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   Dual Recognition

About "Dual Recognition"

By: John R. Bolton

Q: Should the U.S. grant diplomatic recognition to Taiwan?

Yes: Dual recognition of two Chinas is good for national security and for stability in the Western Pacific.

"Diplomatic recognition" may sound like a question that only the striped-pants set could love but, in fact, it embodies critical political realities. Nowhere else is the issue posed more dramatically for the United States than by the Republic of China, or ROC, on Taiwan, derecognized by President Carter when he established relations with the mainland People's Republic of China, or PRC, in 1979. This U.S. concession to Beijing was a mistake at the time, and we can and should correct it.

Since 1979, the United States and the ROC on Taiwan have not had formal diplomatic ties. Instead, our extensive trade and economic relationships have been handled through "private" channels, on the U.S. side by the American Institute on Taiwan, or AIT. In Washington, the Taiwanese Economic and Cultural Relations Office, or TECRO, functions in virtually every significant way exactly as do embassies from countries recognized by the U.S. government. Taiwan is the United States' seventh-largest international trading partner and is a critical supplier of semiconductors and other vital components necessary for the continued progress of the telecommunications and information-technology revolutions, so the issues AIT and TECRO handle are enormously important.

Carter's decision to downgrade relations with Taipei had its antecedents in President Nixon's initial overtures to the PRC. Nixon believed that "playing the China card" would gain for the United States an unusual and highly unexpected ally in the global struggle against the Soviet Union and its satellites. By outflanking the Soviets geographically, Nixon forced them to realign their defensive configurations along the Sino-Soviet border, placing substantial strains on their military capabilities. Moreover, the United States obtained prime locations near that border for eavesdropping on internal Soviet communications and weapons testing. The PRC obviously also benefited significantly by using the visible U.S. connection to enhance its international status.

China's first "payment" from the United States came, in effect, at the United Nations in 1971. The PRC had wanted to assume "China's" U.N. seat since 1949, when the Chinese Red Army captured the mainland from Nationalist Chinese forces led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and drove his remaining supporters to the island of Formosa (returned to Chinese control in 1945 after 50 years of rule by Japan). Not only would U.N. membership represent an important measure of international legitimacy for the PRC, it also would make it one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, with the power to veto any resolution that conceivably could threaten the PRC's interests. The United States had opposed the PRC's membership campaign vigorously, arguing that the ROC, even though its effective authority was limited to Taiwan and some nearby islands, still was the constitutional government of all of China and that its stay on Taiwan was only temporary.

As the years passed, this argument became harder and harder to sustain, and even close allies of the United States began to shift their formal diplomatic relations to the PRC, and away from the ROC. When word of Henry Kissinger's secret trips to Beijing became public in 1971, it was apparent that "Red China" inevitably would succeed in its 22-year campaign to replace "Nationalist China" in the United Nations. Nonetheless, then-ambassador George Bush, representing the United States, proposed a compromise: Both Chinas would have U.N. General Assembly seats, but the PRC would assume China's place as a Security Council permanent member. This "dual representation" approach was seen at the time as the only way to forestall the adoption of a Communist-bloc resolution that simply would substitute the PRC for the ROC. Unfortunately, in light of subsequent events, the ROC rejected the compromise and withdrew from the United Nations moments before the General Assembly handed its seat to the PRC. (In fact, this vote was a plain violation of the U.N. Charter since it effectively expelled a U.N. member in good standing without a vote of the Security Council.)

Although Bush's 1971 compromise concerned U.N. membership rather than diplomatic recognition, the basic concept remains valid and warrants extending full relations to Taipei as well as to Beijing. Concern about recognizing the ROC stems almost entirely from PRC insistence that it will break diplomatic relations with any country that does so. While Taipei itself once adhered to this policy, it now fully accepts dual recognition both as unobjectionable and inevitable. Confronted with PRC intransigence, most foreign governments follow a pragmatic approach, seeking full political relations with the much larger PRC, while carrying on only commercial and cultural relations with Taiwan. A small number of states (29 at last count) maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei, but they are under constant pressure from Beijing to acknowledge the error of their ways and recant. With other countries, Taiwan must rely on informal offices with no protected diplomatic status. This unfair isolation weighs heavily on Taiwan, which unlike the mainland now has a rich and vibrant democracy with a vigorous, independent press and free, hotly contested elections.

