The Hill

Biden Should Expand Contact Between US and Taiwanese Officials

President, Yorktown Institute

The turbulence of last week buried an extremely consequential policy decision in the news cycle’s churn. On Jan. 9, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the department would end its self-imposed regulations on contact between American officials and their Taiwanese counterparts. Moreover, Pompeo eliminated the guidelines that regulated executive branch contact with Taiwan independent of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto U.S. embassy in the Republic of China, thereby recentralizing U.S.-Taiwan diplomatic relations in the AIT.

This was long overdue. The U.S. has voluntarily regulated its contact with Taiwanese officials since its recognition of China over 40 years ago, and consequent de-recognition of Taiwan. By limiting and restricting the relationships American officials could build with their Taiwanese counterparts, the U.S. propitiated the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ever-constant paranoia vis a vis its domestic legitimacy. Taiwan remained an American partner despite de-recognition — but restricted contact has not helped U.S.-Taiwanese policy coordination, and served as a reminder that America, despite its guarantees to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act, was willing too often to submit to China’s will and indulge the CCP’s unease.

Washington’s policy toward Taipei follows a string of major arms sales to Taiwan over the past four years. In the four years since 2016, the U.S. transferred $18.22 billion worth of military equipment to Taiwan, compared to $14.07 billion during the eight years between 2008 and 2016. This has been in direct response to China’s increasing aggression.

Beginning in the early-2010s, China began escalating its island-building activities in the South China Sea and expanded its military capabilities. This occurred in tandem with Xi Jinping’s first rounds of purges, which allowed him to consolidate personal power over the CCP, remove older, less competent military officers, and exercise closer control over Chinese foreign and domestic policy. China increased its harassment of Taiwan in the late-2010s, concurrently with growing U.S.-China trade friction. The CCP has eliminated perceived domestic threats, first in East Turkestan through a genocide against the Muslim community, and then in Hong Kong through a naked coup. Both of those targets challenged the Party’s claim to rule — the East Turkistan Uighurs by demonstrating that all the CCP’s residents are not Han Chinese, Hong Kong by proving that Chinese people can govern themselves democratically — and did so very successfully.

Now, Beijing sees only Taiwan as a threat to its mandate to rule.

Taiwan emerged from similar historical circumstances as the CCP. The Kuomintang Party once included communists throughout the Warlord Era, during the first quarter of the 20th century, who defected to the CCP during the Chinese civil war and fought alongside the CCP against Japan — albeit taking most of the casualties.

But unlike the Beijing government, which retains extreme control over its subjects’ personal and economic freedoms and allows no widespread democratic participation, the regime in Taipei liberalized by choice. Taiwanese citizens now live in a Western-style democracy with the same rights, privileges and standards of living as any American or European. It stands as a completely autonomous republican capitalist alternative to the CCP’s police state. Therefore, the Party seeks its elimination to ensure Party survival, either through peaceful absorption or conquest.

Taiwan’s economic and political success over the past year has been remarkable. At a minimum, the CCP enabled COVID-19’s spread throughout the world, either to avoid domestic panic or for more sinister reasons. It has undoubtedly used the pandemic as cover to accomplish its objectives, accelerating its genocide in East Turkestan and consummating its coup in Hong Kong. It continued its attempts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, preventing it from participating in the World Health Organization as an observer. Nevertheless, while the Chinese mainland suffered through multiple harsh lockdowns — Wuhan residents were not even allowed to leave their homes, and the Beijing government employed invasive data-collection practices to monitor the Chinese people — Taiwan has prevented a major COVID-19 outbreak without scrapping its citizens’ civil protections.

Xi regards a military solution as the most likely route to “reunification” between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. The term itself is misleading. It implies that Beijing has a metaphysical or legal right to absorb Taiwan, returning it to its status as a province of the Chinese empire. “Reunification” — whether by conquest or legal agreement — would mean abject subjugation on Taiwan’s part, the elimination of its citizens’ political, civil, and economic freedoms, and the creation of a police state that resembles what the CCP has constructed in East Turkestan.

Nevertheless, the CCP has placed the People’s Liberation Army — another ironic term for a military force that was little more than a large gang before Mao Zedong took power — on a war footing. The PLA Air Force escalated its violations of Taiwanese airspace since spring 2020, while the PLA Navy has staged amphibious assault exercises meant to simulate an attack on Taiwan and transited an aircraft carrier strike group along the island’s east coast. The Chinese military is probing for weaknesses, testing how the Taiwanese Air Force and Navy will respond to incursions and incorporating these data into its assault plans. This is particularly important. The CCP wishes to avoid a drawn-out conflict that will disrupt its economy, draw in the U.S. and its allies, and potentially trigger an encircling Eurasian coalition including Japan, Australia, India, Vietnam, and the European powers. A carefully planned first-strike is therefore essential to its objectives.

Removing restrictions on American contact with Taiwan sends a diplomatic message that the U.S. will not bow to the CCP. It is absurd that American statesmen and high-level policymakers are unable to meet their Taiwanese equivalents in person when the U.S. may very well act to preserve Taiwan’s independence. Imagine if the Secretary of State refused to meet with West German cabinet members for fear of upsetting the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Other self-imposed regulations also should be eliminated.

Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States has been barred from residing in Twin Oaks, previously the home of Taiwan’s ambassador to the U.S., since de-recognition in 1979, even though Taiwan’s de facto embassy still owns Twin Oaks and uses the property for official events.

Similarly, the Taiwanese Navy is barred from participating in the biannual RIMPAC naval exercises, despite the Chinese Navy having been invited in the past. Military exercises like RIMPAC are critical strategic events. They both signal resolve to adversaries and allow militaries with different levels of training and equipment to operate together under simulated combat conditions. It took four years of war to build sufficient links between the U.S. and British armies to facilitate thorough interoperability during 1944-1945. In a cross-strait conflict, a Taiwan without experience operating with U.S. and allied forces would be at a distinct disadvantage.

The State Department’s lifting of self-imposed restrictions on contact between U.S. and Taiwanese officials is a prudent step that demonstrates U.S. support for a major democratic strategic partner as well as resolve in the face of China’s growing aggressiveness. Clarity usually helps deterrence. Vagueness often discourages it. President Biden would increase clarity by taking full advantage of the door that the State Department has opened for contact between senior U.S. and Taiwanese officials.

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