House Speaker Kevin McCarthy plans to meet with the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, in California — where she’s been invited to speak at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. In addition to the likely April meeting in the Golden State, McCarthy also reportedly plans to visit Taiwan itself this year.
That may seem like a relatively benign diplomatic mission for the man who is second in line to the presidency, but it’s a move that is almost sure to cause outrage in Beijing. A visit to Taiwan by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last year so perturbed the Chinese Communist Party that it conducted military “operations” that encircled the entire island with Chinese military assets and even threatened to shoot down Pelosi’s plane in a vain effort to forestall her diplomatic overture.
The CCP has had its eye on conquering Taiwan since the de facto end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, and the party’s leadership has become more hawkish on reunification in recent years. In January, U.S. Air Force General Michael Minihan issued a memo that predicted an invasion of the island in 2025, but some analysts have argued that an invasion could come even sooner if the Red Army levies civilian boats for use as landing craft.
Much like with U.S. support for Ukraine after the Russian invasion in 2022, any direct aid to Taiwan in the event of an attack will likely receive intense criticism from non-interventionist elements in both major parties. However, a U.S.-aligned Taiwan provides both an economic and geopolitical ally in the region to counterbalance the growing threat from communist China.
The CCP’s territorial claim on the island, and its desire to enforce it, may be the focus of current foreign policy discussions in the region, but it’s often forgotten that Taiwan likewise has a claim on the Chinese mainland, indicated by the country’s official name — The Republic of China.
The current government of Taiwan is descended from the Chinese Nationalists, also known as the Kuomintang, that fled to the island in 1949 after they were defeated by the communists under Mao Zedong. Since then, two ideological factions have emerged in Taiwanese politics.
The traditional camp is embodied by the Kuomintang — which continues to see itself as the sole legitimate government of all China and opposes a separate Taiwanese national identity or independence.
The Kuomintang had previously operated as the official national government of all China since 1928 (after defeating various warlords who had carved up the country into their own personal domains). The current flag and national emblem of Taiwan is the same one that flew over all of China under the Nationalists, and the current constitution of Taiwan is the same constitution that was adopted by China as a whole in 1947, before the communist takeover. Taiwan also held China’s seat on the United Nations as well as one of the five permanent seats on the extremely important U.N. Security Council until 1971.
In 1979, the U.S. formally established relations with communist China and ended its recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign state. An act from Congress, the Taiwan Relations Act, in 1980 maintained de facto relations with Taiwan.
The Kuomintang ruled the island as a one-party state until democratic reforms were enacted in the mid-1980s and continued to dominate the country’s politics until the 2000 presidential election.
The current ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party, broke off from the Kuomintang during the democratic reforms of the ’80s. It supports a separate national identity for Taiwan and Taiwan’s full independence from mainland China. Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP’s candidate, won the 2020 presidential election by almost 20 points in the midst of the CCP’s crackdown in Hong Kong.
Either position could be used to the United States’ benefit. If the Kuomintang become popular again, the U.S. could reverse course and support its claim as the true government of China, undermining the CCP’s legitimacy in the region. If public opinion in Taiwan continues to swing toward full independence, the U.S. can promote closer relations on the grounds of protecting an autonomous, democratic nation from authoritarian aggression — perhaps gaining the support of other East Asian democracies like South Korea and Japan. The CCP has declared that any official American support for Taiwanese independence constitutes a “red line.”
Taiwan’s geographic position — 100 miles off the mainland — potentially provides a central link in a chain of alliances and partnerships the U.S. is forging in the western Pacific Rim to counter the CCP’s expansionist aims, especially its moves in the South China Sea.
The mutual defense treaty between the U.S. and Taiwan ended in 1980 — around the same time the United States recognized the communists as the legitimate government of China — but there is still an implicit understanding that the U.S. would intervene if the CCP launched an invasion. Taiwan currently supports 169,000 active military personnel and can call upon up to 1.6 million reservists in the event of an attack. The country has compulsory conscription, and President Ing-wen extended the timeframe of mandatory service from four months to a year in 2022. Additionally, the U.S. has provided billions in defense aid for the island’s military.
In addition to its strategic importance, Taiwan has implemented a highly successful free market economy of considerable value to the United States. Once the Kuomintang established itself on the island, it implemented land reform and an industrialization scheme that allowed for rapid development over the next few decades. Further market liberalization efforts in the 1960s and ’70s turned into an “economic miracle” during which the island nation was able to overcome challenges like a lack of natural resources to become a manufacturing powerhouse. According to the Heritage Foundation, Taiwan is ranked number four globally in economic freedom and number two in Asia after Singapore.
Taiwan’s industrial success stems primarily from its position in the tech industry’s supply chain. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company is the largest semiconductor foundry in the world, and HIWIN Technologies is one of the leading producers of machinery components used in automated manufacturing. The country’s tech companies are pioneering the use of advanced technology in manufacturing processes, which HIWIN Chairman Eric Chuo called “Industry 4.0,” according to the BBC.
As more and more communist Chinese-made products are revealed to contain spying technology, Taiwan’s wares could provide a far safer alternative. Though the Biden administration is trying to incentivize domestic semiconductor and microchip production, Taiwan’s products will still be of strategic importance to the nation until those efforts are fully realized.
Beijing’s sensitivity toward closer U.S.-Taiwan relations necessitates a delicate approach from U.S. diplomats, but it’s a relationship the Biden administration must pursue if it’s serious about countering China in the Pacific. Taiwan’s strong economic position supplies a boon to the U.S. tech industry at the expense of communist China, its geographic location provides a first line of defense against communist expansionism, and the island’s politics could furnish the U.S. with an ideological rallying cry for other democratic nations in the region.
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