Despite the ROC's role in world trade, especially in high-tech industries, the size disparity between it and the PRC almost certainly means that Beijing will sustain its lead in the ongoing diplomatic struggle unless an outsider shuffles the deck. The only candidate to do so - the only country willing and able to withstand the torrent of abuse that would flow from Beijing following dual diplomatic recognition - is the United States. Others will follow, but only the United States can reignite the debate.

But why should the United States undertake this arduous and (at least initially) thankless task? There are several important reasons - all of them hard-core U.S. national interests. 

First, recognizing Taiwan simply recognizes reality - the best grounding for any foreign policy. By any accepted definition of customary international law and practice, the ROC is a "state": It has an established government carrying out normal domestic functions over a defined territory with a stable population. It has a currency, a capital city and all the other indicia of statehood, as well as the clear capacity to make and honor international commitments with other states.

Arguing that Taiwan does not qualify as a "state" ignores the unmistakable evidence. In fact, it is precisely the overwhelming reality of Taiwan's sovereign status that most aggravates Beijing's hard-liners and incites their apocalyptic rhetoric. Would Beijing, responding to full U.S. diplomatic recognition of the ROC, actually end its diplomatic relations with us? That certainly is the import of Chinese rhetoric, and it is a credit to Beijing's propaganda skills that so many in the West believe it. If the PRC actually severed relations, however, it would demonstrate indisputably that it remains a rogue state not entitled to the normal treatment it so much desires from the United States and the world. Indeed, unpleasant for Beijing though it may be, the PRC needs close ties with the United States far more than we do with them. For the PRC to take the extreme step of cutting itself off diplomatically from Washington would be a leap into the dark and actually is the least likely outcome of U.S. recognition of the ROC.

In fact, the PRC will not break ties with the United States. It certainly would fulminate mightily and well could exact some economic costs in the short term, such as by favoring European sources for critical imports. This has been Beijing's pattern in the past and is central to the PRC's strategy for paralyzing the will and determination of U.S. decisionmakers. But for the PRC, this too is ultimately bluff and - sooner rather than later - it would acquiesce in dual recognition. And once the United States established this principle, many others would follow, eager for the economic benefits of greater trade with an advanced economy such as Taiwan's. 

Second, the United States must remove the ambiguity that currently exists about whether we will defend Taiwan in the event of a PRC military attack, a by-no-means unrealistic prospect. This ambiguity, worsened dramatically in the last seven years by President Clinton's unprecedented deference to Beijing on nearly every issue of importance, encourages the PRC to believe that a military solution (or credible threat of one) actually might succeed at a propitious moment. Allowing this possibility to remain open in the minds of Beijing's top leaders, the evident result of Clinton's ambiguous approach, thus actually contributes to instability.

Full recognition of Taipei unmistakably would underscore the strength of the United States' military commitment and thus help stabilize relations across the Taiwan Strait and in the region. Moreover, recognition clearly would indicate to others in East Asia that the United States is firmly committed to resisting PRC military or political adventurism generally, thus strengthening the U.S. hand in the region. This is not a policy of "containment" or "encirclement" toward Beijing, but simply a logical way to protect important U.S. political and economic interests in Asia. 

Third, recognizing Taiwan will no more subvert the "one-China" policy than did the West's Cold War diplomatic recognition of the two Germanies. German reunification occurred when the Soviet Union, facing its own impending collapse, lost the political will to use military force to keep its satellite governments in power. Dual recognition of the two Germanies was irrelevant to this much larger and more important political reality, and the same will be true for cross-strait relations. Moreover, the question of "when" and "under what circumstances" Chinese reunification might take place inevitably shades into the question of "whether" it will do so. Optimism that democratic transformation on the mainland is inevitable does not necessarily mean it will be expeditious; the continued fears of Hong Kong democrats are the only evidence anyone really needs to underscore the legitimacy of Taiwanese warnings about the premature creation of "one China."

U.S. policy should not be to prejudge the outcome for "China" one way or the other. If both sides of the Taiwan Strait decide to reunify, we can welcome that development; if they do not, we can welcome that as well. But until then, the United States should set its own foreign policy and not follow the hollow threats or dictates of Beijing or anyone else.

* * * *

Bolton is senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute and served as the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs under President Bush.

This article appeared in Insight on the News on February 7, 2000.


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