Improving a Critical Partnership between the United States and Taiwan

The U.S. relationship with Taiwan is one of the more important bilateral relationships in the world. The reason I say that is not because of the size, industrial capacity, or military prowess of Taiwan, but because both countries must necessarily play a critical role in the biggest issue facing the world in the current century, the emergence of China.

There are three distinct possibilities with respect to the kind of nation China will be two or three decades from now. One is an increasingly prosperous nation, extending a rising living standard to its entire population, liberalizing its human rights policies, playing a responsible and constructive role in the world community, and governing itself in a manner that is at least partially responsive to the will of its people. That is the possibility that we all hope for.

The second possibility is continued movement down the path of statist capitalism in which the benefits of a partial movement toward freer markets are not shared, but rather are used to buttress the authoritarian powers of a narrowly based elite that dominate all public discourse and have regional and global hegeminous ambitions.

Perhaps even worse is a China that cannot choose between those two courses—that is torn by regional and class differences, that is ruled by an elite that refuses to bend before it breaks, and opens a path to decades of chaos, poverty, and dysfunction.

Like it or not, both Taiwan and the United States have front row seats in which to watch this drama unfold. But we are more than mere observers. What our governments, businesses, and people do with China can have a major impact on the outcome and the consequences are far too great to not to use that opportunity to the fullest.

What then should we do?

First, fully recognize the role we are playing and the consequences it has, not only for our two countries, but also the world, and in particular the 1.3 billion people living on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

We should avoid provocation but also avoid signals of weakness. China should come to realize that the United States and Taiwan are truly committed to preserving the current balance while attempting to improve cultural, economic, and diplomatic relations. This means, among other things, that the military balance in the strait should not move significantly in either direction.

Taiwan should not seek, and the United States should not provide, weapons that would do more than preserve the balance. Yet weapons that are necessary should be provided without apology, and what is necessary should be agreed to without becoming a chip for bargaining with Beijing on unrelated issues.

Secondly, both Taiwan and the United States should be rewarded with a share of the economic benefits that the entire world will receive if China grows into a prosperous and responsible country. But commercial considerations should not dominate the policies of either country because too many other issues are at risk.

Finally, we will have little leverage to move China toward the rule of law, greater transparency in its governance, and more respect for human rights and individual dignity if we do not practice those values ourselves. Protecting the democratic process while confronting a demagogic and irresponsible opposition party can be difficult. I know that from personal experience.

Protecting the rights of those who, if given the chance, would abuse the rights of others is also difficult. As domestic and international pressures build and the consequences of bad policy become more profound the temptation to take constitutional shortcuts becomes greater. Mainland China will never embrace our values if we don’t embrace them ourselves.

Our task is difficult and the course we must follow is tedious, but we have little choice but to make our best effort because the consequences of failure are too great.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. He made these remarks at the American Institute in Taiwan, a non-profit, private corporation established shortly after the U. S. government changed its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing on January 1, 1979. The Taiwan Relations Act (PL 96-8) of April 10, 1979, authorized the continuation of "commercial, cultural and other relations between the people of the United States and the people of Taiwan.