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OPINION: Taiwan conflict highlights U.S.-China challenges

By Lee Hamilton


America’s policy toward Taiwan is complicated to say the least. Taiwan is a democratic society in the shadow of autocratic China. It’s an economic and technological power and a key U.S. trading partner. We have similar values and strong people-to-people ties. We support Taiwan’s self-defense. 

But we don’t have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan; relations are managed by the American Institute in Taiwan, a nongovernmental organization. U.S. officials are careful with language when they talk about Taiwan. Any misstep will offend China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan. 

Tensions broke into the open recently when U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Taiwan. In an overnight stay, Pelosi praised Taiwanese democracy and met with President Tsai Ing-wen, legislators, and human-rights activists. China responded with bluster and threats. It launched missiles and conducted military drills alarmingly near Taiwan. 

Some critics said Pelosi provoked China needlessly. But most members of Congress, Republicans as well as Democrats, defended the trip, arguing the speaker should be free to visit areas that are important to the United States. 

China, of course, had been threatening Taiwan well before Pelosi’s visit, which provided a pretext for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to escalate. Xi, who has a history of being fearful of democracy movements, may see Taiwan as a threat. He may also want to distract from domestic problems. China’s economy has been contracting, dragged down by repeated COVID-19 shutdowns, and unemployment is high. 

Geography and history help explain Taiwan’s precarious situation. It’s about the size of the state of Indiana, with a population of 24 million. Its capital, Taipei, is modern and attractive. Taiwan’s advanced economy produced nearly $800 billion in goods and services in 2021. It is the United States’ eighth-largest trading partner. 

But only the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait separates it from China. Taiwan was long a Chinese territory, but Japan ruled it from 1895 until World War II. When Communists won China’s civil war in 1949, Chinese nationalists established a government in Taiwan. Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, and Taiwan moved toward self-rule and democracy. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1979. Since then, we have maintained a “One China” policy that is deliberately ambiguous. We count Taiwan as a friend, but we have formal relations with China, not with Taiwan. Walking a diplomatic tightrope, we acknowledge but don’t endorse China’s claim to Taiwan. 

After a crucial election in 2000 that produced a peaceful transfer of power, I visited Taiwan. Traveling as a private citizen, I met with the president-elect and other officials, and I later shared my impressions with friends in the U.S. government. It was a hopeful time, with democracy growing stronger. 

But for the past decade, China has grown more hostile toward its neighbors. Xi said last year that controlling Taiwan is part of the “historic mission” of the People’s Republic. China’s recent threats suggest he may be ready to force the issue. 

This is a dangerous situation: for the Taiwanese, obviously, but also for the U.S. and our allies. President Joe Biden has said the U.S. would use force, if necessary, to defend Taiwan from an attack by China. No one wants things to reach that point, but there’s no guarantee they won’t. Would the world stand against a Chinese attack as it has against Russia’s war in Ukraine? 

I’ve written before that the U.S.-China relationship is the most consequential relationship in the world today. We need to work with our allies to deter Chinese aggression, especially in Taiwan but also elsewhere in the region. We also need to communicate clearly, forcefully, and respectfully with China’s leaders. Getting this right is one of the most important — and difficult — foreign-policy challenges we face.       

Lee Hamilton, 91, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana.