position”. Beijing has twisted those words to mean “one China ruled by Beijing,” a formulation the United States has never accepted.
The reality recognized by the United States in 1972 no longer exists. National Taiwan Chengchi University has been asking islanders about their identity for 30 years. Between 1992 and 2021, those who identify as Taiwanese rose from 17.6% to 63.3%; those who identify as Chinese fell to 2.7% from 25.5%; those who identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese fell to 31.4% from 46.4%. (Some 2.7% did not respond, compared to 10.5%.) “The silent artillery of time,” as Abraham Lincoln called it, is likely to continue these trends. The Taiwanese have made their decision: there is no longer “one China”, but “one China, one Taiwan”, as Beijing has feared for decades.
Wider recognition of Taiwan’s status as an independent state would be extremely helpful in expanding political-military alliances to bolster the island’s defenses against China. Still, Washington’s backing may be insufficient to dissuade Beijing from attempting to subjugate Taiwan (or nearby offshore islands like Quemoy and Matsu). Formal or informal alliances that include Taipei would show Beijing that the costs of belligerence toward Taiwan are significantly higher than China might expect.
One step would be to form an East Asia Quad, consisting of Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and America, complementing the existing Japan-India-Australia-US Quad. Japan should welcome this development. Its decision-makers increasingly understand that a Chinese attack on Taiwan is an attack on Japan. The two are part of “the first chain of islands” separating the continent from the wider Pacific, and their mutual security is inextricable.
Persuading South Korea to join such an effort would be more difficult due to historical animosities towards Japan and other factors, but its people are nonetheless aware of the consequences of Taiwan’s fall to China. The 2022 presidential election is an opportunity to debate whether to stand with neighbors or ultimately risk living under Greater China suzerainty. Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and Canada may join this Taiwan-centric group in due course.
Taipei’s residual territorial claims to the South China Sea could be a bargaining chip for closer relations with other partners, especially coastal states like Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore. At this southern end of the First Island Chain, the Taiwan Navy could make material contributions to freedom of navigation missions. Taiwan is also developing increasingly strong cyber warfare and artificial intelligence capabilities.
Similar cooperation with Pacific island states would also boost Taiwan’s reputation as a good neighbor. Additionally, American and Taiwanese information art in the Indo-Pacific and globally should expose China’s hypocritical behavior on climate change and Covid and its crackdown on Uyghurs, Hong Kong and freedom. religious. The inability to counter Beijing’s vast influence operations hampers efforts to constrain China and protect Taiwan.
Few Americans appreciate what a vital economic partner Taiwan is, especially its semiconductor manufacturing industry and its extensive trade ties throughout the Indo-Pacific, all of which could underpin strengthened political-military ties. Economic issues are important for countries in the region and Europeans, who may be less willing to engage in military action. These countries should remember China’s threat, including Beijing telecommunications companies like Huawei and ZTE, and its brutality in taking Canadians hostage in retaliation for the legitimate arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou.
More military means supporting Taiwan are essential but potentially futile without a fuller US strategic vision, with the buy-in of citizens and other like-minded countries. This vision must be broad, persuasive and implemented quickly, to ensure the sustained popular support necessary to win.
Mr. Bolton is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir”. He was National Security Advisor to the President in 2018-2019 and Ambassador to the United Nations in 2005-2006.
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