Cornerstone of American Foreign Policy
The basis of American foreign policy had been well established long ago, more than a century prior. In April, 1917 in advance of America’s participation in the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson went before a joint session of Congress and unequivocally declared, “The world must be made safe for democracy.”
Prophetically, such an idea from Wilson’s time to the present has not changed for American leaders, Democrat or Republican — the rationale being that world peace comes about only through “democratic nations” (America-like). The pursuit of this liberal-Western form of democracy — often accompanied by providing security measures and provisions in return for market opportunities — has ever since been the cornerstone and guiding force of U.S. foreign policy. Hence, America’s involvement overseas could easily become belligerent as it has oftentimes — irrespective of democratic concerns (e.g., equity and respect) as long as U.S. directives are followed — a noteworthy example of ends justifying means.
Post-World War II offered the United States the unique and unbridled opportunity to become the hegemonic spearhead of this form of democracy. It is significant to point out though that the ominous global ideological confrontation began well before what has been commonly known. Victory of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 became the harbinger of things to come. Not long after its rise to power, U.S. troops were dispatched to Russia in 1918 by President Wilson to help overthrow the new Soviet government, however without success.
Thus entered Communism, America’s newfound nemesis, marking the inception of a cold war, the bitter and protracted rivalry of the USA and USSR. The Second World War inadvertently intervened. However, in 1947, the enactment of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan picked up where Wilson had left off. Hence for American leaders, Communism had to be stopped wherever and whenever it reared its “ugly” head (in much of America, communism as a socialist perspective of and approach to a more humanistic and egalitarian kind of political and economic development based on the ideas of Karl Marx has been seriously mishandled, misunderstood and misrepresented. As his original works are very difficult, an excellent expose of Marx’s ideas can be found in Marx’s Concept of Man, by Erich Fromm).
America’s China Impulses
In Asia and the Pacific — today’s Indo-Pacific — it was no different. In China, despite encroachment on its territory and sovereignty by greedy imperial powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States sought to transform China and the Chinese into docile and manipulable democrats via proselytization, military assistance and money (e.g., the “Open Door Policy,” promulgated in September, 1899, ambiguous, controversial and ambitious as it were). However fortunate, none of that transpired satisfactorily.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong made sure that the Chinese people did not become American underlings. Guardedly, Mao viewed liberal-Western democracy as being unprincipled and, when coupled with capitalism, treacherous. Mao’s concern for democracy — and statecraft — in general is the manner in which public interest is articulated, aggregated, adjudicated and implemented.
By 1949, Mao and the CCP swept away the so-called “American running dogs” in mainland China, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Chinese Government (under the Kuomintang/KMT party) were soundly defeated, escaped and retreated to the island of Taiwan (also known as Formosa, off the coast of China’s Fujian Province). Recovery of Taiwan by Communist forces (i.e., the People’s Republic of China/PRC) was perceived by the United States as only a matter of time.
Reversals of U.S. China Policy
During this period, 1949-50, U.S. policy toward China took an interesting and subtle turn. Leaders in Washington accepted the fact that the Nationalist Chinese were a lost cause and pulled its embassy out in Nanjing (then spelled Nanking, the capital of Nationalist China, the Republic of China/ROC). In August, 1949 the U.S. state department issued its widely known “China White Paper,” detailing the “loss of China” and awaits “the dust to settle.” Although the United States still recognized the ROC as the sole legitimate government of all of China, President Harry Truman in January, 1950 declared that it would not be involved in any dispute in the Taiwan Strait and would not intervene in the event of an attack on Taiwan by Communist forces from the Chinese mainland.
All along Chiang Kai-shek was adamant about his ambition to recover China mainland, and readied his forces in Taiwan; similarly, Mao Zedong was no less determined to reclaim this Nationalist Chinese-held and fortified island, technically returned to China at the end of WWII after a half-century of Japanese subjugation and rule. Unexpectedly, the Korean War (1950-53) caused the situation in the Taiwan Strait to look less favorable to American interests, bringing about a sudden change in U.S. policy. The leadership in Washington then suddenly reversed its position and claimed that the retreated-Chiang/ROC government situated in Taiwan — America’s “Free China” — belonged within the U.S. Asia-Pacific defense perimeter. U.S. military aid, hence, came pouring in to the island, particularly during the succeeding Eisenhower administration.
