Shadow Government

Unwinding Taiwan’s Cold War Legacy

While President Obama visited Cuba last week to restore relations with the Castro-run island and put an “end the legacy of the Cold War” in Latin America, democratic Taiwan is still strangled by Cold War legacies.

TAIPEI, TAIWAN - JANUARY 14:  Honor guards prepare to raise the Taiwan flag in the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall square ahead of the Taiwanese presidential election on January 14, 2016 in Taipei, Taiwan. Voters in Taiwan are set to elect Tsai Ing-wen, the chairwoman of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, to become the island's first female leader.  (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
TAIPEI, TAIWAN - JANUARY 14: Honor guards prepare to raise the Taiwan flag in the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall square ahead of the Taiwanese presidential election on January 14, 2016 in Taipei, Taiwan. Voters in Taiwan are set to elect Tsai Ing-wen, the chairwoman of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, to become the island's first female leader. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — While President Obama visited Cuba last week to restore relations with the Castro-run island and “end the legacy of the Cold War” in Latin America, democratic Taiwan is still strangled by Cold War legacies.

Relations are frozen in 1979, the year that the United States abrogated the U.S.-ROC alliance and broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the ostensible price of normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China. Historians still argue over whether this drastic change in policy was necessary to attain what we wanted with Beijing. Doubtless, their final verdict will take account of the fact that a strategic partnership with Beijing was needed to end the war in Vietnam and help arrest Soviet aggression. Decades later, we need all of our Asian friends to help resist Chinese aggression. Yet our Taiwan policy remains largely unchanged.

To be sure, the 1979 congressional revolt against our shift in Taiwan policy led to the ratification of the Taiwan Relations Act, which provided the framework for continued support for the democratic island. But despite profound geopolitical changes since the breaking of relations with the Republic of China, and despite Taiwan’s great achievements in building a democratic society and a robust economy, Washington still treats Taipei as a second class global citizen.

There is no reason, legislative or otherwise, to have such abnormal relations with the island. Instead, it is our own stubborn refusal to reinterpret rules we authored unilaterally back when Jimmy Carter was president.

What do these restrictions on our relations mean in practice? Let’s consider three implications:

First, despite a complicated agenda with Taiwan that includes our shared interest in deterring an attack on the island, high-level diplomatic and military visits by American officials are banned. It is up to low-ranking U.S. defense officials to oversee our intensifying defense relations. Normally, when we work to improve a friend’s deterrent capability, our bilateral relations are run by generals, admirals, and even secretaries of defense. Not so in Taiwan, even though the country faces a daunting challenge from China.

Second, the island democracy is kept out of many of the region’s more important multilateral organizations. For example, it was not invited to be a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) even though its economy is far more advanced than that of many of the other members.

Third, it is shut out of talks on the future of the South China Sea maritime territorial disputes, even though it has a claim to Taiping Island, part of the Spratly island chain, and is located in geostrategically important position relative to the South China Sea. Indeed, our presidents and high-level cabinet members never engage in the type of exchanges that are so vital for strategic and economic coordination.

Back to Cuba: During his trip there, the president gave of his time — the scarcest political asset — to serve no discernible strategic or economic interest. It was an act of relatively cost-free symbolism. If the president wants to end Cold War legacies in places that matter, he could take a real geopolitical risk by gradually changing the nature of our awkward and self-defeating relations with Taiwan.

He could invite newly elected president Tsai Ing-wen to Hawaii for a meeting. He could send a team of high-ranking military officials to Taiwan to help the new president assess her security needs. The new Taiwanese foreign minister and Secretary of State Kerry could hammer out a common position on the South China Sea. President Obama could convene a high-level working group on Taiwan’s entry into the TPP. He could tell the Chinese to use the example of his visit to Cuba to normalize its relationship with the small island to its south. Needless to say, this change in policy is not forthcoming. Our president wants easy, symbolic photo-ops, not policy changes that actually matter.

Too bad. Upgrading our relations with Taiwan would serve both strategic interests and our values by supporting a liberal democratic partner. As China mounts an ever stronger challenge to our position in the region, we need to reinforce relations with our friends in the region to help build an Asian political order aligned with our interests. President-elect Tsai faces a threatening geopolitical environment. Consider just a few challenges.

China’s growing economic stagnation and consequent internal political problems are real. Taiwan, the object of a powerful China’s deepest strategic desire, is asking itself the difficult question of what a China under internal strain means for its own future. We are in for an unpredictable ride that will require much more strategic coordination with the island at the highest levels (see above). China is less stable but still very powerful. Stirring up trouble with Taiwan is the easiest way for the Chinese leadership to distract from problems at home.

At the moment, China’s eyes are on the Philippines, as it prepares to continue its island building on the Scarborough Shoal in the Spratly Islands. China may respond to an “unsatisfactory” arbitration ruling from The Hague by declaring an air-defense identification zone over the South China Sea. Both the ruling and China’s response to it will impact Taiwan’s own South China Sea claims and its security. China will pressure the island to support its own position and try to undermine the Taiwanese claim. When Taiwan does not do so, China is likely to try and coerce and intimidate it.

The Taiwanese people roundly rejected the Kuomintang nationalist party’s diplomatic approach in this year’s presidential elections and gave the Democratic Progressive Party a mandate for a new strategic orientation. The Kuomintang believes that direct negotiations with China best stabilize relations across the Strait and improve Taiwan’s geopolitical position. The Democratic Progressive Party view is that stronger relations with the United States and its regional allies put the island in a more advantageous position to negotiate stability with China.

Japan, particularly under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is key to Taiwan’s security. Relations between the two governments are set to improve under Tsai Ing-wen. But U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines need U.S. leadership to respond adequately to Taiwan’s entreaties. This strategy is predicated on locking Taiwan into U.S.-led initiatives such as the TPP and maritime security efforts. It will not work without invigorated U.S. support.

Taiwan needs the U.S. president’s time and attention as a young political party once again takes the reigns of leadership during challenging times. Taiwan needs the president to unwind a Cold War legacy that is proving riskier by the day.

Photo credit: ULET IFANSASTI/Getty Images

Daniel Blumenthal is the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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