The Taiwan Issue in US-China Relations by Kishore Mahbubani, Previous President of the United Nations Security Council (Singapore)
The most dangerous issue in US-China relations is Taiwan. This is why it was unwise for the Trump Administration to allow a high-profile transit by President Tsai Ing-wen through the US in July 2019. Ignoring past precedents, the Administration allowed her to have public meetings attended by the media and meet with UN representatives of Taiwanese allies. This has angered Beijing.
Taiwan is the only issue that can trigger a war between the US and China. Yet, despite this, war is unlikely. Over several decades, the US and China have worked out an understanding on the Taiwan issue that has kept the peace. However, some ambiguity is embedded in this understanding. On one hand, the US acknowledges that both Beijing and Taipei “maintain there is but one China” and withdrew diplomatic recognition of Taipei in 1979. On the other, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) that same year, which provides for American support for Taiwan’s defense. Despite this ambiguity, the US and China have managed to maintain a stable relationship on the Taiwan issue.
This consensus may change under the Trump Administration, which is less sensitive to Beijing’s concerns on Taiwan. President Trump took a personal congratulatory call from Tsai Ing-wen upon his election. He authorized new defense sales and allowed Tsai to travel through the US. His National Security Advisor, John Bolton, has been even more provocative in his call for Washington to “revisit” the one-China policy. Paradoxically, the Trump Administration’s erratic behavior on several international issues may work to Beijing’s advantage. Richard Bush, an American expert on Taiwan, has said that the Trump Administration may be prepared to sacrifice Taiwan if it wants to settle larger issues with Beijing, making Taiwan a geopolitical pawn.
The biggest concern for Beijing is whether other countries would follow the Trump Administration’s lead and step up ties with Taiwan. This will not happen. As China will inevitably become the world’s largest economy, no country will sacrifice its relations with China for the sake of Taiwan. Taiwanese leaders should therefore develop a sense of geopolitical realism in dealing with China. The best way for Taiwan to expand its diplomatic space is to accept the 1992 Consensus. Similarly, Washington should also develop greater geopolitical sensitivity. It has two choices towards Taiwan. If it views Taiwan as an unsinkable aircraft carrier, this would only reinforce Taiwan’s isolation from the mainland and, consequently, the rest of the world. However, if the US views Taiwan as a healthy virus, it would encourage greater contact between the mainland and Taiwan, which, in the long run, could lessen the differences between the political systems of the mainland and Taiwan. In short, there is a possibility of a happy outcome of the Taiwan issue if Beijing, Taipei and Washington learn to handle it sensitively.