When the president-elect of the U.S. took a phone call last week with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, he may not have known that he was breaking a four-decades-old precedent and potentially disrupting the delicate state of affairs that prevails between Taiwan and its neighbor across the Taiwan Strait, China. Needless to say, such an approach to international dealings is not ideal. But neither is an “expert” approach that fails to distinguish friends from foes — which has been America’s approach for the last eight years. Taiwan is the sort of country the United States should seek to support. Instead, the U.S. remains beholden to a decades-old, Cold War arrangement that favors the Communist regime in Beijing over the vibrant democracy in Taipei — an arrangement to which the Obama administration has been far friendlier than its predecessor. Donald Trump should aim to shift this balance of power.
Which country is more amenable to American ideals is not difficult to discern. As the 20th century made clear, People’s Republics tend to be extraordinarily unfriendly to the people who reside in them — for instance, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a.k.a. North Korea. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is no different, having existed for 70 years under varying degrees of Communist oppression: at one end, Mao Zedong’s, responsible for mass slaughter on a scale comparable to Joseph Stalin’s; at the other, Xi Jinping’s, which also “disappears” political dissidents, but does so quietly in order to earn the admiration of Thomas Friedman and other gullible leftwing luminaries.
The goal of the PRC has always been to bring Taiwan to heel. The Communist government has never accepted Taiwanese independence, and it applies pressures of various sorts to prevent Taiwan from growing too bold in seeking normalized relations with other nations. Since 40 percent of Taiwanese exports go to mainland China and Hong Kong, the PRC has significant economic leverage. But, not shy about the use of hard power, it also has 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan, and Xi Jinping has emphasized that they are not an idle threat.
This is a movement the United States should support. There are economic reasons, certainly: Taiwan occupies an integral place in the global technology supply chain, for example. But, more important, Taiwan is a country of freedom-loving people who are governed by legitimately elected representatives, who operate a free press, and who seek to work amicably with a community of international partners. China is a large, sprawling, complex country, in which many people are flourishing economically; but it is ruled by a one-party dictatorship that seeks to maintain — and is presently working to consolidate — power. The contrast between the two countries is perhaps most visible at the entrance to Taipei 101, the tallest skyscraper in Taiwan and formerly the tallest building in the world: Visitors will see Falun Gong adherents practicing their religion openly and protesting the Chinese government. But just 110 miles to the west, across the Taiwan Strait, Falun Gong practitioners are imprisoned and used to source a state-run organ-trafficking trade.The last eight years have witnessed the abandonment of freedom-loving people — whether in Taipei, Kiev, or the streets of Tehran — in favor of the authoritarian regimes that aim to oppress them. Diplomacy is an art. Needless or thoughtless provocation is not in our interest. But America’s ideals are fragile. Wherever they happen to spring up, we should aim to nourish them. Donald Trump may have stumbled into it, but his conversation with Tsai Ing-wen presents an opportunity to shift the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait for the better.
— Ian Tuttle is the Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the National Review Institute.