Monograph on He Rui En
During a study visit in August, I had the privilege of meeting with a number of leaders and important think tanks in Taiwan.
One of the themes I heard on more than one occasion during this visit is that it is good for Taiwan to have a bad relationship with China.
The best arbiter of the interests of Taiwan's elected government
At first glance, I agree with this argument.
After all, U.S. leaders have a record-breaking record of negotiating directly with Beijing over Taiwanese leaders.
For example, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt returned Taiwan to China after World War II.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon's visit to China shocked Taiwan's leaders.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter unilaterally decided to normalize relations with Beijing and revoke the recognition of Taipei.
President Ronald Reagan also issued a communiqué with Beijing on future reductions in arms sales to Taiwan without the support of Taiwan's leaders.
In other words, American leaders of both parties are pursuing the interests of dealing with China at the expense of Taiwan.
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Importantly, however, these precedents occurred before Taiwan's democratic transition.
After Taiwan's democratization, U.S. leaders generally recognized that Taiwan's elected government is the best arbiter of Taiwan's interests, and they must be consulted on any changes in U.S. policy that could affect Taiwan's security.
In addition, U.S. officials have established the practice of privately consulting with Taiwanese officials before and after high-level talks with Chinese leaders on Taiwan issues.
Even so, there seems to be a lingering feeling that Taiwan is the beneficiary of deteriorating U.S.-China relations.
This argument deserves careful scrutiny.
U.S., China no longer reach agreement on Taiwan issue without Taipei's consent
On the one hand, Taiwan's leaders may believe that when Washington and Beijing are strained, the likelihood of the United States and China reaching an understanding on Taiwan is less likely.
When the United States believes that Taiwan is at the forefront of the free world and deserves support to preserve its independence and democratic institutions, Taiwan's leaders may also feel a surge of confidence.
On the other hand, we should not have to worry for now that the US and China will reach some agreement on Taiwan without Taipei's consent.
Sacrificing Taiwan's interests to gain from Beijing has not received any meaningful support in the United States.
Compared with any leader before Nixon, President Biden has the courage to express his support for Taiwan.
The US Congress and the public support Taiwan is also very firm, just as the perception of China is extremely negative.
U.S. doubts about harming Taiwan’s interests are swept away
It is an indisputable fact that U.S.-China relations are currently in a sharp decline. Any doubts that the U.S. may harm Taiwan’s interests should be swept away, just like the two previous times when the relationship between the two sides had hit rock bottom.
The first breakdown in U.S.-China relations occurred after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and was further exacerbated by the Korean War and subsequent civil unrest in China.
The second rupture came after the Tiananmen Massacre and the end of the Cold War.
The two troughs experienced by US-China relations have lasted for many years.
This time may not be different.
Moreover, historical records show that cross-strait relations and US-Taiwan relations are not derivatives of US-China relations.
As I have said elsewhere, deteriorating U.S.-China relations have not translated into improved U.S.-Taiwan relations, and vice versa.
For example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the downturn in U.S.-China relations did not create windfalls for U.S.-Taiwan relations.
The point is that in the relationship between the United States, China, and Taiwan, each set of bilateral relationships operates with its own logic and is driven by its own perception of priorities and concerns.
If U.S.-China relations become so tense that everything becomes a test of the will of the great powers, Taiwan will also be at risk.
When Taiwan is seen as a central flashpoint in the conflict between the United States and China, its security also becomes more precarious, causing every action to become a line of defense against which one side or the other is victorious or defeated.
The more Taiwan is drawn into becoming the core tipping point in the rivalry between major powers, the more pressure Taipei will face to choose sides between the United States and China.
The United States has asked Taiwan to restrict high-tech exports to China.
There are also growing expectations for Taiwan's alliance with other advanced democracies that produce cutting-edge semiconductors, such as South Korea, Japan and the United States.
China has urged Taiwanese companies to move in the opposite direction.
Deteriorating U.S.-China relations could also create internal political pressure on Taiwan’s leaders, forcing them to take symbolic steps on sovereignty-related issues, as they believe Washington doesn’t care too much about backlash from Beijing.
This may be a miscalculation.
The tension with Beijing will not detract from U.S. opposition to what it sees as actions to undermine peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
U.S.-China relations are not too hot, not too cold, Taiwan's interests can be best guaranteed
Based on these realities, a more precise conclusion might be that Taiwan's interests are best secured when U.S.-China relations are neither too hot nor too cold.
A lasting and predictable U.S.-China relationship can open up space for the U.S. and Taiwan to deepen their substantive relationship.
It can also reduce the risk of other countries strengthening their ties with Taiwan without fear of being drawn into an increasingly militarized confrontation.
Finally, the more Taiwan is integrated into the fabric of the global economy and has strong relationships with the United States and other countries, the better it will be able to maintain its independent and democratic way of life.
(The author He Ruien is a senior researcher of the American think tank Brookings Institute, Gu Zhenfu and Gu Yanzhuoyun's Taiwan Studies Lecture, and Michael Armacost Foreign Policy Research Lecture; translated by Chen Hongda of the International News Center)
Sino-US relations are closely related to Taiwan.