‘Will the WHO reconsider Taiwan’s membership?” The question — asked by Radio Television Hong Kong’s Yvonne Tong — caused Dr. Bruce Aylward, a senior advisor to the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) and a leader in its response to the coronavirus, to put on quite the show. Initially, Aylward feigned as if he had not heard. When Tong offered to repeat her query, Aylward insisted it was “OK” and suggested that they “move on to another one.” For a third time, Tong pressed the issue, only to have Aylward reach forward and hang up on the stunned journalist. In a follow-up call, Tong again raised the topic of Taiwan. Aylward demurred that they had already discussed “China.”
Incidents like this one clarify the corrupting threat that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) represents to international institutions — to say nothing of its threat to the United States and to the broader project of human freedom and flourishing. The PRC’s population of nearly one and half billion people, and the control that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) exerts over that population, afford it significant economic leverage that it uses to bully feckless individuals, organizations, and nation-states into ignoring and even defending its atrocious record on human rights and indefensible postures toward Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Even in the U.S. — the PRC’s chief competitor both economically and ideologically — we have borne witness to this frightening power. When Daryl Morey, the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, tweeted out a message of support for Hong Kong’s protesters last October, the league issued a statement condemning Morey’s tweet as “regrettable” and “offensive.” Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James blathered on about Morey and the public’s need to be better “educated.” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr chastised Americans for worrying about China while gun violence remained an issue in the U.S.
This inclination of international and American institutions to cower in the face of the PRC’s economic power is unnerving. As it continues to flex its geopolitical muscles, crack down on protesters in Hong Kong, and commit an appalling cultural genocide against the Uyghurs in the province of Xinjiang, the prospect of anyone’s standing up to the PRC seems decreasingly likely, even as the repercussions of acquiescence become increasingly apparent in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Recently, apologists have taken to praising the PRC for its global leadership in combating the coronavirus instead of shining a spotlight on how its deception led to the pandemic’s proliferation.
But the U.S. can work to reverse this trend with an important symbolic measure: recognizing that Taiwan is and ought to be a free and independent state. This would be a fitting move for President Trump to make. He ran for office as a China hawk, denouncing past administrations for allowing the PRC to bully us in the international marketplace, steal our intellectual property, and endanger American jobs. But recognizing Taiwan would represent an even more important stand: a moral one.
Taiwan, the small island off the southern coast of the PRC to which Chiang Kai-shek and his followers fled after their defeat in the Chinese Civil War, has turned into a model of democracy, freedom, and human flourishing. It has its own distinct culture and does not consider itself subject to President Xi Jinping’s will or state-imposed Thought. Without the CCP running the show, Taiwan has thrived economically. As one of the four “Asian Tigers,” it has achieved a GDP per capita of over $25,000 USD. The PRC manages to crack just $10,000. Its people enjoy broad free-speech rights and are not persecuted for the practice of their respective religions. In other words, it is not the PRC, and the time has come to dispel the fiction that Taiwan belongs to it.
President-elect Trump took a step in this direction when he accepted a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in December 2016. The decision was criticized sharply by many in the foreign-policy establishment as a breach of protocol and a break with the U.S.’s “One China Policy.” For those of us horrified by the world’s persistent acquiescence to the PRC, it was a breath of fresh air. Today, with the brutality of Xi Jinping’s regime made plain by its treatment of the Uyghurs and Hong Kong protesters, and the dangers of its long reach laid bare by the coronavirus crisis and the WHO’s pathetic efforts to cover for the PRC’s role in its spread, the time has come to take the next step. While the U.S. can and should continue to reprimand the Chinese for their actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, these lectures do little to deter the PRC, or inspire anyone to stand up to it. Recognizing Taiwan while still acknowledging the PRC’s claim to the mainland, on the other hand, would represent a significant blow to the PRC and send a signal to the rest of the world that the days of pretending that the world is as the CCP says it is are over. Xi Jinping has said that Taiwan “must and will” be reunited with the PRC. The U.S. should say that it will remain an independent nation — and a beacon of hope to those suffering under authoritarian rule.
Recognizing Taiwan would not come without assured consequences and the assumption of significant risks. The PRC would condemn the U.S. and attempt to use its economic power to get others around the globe to do the same. But the U.S is no stranger to being among a righteous remnant on issues of international importance — our hardline on Iran, support of Israel, etc. — and facing down the PRC and its influence would be the very point of such a move. Moreover, forecasts of graver ramifications, including the PRC’s running away from the negotiating table on trade and intellectual property issues, becoming uncooperative in the effort to contain and control North Korea, or perhaps even taking military action against Taiwan are overstated. It is doubtful that the PRC will, in its current incarnation, truly commit either to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula or to pursuing a reciprocal trade relationship with the U.S. as it is. And were the PRC — amidst a global pandemic of their own creation — to invade or lob missiles at Taiwan, it would bring about the end of its legitimacy and influence around the world. It is time to weigh the consequences of continuing to play ball with the CCP and allowing the world’s geopolitical reality to be shaped by Xi Jinping the rest of his Politburo alongside the risks of recognizing Taiwan. If the most powerful man in the most powerful country on the face of the planet cannot speak truth to the PRC, nobody else will.
Ronald Reagan, for all of his many successes, will forever be known best for his call to tear down the Berlin Wall. In Taiwan, President Trump has an opportunity to be remembered as the world leader who finally said “enough” to the PRC, and galvanized those who enable it to do the same. He should take it.