Neville Chamberlain famously excused the abandonment of Czechoslovakia at Munich by calling the victim “a faraway country of which we know little.” His infamy is not totally deserved. Britain had no treaty ties to Prague, nor did it have the military capacity to take on Germany at the time, and Chamberlain on his return immediately kick-started British rearmament.

For most Americans, Taiwan is even farther away and even less well known. Probably even less well known still is the U.S. commitment to defend the island against any attack from the Mainland. That commitment, made when Taiwan was an offshore counter-revolutionary base area run by Chiang Kai-shek who had open military ambitions to invade the mainland, now actually has both moral and realistic force. Taiwan is today a thriving democracy and a mid-level economic power in its own right. What is sometimes forgotten, it has voluntarily eschewed nuclear weapons in return for that U.S. military guarantee.

Taiwan’s unique anomalous position means that if it is part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it is covered by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and allowed to have nuclear weapons, or it is not part of China and not a signatory to the NPT, and so no treaty obligations prevent it from developing them. It certainly has the expertise to do so. Despite the temptations to go nuclear in the face of the nuclear-armed mainland’s thousand missiles pointed its way, and the massive manpower superiority of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), it is in everyone’s interest that the island maintains its pledge. On a wider scale, because U.S. guarantees to South Korea and Japan also dissuade them from the nuclear option, Seoul and Tokyo would certainly factor any abandonment of Taiwan into their own long-term military plans.

Bizarrely, however, the Bush administration does not have any serious high-level relations with Taipei, despite the commitment to defend it against another nuclear power. Washington even refuses to allow Taiwan’s senior leaders to visit the United States. Taiwan’s President Chen is restricted to brief stopovers in Alaska or Hawaii when he is in transit across the Pacific.

Bush apparently considers President Chen a troublemaker – but he is after all a democratically elected troublemaker, which rather makes nonsense of the administration’s claims that spreading democracy is a major plank of its foreign policy. The United States seems to share China’s view that a democratic referendum on Taiwan’s future is provocative and unreasonable. However, it is not conducive to reasoned exchange of views when the only meaningful communication between the United States and Taiwan is to restrict or extend how many minutes Chen can stop over at outlying airports.

Beijing v. Taipei

Cross-strait relations are a major issue in the domestic politics of both sides. In the PRC, in the absence of any ideological cement to bind the Communist Party together, the contenders for position in the leadership play the tough-on-Taiwan card as a trump. Taiwanese officials concerned with cross-strait relations discern a good cop/bad cop routine with their mainland counterparts. Both CPC factions want “reunification.” But while one thinks that open relations and sweet-talking are the way forward, the other has stationed a thousand missiles aimed at the island and passed the PRC’s “Anti-Secession” law, “legalizing” military action against the island.

The present obduracy of the PRC on the issue disguises some earlier wobbles. The constitution of Mao Zedong’s 1931 Chinese Soviet Republic promised the right of self-determination to the peoples of the former Chinese Empire, and Mao himself told Edgar Snow, in Red Star over a China, in a section that was fact-checked by the Chinese Communist Party, that Formosa, as Taiwan was then known, could choose its own fate.

Oddly, the Communist party is happier with the heirs of its old adversary Chiang Kai Shek. Chiang’s Kuomintang (KMT) has maintained a residual claim to the whole of China as the “Republic of China” while the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wants to abandon both the title and the grandiose ambitions of the former Republic of China (ROC). “Reunification” with the PRC has infinitesimal support among Taiwanese. So, the KMT’s adherence to “One-China” is based partly upon the residual pan-Chinese politics of its rapidly deceasing members who came over in 1949, but mostly because annoying the mainland is bad for business.

The DPP’s independence position is extremely popular with Taiwanese, which is why President Chen is holding the referendum next March on applying to the UN under the name of Taiwan. The popularity of the issue forces the KMT to be pragmatic, instead posing the question of whether the application should be in any name that can get the island in the organization. Since in any case the UN defers to the unilateral mainland interpretation of the resolution that admitted the PRC to the organization, neither method will lead to Taiwan’s admission. But it will raise political heat on the issue from which the DPP is likely to benefit for both the presidential and legislative elections in the New Year.

Cannily, Chen timed the referendum not only with the elections in view, but also in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. He is tweaking the dragon’s tail with relative confidence that the Games are too important for China to risk disruption from overt action against Taiwan. Seen as an act of self-determination by the Taiwanese, the referendum plays to their biggest strength. Instead of legalisms about successor states, ROC versus PRC, the best argument for Taiwanese independence is that its 23 million people overwhelmingly want it.

