National Security Adviser John Bolton has caused a furor in Beijing by meeting with his counterpart from Taiwan, leading an entire generation of young Americans to ask: “Where?”
Taiwan once loomed large in the American consciousness, and the American Right was particularly solicitous of its well-being. In the political vocabulary of the time, the Republic of China — Taiwan — was a tiny outpost of freedom menaced by Red China — the so-called People’s Republic.
Taiwan is still a thriving republic. China is still a single-party police state, grown perhaps a slightly paler shade of red. But American politics has changed and, to some extent, moved on.
Bolton, a movement conservative of Cold War vintage, apparently has not moved on. Good for Bolton.
The existence of Taiwan as an independent nation is a fact. It is no more a breakaway province of the People’s Republic of China than Massachusetts is a rebellious British colony. Its 24 million people constitute the largest nation to be excluded from the United Nations and from full American diplomatic recognition, and its economy of more than $600 billion is the largest of any country to be marginalized by the global economic and diplomatic communities. The Holy See is one of a tiny handful of sovereign states recognizing Taiwan.
Taiwan, too, once was a single-party police state, but it evolved out of that sorry state of affairs — and then some: The Freedom House index currently ranks Taiwan as a more free country than the United States. It is robustly democratic, forward-looking, and ambitious.
All of which gets up the nose of Beijing. “The one-China principle is the political basis for China–U.S. relations,” Chinese foreign-ministry spokesman Lu Kang said after the Bolton meeting. “We are firmly against the U.S. engaging in any official contact with Taiwan in whatever form and under whatever pretext.” As CNN put it, Beijing “ordered the Trump administration to cease diplomatic engagements with the island.” Ordered. One wonders how President Trump will take that.
The United States has followed a policy of engagement with China going on 50 years now, since Richard Nixon’s famous visit in 1972. This is the correct policy: The state governed from Beijing, like the one governed from Taipei, is a fact, and one that cannot be ignored. The United States and China maintain a close and cooperative economic relationship — some call it symbiotic. Many in the Trump administration believe that relationship is too close. The president himself believes that the American trade relationship with China disadvantages the U.S. economy (he is mistaken about that), while others make a moral case against dealing with China as though it were Sweden or Canada rather than a totalitarian state that operates gulags and harvests the organs of political dissidents.
Engagement with China is predicated largely on American self-interest — as it should be — and to the extent that idealism enters into it at all it is in the belief that such improvements as have been enjoyed by the Chinese people have been enabled by their country’s economic progress, and that it is easier for the government of a thriving and confident nation to liberalize than it is for a hungry and desperate one.
The advocates of engagement have the better case, and they always have, even though progress has been slow and halting. That the Chinese government as represented by Lu believes itself entitled to bark orders at the United States indicates that there still is far to go.
We should be frank, open-handed, and generous in our relations with Beijing — for our own good, for the good of the Chinese people, and for the good of the world. But the spirit of generosity is distinct from the spirit of acquiescence, and the United States is not obliged to defer to Beijing in the matter of Taiwan or in any other matter, especially those involving American relations with the free and self-governing peoples of the world.
Beijing should not overplay its hand. The U.S.–Chinese economic relationship is very important to the United States, but it is fundamental to China, which still has a GDP per capita of less than $9,000 a year, placing it in the company of Kazakhstan and Cuba. American consumers and manufacturers have alternatives to China, but Chinese exporters have no plausible alternative to the American market. The United States is very concerned about the nuclear misadventures of North Korea, but Kim Jong-un is in China’s backyard, not ours. China worries about the possibility of a rearmed and assertive Japan, while some Americans would welcome that development. Beijing should consider these facts before it blusters its way into trouble of a kind it has not known for a generation.
The United States, for its part, would do well to rediscover the cause of Taiwan — carefully, prudently, and in a way that is not more provocative than necessary, inevitably provocative though it would be. As Beijing slowly chokes out Hong Kong — that other beacon of freedom in the Chinese orbit — we should be clear-eyed about what “One China” would mean in practice.