The Importance of Taiwan to China and the United States
The importance of Taiwan to China and the United States is growing in 2021, largely due to the increased competition between Beijing and Washington over the position of dominant power in the Western Pacific. In this competition, China is the emerging power while the United States is the current stabilizing force in the region. China wishes to replace the United States in its position of de facto regional leader and Washington wants to retain its privileged status.
A primary indicator of which country is to lead the region in the future is the international status of Taiwan. Beijing is intent on drawing Taiwan back into the embrace of being part of greater China, and the United States insists that this goal — if it is to be attained at all — must be achieved by peaceful means rather than by force or intimidation. For its part, Taiwan’s political leadership, backed by the majority of Taiwanese residents, is striving hard to remain free of Beijing’s control and to pursue a de facto independence as a separate, democratic republic. Taiwan’s position is unacceptable to Beijing but supported by Washington. China views the American support as gross interference in its internal affairs by preventing national reunification, whereas the United States opposes on principle the further expansion of Chinese communism into territories under the control of friendly, free, and democratic allies. The tension inherent between the principled policies of Beijing and Washington over Taiwan has become greatly magnified in view of the intensifying US-PRC competition in the Western Pacific. This tension inevitably increases the risk to peace in the Taiwan Strait.
As understandable as the PRC position on Taiwan may be, the United States cannot afford to withdraw or significantly reduce its support to Taiwan as long as the strategic competition between Beijing and Washington hinge upon the combined factors of ideology (communism vs democracy), models of national development (centralized state planning vs democratic participation), and regional leadership (Chinese vs American). If the United States should fail to prevent China’s absorption of a resistant Taiwan, then a chain of events could occur that would be devastating to the U.S. role in the global community, especially its indispensable role as defender of freedom, liberty, free enterprise, and democracy. There is no other country than the United States able at this time in history to play this essential role on a global level.
In terms of U.S. policy towards the Taiwan issue, the bottom line should be continued support to Taiwan and its people to deter, or if necessary defeat, any PRC attempt to gain control over the island by forceful means. Over the longer term, the United States ought not to try to separate Taiwan permanently from mainland China, as that is something the Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should determine for themselves. Towards China, the United States should constantly pursue friendly and cooperative relations with Beijing, as China has every right to assume great power status in the world and the country has tremendous potential to improve human conditions worldwide. There is a fine balance between policies supporting Taiwan, not encouraging Taiwan independence, and maintaining positive relations with the PRC. The United States has shown itself able to maintain this nuanced approach in policy, and it is to be hoped that such a course will be continued throughout the Biden administration and beyond.