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HomeOpinionCommentaryFormer US secretary of state calls for re-establishing diplomatic relations with Taiwan

Former US secretary of state calls for re-establishing diplomatic relations with Taiwan

By Russell Hsiao

During a recent speech delivered on US policy towards the Indo-Pacific in Washington, DC, the former secretary of state and director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Michael Pompeo, called on the US government to re-establish diplomatic relations with the government in Taiwan. In a speech on March 16 at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy think tank, the 70th secretary of state argued that the Indo-Pacific was “deeply connected” with the goal of preserving freedom and prosperity for the United States.

To emphasize this point, Pompeo opened by underscoring how he had recently returned from Taiwan – a country that he was unable to visit in his official capacity – and stated:

It became very clear to me that one of the central features of making sure that Taiwan has the capacity to defend itself is the world recognizing what we all know to be true […] there’s a simple truth: it [Taiwan] is not part of China. That if it became part of China this wouldn’t be reunification, this would be an aggressive action that destroyed the sovereignty of an independent country. And for an awfully long time the West has moved away from this, under coercive threats from the Chinese Communist Party, and no leaders in the West have been prepared to say the simple fact – which is that this is an independent sovereign nation and we ought to help it protect its own sovereignty. I think it is time that the United States do so.  

Pompeo’s speech at the Heritage Foundation followed a detailed statement that the former secretary of state-issued via social media that explained his rationale on the matter:

It is my view that the US government should immediately take necessary, and long-overdue, steps to do the right and obvious thing, that is to offer the Republic of China (Taiwan) America’s diplomatic recognition as a free and sovereign country. This isn’t about Taiwan’s future independence, it’s about recognizing an unmistakable already existent reality. That reality is, as many of your past & present leaders have made clear, there’s no need for Taiwan to declare independence because it’s already an independent country. Its name is the Republic of China (Taiwan). The people and government of the United States should simply recognize this political, diplomatic, and sovereignty reality. The Taiwanese people deserve the world’s respect for a free, democratic, and sovereign country.

Debate over Taiwan’s sovereignty in US foreign policy discourse is commonplace, especially among Taiwan and China watchers, with opinions becoming increasingly entrenched among observers, primarily because of the country’s complicated history following World War II, oversimplifications by the media and general pundits, and the implications of Beijing’s claims over Taiwan and the former’s continued refusal to renounce the use of force to settle its dispute with Taipei, among other factors.

This is despite the fact that the US government has not taken an official position on Taiwan’s sovereignty – as clearly displayed in its refusal to concede to Beijing’s efforts in the United Nations to establish an institution-wide “One-China Principle” through its deliberate misuse of UN Resolution 2758. Despite this pushback from the United States, China’s tactics have resulted in misleading interpretations of Resolution 2758 by many international bodies.

Following Reagan’s Lead

While certainly significant, Pompeo’s speech is not the first time that a senior former American official has called for re-establishing official relations with Taipei. During the presidential campaign of 1980 – a year after the United States withdrew its diplomatic recognition of Taipei in favor of establishing official ties with Beijing during the height of the Cold War – then-former California Governor and Republican Presidential Candidate Ronald Reagan made clear his desire to re-establish diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan), much to the chagrin of some of his advisors.

Reagan’s personal affection for Taiwan was well known and on the campaign trail he made pledges to the effect that, if elected president, he would resume an “official governmental relationship” or have “government-to-government” ties with Taipei. Given that many observers now see the world as being “on the foothills of a new Cold War,” it perhaps does not require a stretch of the imagination to understand why some US leaders are calling for a return to Reagan’s approach.

American public opinion on recognition of Taiwan

Despite the growing chorus of commentaries now focused on US policy towards Taiwan, what has been less clear within the overall US policy discussion on Taiwan is the American public’s view on the matter. According to a revealing survey on American public opinion toward Taiwan conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2021, sizable majorities favor US recognition of Taiwan as an independent country (69 percent) and just over half of Americans (52 percent) favor using US troops to defend Taiwan if China were to invade the island (a remarkable increase from the 19 percent willing to use US troops in 1982). Similarly, the poll found that a plurality (46 percent) favor explicitly committing to defend Taiwan if China invades, with only 12 percent opposing.

While seemingly consistent with prevailing American public opinion, Pompeo’s call for the US government to re-establish diplomatic relations with the government in Taiwan has obvious implications – most of all because of the implications for relations with the People’s Republic of China. Yet, most critiques of Pompeo’s position have largely left unexamined how Beijing’s own actions have in many respect necessitated a change. A more measured critique is that such a radical change in the US stance would weaken Washington’s ability to influence cross-Strait developments.

Ryan Hass, who served as director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia in the National Security Council during the Obama Administration, noted with concern that explicit US support for “Taiwan independence” would weaken US influence on cross-Strait developments, which could then lead to instability. This is a fair concern given the success Washington has had in maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait under the current approach, but it raises the question of whether this strategy will be sustainable in the mid-to-long term.

China’s growing economic and military power, coupled with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general-secretary Xi Jinping’s (習近平) stated desire to avoid prolonging the cross-Strait impasse indefinitely, could create a situation wherein both Taipei and Washington’s freedom of action could become increasingly limited. Indeed, as China grows militarily, a body of evidence is also growing of its more aggressive posture.