Despite two attempts to reclaim Taiwan in the wake of the Korean War by a war-weary PLA (Chinese People’s Liberation Army) they were thwarted with the help of the United States. The reversal of American intentions in the Taiwan Strait made the prompt retaking of the island by the Chinese Communists unfeasible in their quest to free, liberate all of China — obliquely referred to in the mainstream Western media as “civil war” — from the corrupt and corrosive power of an essentially feudalistic Chinese system (headed by the Nationalist Chinese or the ROC government) supported and aided by the United States (for a look at Chinese feudalistic tendencies, see the section on Taiwan below).
The passage of time faded Chiang Kai-shek’s dream and U.S. China policy took another unexpected — and shocking — turn. The waning of the 1960s found the United States and the People’s Republic of China each facing troubling predicaments (i.e., America’s protracted war in Vietnam and the dangerously unpredictable Sino-Soviet border clashes, respectively). As a result, both were willing to set aside old hostilities, thus bringing about a rapprochement. Beginning with an informal “Ping-pong diplomacy” in April, 1971 followed by a secret Henry Kissinger mission to Peking (now Beijing) that led the way for President Richard Nixon’s historic state visit to China in February the following year. Ultimately, Nixon’s visit enabled the signing of the well-known “Shanghai Communique” (the mutual understanding, inter alia, that there is but “One China” across the Taiwan Strait, implying that this is mainland China and Taiwan is a part of China — key to the agreement) that paved the way for official US-China diplomatic recognition in January, 1979 followed by ambassadorial upgrade and exchange.
Diplomatic normalization, of course, required the United States to sever state-to-state ties with the ROC government in Taiwan. De-recognition of the ROC, however, was almost immediately replaced by a “Taiwan Relations Act [TRA],” unilaterally passed in the U.S. Congress in 1979 during the Carter Administration, which allowed the United States to sell weapons to the island for self-defense purposes among other stipulations. The TRA set in motion a kind of ambiguity, or mistrust, if you will, that permeated the newly established Sino-American relations. In 1982 subsequently, an additional “Six Assurances” were passed in support of Taiwan during the Reagan Administration that further complicated matters. However, through the 1980s and 1990s the relationship was maintained with relative calm and a sense of willingness to compromise, accepting more or less each other’s foreign policy interests.
Troubling U.S.-China Issues
So, what’s the fuss over China today? Why is there such a hype about war! Most visible and tangible is that China, the People’s Republic, in the 21st century has become a “great power” — if not, a superpower — capable of challenging the United States left and right. Stewing in the background still since rapprochement in 1972 is the controversy over Taiwan — an uppermost issue for the PRC — which, has hardly been resolved. That and along with China’s alleged indifference toward post-WWII U.S.-established international norms and toward the American/liberal-Western sort of civil liberties (as they are, they point to the blurring of public or civic responsibility/accountability and personal freedom, then presumed as human rights, which in turn do not viably nurture and enlighten civil society to grow and mature but instead to languish) have become front and center for the United States.
Seriously, nowadays, what are American values anyway — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — the oft-declared freedom and democracy, justice and equality? Without thoughtfully qualifying and honestly practicing these important ideas, their mere vocalization engenders scorn and disdain — not respect.
Emphatically, the question of “Taiwan is part of China [and to be reunited]” is instrumentally at the core of core issues for PRC leaders and viewed as a Chinese internal matter (the internationally respected former Foreign Minister George Yeo of Singapore characterized the reunification in the eyes of the Chinese as “historical justice;” or much more precisely, in the words of his inimitable boss, the late Lee Kuan Yew, “it is a fixed and immovable objective”). American leaders in Washington today are, however, simply too hawkish and ahistorical to dignify honestly this official, mutually agreed upon position (specified in the three separate U.S.-China communiques — albeit with some ambiguity — that started in 1972), and continue to prod and poke at this Chinese “existential” concern. As recent as February, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken audaciously declared that if push came to shove a crisis in the Taiwan Strait would not be a Chinese “internal matter,” but a global one.
Simply put, the United States does not want Taiwan, an ever-so-obedient and unapologetic acolyte/protégé, to be reunited with China mainland. The return of Hong Kong — despite the fact it was previously “stolen” by the British — is thought to be foolhardy enough. Apparently, to Americans, it matters little however ruinous and derelict Taiwan is governed (see below passim) — as long as it “behaves.” From a geo political and technological standpoint, however, Taiwan is altogether a different matter. Washington strongly believes that fashioning and manipulating this small island with a sizable population of over 23 million to cling firmly and faithfully to its side is strategically all-important and essential.
