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Since the Carter administration officially recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on Jan. 1, 1979, the Republic of China on Taiwan has existed in international limbo. It lost its seat in the United Nations and swiftly saw its major diplomatic partners cut ties. Taipei has almost no official standing among the community of nations, a byproduct of the world’s half-century desire to trade with the PRC.
It's long past time to rectify that historical mistake. Taiwan deserves to be brought back into the global community, not least because of its actions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If global governance is based on openness and cooperative behavior, then Taiwan has more than cleared the bar. At a time when the future of international organizations is increasingly in doubt, Taiwan has been eager to join them and add its expertise. Moreover, it has proved itself a good global actor during the coronavirus crisis, eschewing the kind of nationalism that worries many who are committed to internationalism.
According to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, Taiwan’s non-embassy in the United States, over 2 million Taiwan-made N95 masks have already been donated to the United States, over 5 million were gifted to the European Union, and another 5 million will be dispersed globally, even as the country has needed them for its own purposes.
It is now known that Taipei early on tried to warn the World Health Organization that coronavirus might be transmitted between humans, but was ignored by that body. The WHO, under Chinese influence, refuses to allow Taiwan membership and refused to act on Taipei’s warnings. If the WHO and Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus had acted responsibly, the COVID crisis could have been significantly contained, even in the face of Beijing’s misleading the world about the nature of the virus and the numbers of infections and deaths in China.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Taiwan has had perhaps the world’s most effective policy for mitigating the spread of coronavirus, despite being on the front lines. It imposed a sweeping ban on travel from China, maintained a ban on Chinese food products, and rigorously tested and monitored infections, allowing it to avoid the type of nationwide shutdown now playing havoc with Western economies. Learning from the 2003 SARS epidemic, Taiwan has emerged as a model in preparedness and early action, something that many nations will likely model themselves on, so as to avoid a repeat of the catastrophic effects of COVID-19.
Yet there are reasons other than its role during the coronavirus crisis for bringing Taiwan back into the international community.
As democracy has retreated around the world in recent decades, Taiwan has remained a beacon for those transitioning from authoritarianism to freedom. It has been a thriving democracy since the late-1980s, regularly transferring power between its two main political parties, the KMT (founded by Sun Yat-sen and the party of Chiang Kai-shek) and the currently-ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Taiwan’s 23 million citizens not only increasingly think of themselves as Taiwanese, and not displaced mainlanders, they have proved that a flourishing democracy can take root in an ethnically Chinese society.
For decades, Taiwan has been a leader in the high-tech economy, and will become increasingly important as global supply chains shift away from China, due to China's maturing economy, President Trump’s trade war and now the coronavirus. It has long been one of the world’s leading producers of advanced semiconductor chips, while Foxconn, one of the major suppliers to the iPhone, has already urged Apple to move its production out of China. As the competition between China and the United States heats up over semiconductors, 5G and artificial intelligence, a closer tech relationship between American and Taiwanese firms should be a priority.
Reacting to the souring of U.S.-China relations that began during the Obama era, the Trump administration has done more to deepen relations with Taiwan than any other since the 1970s.
Strategically, Taiwan is situated at the confluence of the East and South China Sea and is a linchpin in defense of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Beijing’s goal of taking control of Taiwan, a priority for Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, is as much about Chinese domestic politics as it is about the ability to dominate the inner seas of Asia and the western Pacific Ocean. Beijing continues to intimidate Taiwan, sending jetfighters near its airspace and conducting naval exercises near its waters. Keeping Taiwan out of Chinese hands is vital to the future of free navigation and the security of American allies like Japan.
Reacting to the souring of U.S.-China relations that began during the Obama era, the Trump administration has done more to deepen relations with Taiwan than any other since the 1970s. It has agreed to sell advanced defensive equipment and upgraded diplomatic contacts. Last month, it signed the TAIPEI Act, sponsored by Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Chris Coons, D-Del., designed to encourage other nations to increase ties with Taiwan and to prevent Taipei’s 15 remaining diplomatic partners from buckling under to Chinese pressure to abandon the island.
More can and should be done, however. Washington must use its budgetary might to get Taiwan as a full member of international groups such as Interpol and the International Civil Aviation Organization. The U.S. government should leverage its $400 million contribution to the WHO, the world’s largest, into getting WHO's member states to invite Taiwan into the organization.
Congress should also pass the Taiwan Assurance Act, sponsored by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., which calls for joint U.S.-Taiwanese military exercises, higher-level bilateral exchanges, and a free trade agreement, among other recommendations. Creating a new pan-Asian democracy forum, with Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and other nations will also normalize Taipei’s participation in international events. In these, as in other ways, Washington must take the lead to encourage other states to do the right thing.
At the private level, representatives from democratic Taiwan should be prioritized in grassroots exchanges and leadership programs, and American research laboratories, worried about potential espionage from Chinese researchers, can instead reach out to Taiwanese scientists. If Taiwan started an alternative to the CCP-funded Confucius Institutes, to teach Americans about traditional Chinese culture and Taiwan's democratic society, then American universities should welcome it.
In a post-COVID world, prudently reassessing America’s relations with China should include recognizing historical mistakes. It is long past time to bring Taiwan in from the cold.