Accordingly, a strategy of preserving the “status quo” by both Washington and Taipei may only be sustainable if two conditions continue to simultaneously exist: the US maintains overwhelming military capacity to deter Beijing, while at the same time being able to consistently demonstrate its support for Taiwan’s international space in order to reassure the people of Taiwan that it will not abandon them as Beijing’s pressure campaign increases. In the absence of these conditions, Taiwan would likely be subject to a coerced unification or be pushed into a corner wherein a military conflict would erupt. This raises a key question: assuming that the status quo cannot be sustained indefinitely, what alternatives are at hand?

Four schools of thought guiding US cross-strait policy

The question of what alternate approaches the United States could consider for its cross-Strait policy was put forward in a think tank study published by The Project 2049 Institute. The 2017 report, entitled “The United States and Future Policy Options in the Taiwan Strait,” was co-authored by Lt. Col. (Ret.) Mark Stokes and Sabrina Tsai and laid out four schools of thought for guiding US policy towards cross-Strait relations:

One school holds that the US should accommodate the CCP’s position on Taiwan in order to advance US interests in stable and constructive US-China relations […] [A] second school of thought has promoted the abandonment of the US One China policy altogether, and calls for the extension of formal diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. […] [T]he third and arguably dominant school of thought promotes maintenance of the status quo in US policy toward Taiwan. […] [A] fourth school of thought advances a “soft balancing” strategy that gradually extends equal legitimacy to both sides within a broadened US One China policy framework.

As the means to thread the needle, the authors recommended the “soft balancing” strategy, as exemplified in the “One China, Two Governments policy” formula, which would essentially extend dual recognition of the ROC and the PRC under the US’ “One-China Policy.” Others concerned by what they perceive as the “hollowing out” of the US “One-China Policy” may disagree. [1] Even if the United States chooses not to terminate diplomatic relations with Beijing, the proposition of what essentially amounts to dual recognition does raise an interesting question as to what Beijing might do in the event of the United States extending diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.

As the report’s authors acknowledge themselves: “Beijing, however, would be unlikely to gracefully accept a US ‘One China, Two Governments policy,’ which in its view would be tantamount to an ‘Independent Taiwan.’” Arguably, US recognition will not fundamentally change the status of Taiwan in the international community. Realistically, it would be unlikely to alter the status of China in the United Nations, and it would remain to be seen whether other countries might follow suit.

For its part, the Biden administration has largely continued the policy of the previous administration, but has hewn more closely to the “status quo” school. In July 2021, US National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell stated: “We support a strong unofficial relationship with Taiwan. We do not support Taiwan’s independence.” Indeed, President Biden has stated on a number of occasions that “[Taiwan is] independent. It makes its own decisions.” Building on this, he later clarified: “[T]hey have to decide – ‘they’ – Taiwan. Not us. And we are not encouraging independence, we’re encouraging that they do exactly what the Taiwan Act requires, and that’s what we’re doing. Let them make up their mind. Period.”

On March 1, against the backdrop of Russia’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine, the Biden Administration dispatched a presidentially authorized delegation of former senior officials – led by former Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen – to reassure Taiwan. Again this past week, a senior bipartisan delegation of US senators and representatives led by Senator Lindsey Graham made an unannounced visit to Taiwan. During a press conference following their meeting with president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), Graham stated that “We’re not here to change the ‘one China’ policy. We’re here to say that we stand with our friends in Taiwan.”

US cross-Strait policy has long operated on the premise that Washington only has an interest in the process as opposed to the outcome. Yet, the current cross-Strait “status quo” – for reasons earlier alluded to – may not serve US interests over the long-term. A hyper-focused emphasis on process – without the full scope of political and diplomatic means with which to credibly affect the outcome could in fact lead to an inadvertent fait accompli. It is perhaps noteworthy that Pompeo opened his speech by remarking how he had traveled to Taiwan after leaving office, whereas he was unable to as secretary of state.

Instead, it is worth considering the political dimensions of deterrence. In other words, the political means to deter Beijing should be to lean on outcomes rather than focus entirely on process. This strategy would require credibly signaling the political and diplomatic consequences for Beijing if it were to take military action to settle cross-Strait differences.

Specifically, one approach could be to convey at a senior government level that if the PRC were to use military force, it would inevitably result in international recognition of Taiwan’s de jure independence. Returning to the former secretary of state’s premise: “one of the central features of making sure that Taiwan has the capacity to defend itself is the world recognizing […] it is not part of China.” While the elasticity of the US “One-China Policy” has withstood the test of the past several decades, it is not at all certain whether it can withstand the next few.

A proactive US policy should create conditions for the resolution of political differences between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait in a manner that best serves US interests. Against the backdrop of Beijing’s growing belligerence and Taipei’s importance as a reliable democratic and technologically advanced ally, a serious rethink of practice and policy are in order. Whether it involves reconsidering the US “One-China Policy” and re-establishing diplomatic relations with Taiwan or something else, it is in the interest of the United States to continue to gradually adjust the practice of its policy towards one that more accurately reflects the objective status quo in the Taiwan Strait.

The main point: A recent speech by former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in which he advocated for the United States to re-establish formal diplomatic relations with Taipei, should prompt further consideration as to whether the United States should reconsider the “One-China Policy” that limits its engagement with Taiwan.

Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute (GTI) and editor-in-chief of the Global Taiwan Brief.

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