Maintaining control over Taiwan has given the United States another important and added benefit. TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.), maker of microchips or semiconductors, which are vital to electronic manufacturing — from jet fighters, ships, and cars, to computers, television sets, radios and other house-hold electronic accessories — is the case in point. This outfit, today’s largest and preeminent manufacturer in the world of this core electronic component was prompted last year by the U.S. government to relocate key parts of its manufacturing and personnel to the state of Arizona so as to circumvent any interference from and advantage to mainland China.
Accordingly, Washington sees the sought-after reclamation of Taiwan by mainland China regrettable and wrongheaded, and would “defend” the island in the event of an attack by the latter. Its surreptitious support — albeit increasingly overt — of those Taiwanese leaders who repeatedly stir up anti-China/-Chinese sentiments and pound the “independence” drum has become a most serious concern for leaders in Beijing. This has prompted their show of military readiness to take back Taiwan. Despite the clearly alarming friction between Washington and Beijing, the former has been unrelenting in its blame on the latter for changing the status quo and creating needless tension and discord in the Taiwan Strait. The “Taiwan question” has become one of the most serious and imminently volatile issues of the day. That makes the possibility of war in this region alarmingly real.
Unification with Dignity: Taiwan’s Choice
Taiwan is an anomaly: neither really democratic (endless frenetic elections notwithstanding) nor quite authoritarian (politically crippled and inept at installing and carrying out basic ordinances such as good traffic measures, or removing the great many well-fed wild dogs that roam the streets, running amok, inter alia, but driven to shut down a major news network arbitrarily, the CTITV, for its criticism of the current unabashedly pro-U.S./pro-independence regime in power, the Democratic Progressive Party/DPP). Taiwan — officially, the Republic of China — is relatively wealthy, but not recognized as a country by most around the world. It is inherently a feudal-Chinese sort of society (i.e., nepotist/connections-based, prone to furtive cleverness but authority/ status-driven coupled with minimal public/civic awareness) that thrives on clamorous “free speech” and consumption.
Revisionist machinations aside, Taiwan was part of and does indeed belong to China; seized by Imperial Japan as a colony at the end of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894- 95), then by the United States as a satellite after WWII ended. Ever since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, China wants Taiwan rightfully returned. Interestingly, the choice of war or peace is still in the hands of the Taiwanese themselves: the choice of becoming consciously self-reliant as part of “One-China” — accordingly written in the constitutions of both Taiwan, ROC and mainland China, PRC — or, at least going back to accepting the “1992 Consensus” (a proposal it — the Taiwan side — initiated itself; see below) as opposed to groveling to Japan and the liberal West particularly, the United States.
From the time Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP took over as head of the Taipei government in 2016 (becoming president of the ROC), practically all official communication channels with Beijing were severed, although, ironically, the island’s economy still relies heavily on the Chinese mainland. In retrospect, since the 1990s, Ms. Tsai and the DPP along with the help of the U.S. government have been conjuring — reinventing, if you prefer — a U.S.-West-driven Taiwan independent of mainland China, not dissimilar to the path taken by the now-Ukraine fraught with disaster. If military confrontation is to be avoided in the Taiwan Strait, the Taipei leadership must be earnestly willing to engage meaningfully with leaders in Beijing — instead of marching in lockstep with the United States and Japan.
Taiwanese are unmistakably Chinese — of the Han Chinese stock, local aboriginals aside — bound by the same cultural heritage and customs, national language, regional dialects or topolects. At one time, before its rejection in 2016 by Taipei, the apparently now-critical “1992 Consensus” — the agreement that there is but one China, only different interpretations by the two sides — was accepted by mainland China. That agreement helped maintain a relatively stable and peaceful status quo in the Taiwan Strait, particularly from 2008 to 2016, during which time the DPP and “independence” proponents were on the sidelines. The 1992 Consensus, despite its rejection by Taipei is still favorably mentioned by mainland China.
In all of its recent statements, Beijing expressedly hopes to avoid a military-tasked unification of Taiwan — that being their last resort. It should be emphasized that the recent and very serious PRC military exercises near and around Taiwan in 2022-23 are all in response to the blatant acts and statements of the United States in collusion with Tsai and the ruling DPP party.
Washington: Solution-Leader or Problem-Maker?
All along, mainland China has been quite open to meaningful engagement with Taipei as long as the non-negotiable “One-China” principle is firmly in place (a position the United States has repeatedly and openly acknowledged as its own policy). Unfortunately, the time for a modus vivendi on the “Taiwan question” has apparently passed. Tsai and the DPP assisted by American machinations brought the situation past the point of no return. Thus, it is safe to say that the Taiwan question will be resolved one way or another in the not too distant future, hopefully without armed confrontation. And, as Beijing sees it, much depends on the United States and, particularly, on Taiwan itself. In March, PRC Foreign Minister Qin Gang has pointedly made it clear that it is the United States that has the “unshirkable responsibility for causing the Taiwan question.”
Washington ought to realize that in a “game of who gets Taiwan,” Beijing has the upper hand. In the event of an armed conflict — which could result in a nightmarish outcome — the lackadaisical ROC military along with a notably polarized populace (viz. Chinese denying locals vs. those mindful of being Chinese) and the proximity of the island to mainland China (about 100 miles across) point to serious strategic — and tactical — shortcomings of Taiwan standing up for itself, with or without U.S. support (e.g., “Does Taiwan’s Military Stand a Chance Against China? Few Think So,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 26, 2021). There is even talk in Washington’s leading circles about demolishing key industries of Taiwan contingent on an attack from the Chinese mainland, particularly the TSMC (see report by David Sacks of the Council on Foreign Relations, https:// www.cfr.org/blog/threatening-destroy-tsmc-unnecessary-and-counterproductive).
Military parity between the United States and the PRC is getting closer than ever. More significant, mainland China’s military, the now highly-advanced PLA (People’s Liberation Army), is superior to the U.S. military in notable ways, particularly the PLA Navy as well as the esprit de corps of PLA soldiers, officers and the general staff are important factors in a comparison (e.g., Jon Harper, “Eagle vs Dragon: How the US and Chinese Navies Stack Up,” National Defense, Mar. 9, 2020). Picking a fight with China by the United States is foolishly absurd, especially between two nuclear powerhouses.
The PRC Chinese are not looking for a fight, but are asking for “equity and respect” — and would reciprocate — as their officials have regularly declared (e.g., in talks with U.S. government representatives, in proffering their “Belt and Road” initiative, and in their conduct of foreign relations in general). Few recall that in 1981 mainland China officially advanced a plan of unification that allowed for Taiwan to keep its own military and other self-governing apparatuses. Cordial gestures from Beijing ought to be taken seriously by the Taipei government, if it is concerned at all about survival and the avoidance of combat on the island.
This mindless game into which the United States has locked itself with China — a carry over from the Trump days (now even intensified) — can be construed in the following way. Under the pretense of goodwill and willingness to dialogue (only to elicit Beijing’s disregard), Washington continues to provoke China incessantly (e.g., encircling near and around its coastal borders with military alliances [e.g., AUKUS, the “Quad,” an Asianized NATO], aircraft and warships; sanctions; dubious claims about Huawei, Hong
Kong and Xinjiang; support of Taiwan separatist/independence factions, among others). These cannot be the actions of a real and upstanding democracy, particularly that of a country which prides itself to be “exceptionally” good and correct.
There is much on and about which to critique mainland China, but this is neither the place nor time for that. Here the focus is U.S China policy. It should be stated unequivocally that U.S. policy toward China in the 21st century has resulted in, not peace, but heighten militarization and war — our planet, the world has altogether been put on a war footing.
As of this writing, it should be emphasized that Sino-American relations will not notably improve if the Taiwan question is not first correctly addressed — and only veritable resolution of issues will bring about improvement. China does not trust the United States, particularly regarding the latter’s involvement in Taiwan and near and around its coastal borders (i.e., the Taiwan Strait as well as South and East China Seas); the feeling is, of course, said to be mutual. However at this point, Beijing is not concerned about how Washington feels; it will carry out what has been carefully planned last year at 20th National Congress of the CCP. Parenthetically, China has no intention of becoming a hegemon in the likes of the United States or any sort domineering power; it does, however, think that the latter does not have much credibility left to speak of as a leader.
U.S. President Joe Biden ought to consider taking a page from his earlier predecessor Truman — that haberdasher from Missouri turned president — learning when a hands off option ought to be deployed. Instead of stoking the flame of cross-Strait hostilities with provocative visits, rhetoric and the supply of armaments — playing the “Taiwan card” — Washington should at least seek not to be part of the problem, but a possible solution-leader by facilitating genuine dialogue and healthy viable interaction. At the very least, the United States needs to desist from its acts of provocation against China and stop this utterly senseless and dangerous game of one-upmanship.
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