Washington’s Approach

When the United States and the Western powers recognized the PRC, in general they accepted the reality that Beijing represented China. This was made easier because at the time the Chiang Kai-shek regime insisted that the Republic of China based on Taiwan was the legitimate government of all China and indeed of Tibet, Mongolia, Tannu Tuva in the Soviet Union, and the northern part of Burma! It broke off relations with any country that signed up with the PRC, thus setting the conditions for its own isolation.

But the countries that sent ambassadors to Beijing still hedged on the issue of whether Taiwan was part of China. The joint communiqués tended to “note”, “understand,” or “respect” Beijing’s position. The United States “acknowledges” China’s position. But its different interpretation is expressed in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which states that “Whenever the laws of the United States refer or relate to foreign countries, nations, states, governments, or similar entities, such terms shall include and such laws shall apply with respect to Taiwan.”

While the United States has not officially changed its position since, Bush administration officials have done so, in effect kowtowing to Beijing and implicitly accepting the PRC version of the relationship. That sends dangerous signals to the PRC, which may well encourage it to assume that a cross-straits adventure would not invoke the defense that the United States has otherwise pledged. It was the Thatcher government’s insouciance about the British South Atlantic territories that enticed Argentinean President Galtieri to attack the Falkland Islands. That was an expensive and relatively bloody conflict. But it never risked a global or nuclear conflict the way that a PRC invasion of Taiwan would.

Indeed, the eagerness to avoid giving offense to Beijing on issues of protocol is even more puzzling in the light not just of the willingness, but also of the eagerness, of Washington to sell weaponry to Taiwan, which is surely much more substantially provocative. Indeed recently Bush asked indignantly how the Taiwanese expected Americans to put their troops on the line “if they don’t buy our weapons,” according to a anonymous source at the meeting.

In fact, Taiwan celebrated the end of half a century of martial law in the 1990s with a conscious strategy to prioritize health, education and economic progress rather than military spending. This is not a decision that the Bush administration would necessarily understand. While there is a consensus that the Taiwanese military does need to re-equip to face the threat from the PRC, legislators have been haggling about the precise nature of those needs, and there is a strong suspicion that some of the items the United States is hawking are big on bucks and low on bangs. But politically, Taiwan may end up paying the price to ensure support in Washington, where both houses of Congress in bipartisan resolutions have called for Taiwanese officials to have free access to the United States.

The Ties That Don’t Quite Bind

Ironically, even as cross-strait political relations have chilled, the economic ties between the two sides are closer than ever. There are a million Taiwanese working in the mainland for Taiwanese companies who have invested billions of dollars there. The island’s businesses specialize in high-tech research and development, but manufacture their products on the mainland. However the relationship does not leave Taiwan totally at the mercy of the mainland. Taiwanese capital, management and technology are essential for the development of China’s high-end electronic export trade, responsible for over 100 million jobs on the Mainland.

Taipei’s plans for the island to become a regional financial center have not prospered. The government has yet to take the risk of opening up its financial markets to mainland companies. Presently, to avoid being snagged by the government’s restrictions on investment, few of the vast revenues of Taiwan’s corporate presence on the mainland are repatriated.

The talks with the mainland are constrained by the PRC’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Taipei government and the latter’s understandable suspicion of Beijing. So, Taipei maintains much-evaded restrictions on investment in the mainland as well as a total ban on PRC investment in Taiwan and restrictions on mainland visitors. Talks on scheduled direct flights have also foundered. The PRC side is deliberately stalling in the hope that it will influence the impending election.

The PRC wants victory for Ma Ying-jeou, the KMT candidate for presidency. But the DPP’s Frank Hsieh is the favorite. Hsieh is considered to be more pragmatic that Chen Shui-ban, whose politics were hardened in the long struggle against Chiang’s dictatorship. Many Taiwanese hope that he can deliver some normalization of relations with the mainland while keeping the PRC politically away from the door.

A mutually satisfactory solution, however, is not yet on the horizon. The ham-fisted way in which Beijing abused the Hong Kong “one country two systems” solution for Hong Kong has excluded any such deal. The PRC’s insistence on one China confronts the desire of most Taiwanese to convert their de facto independence into de jure independence, with UN membership being the most tangible symbol.

Since the issue is so prominent in domestic politics on both sides there is an inherent danger of escalation and instability. The stalemate across the straits, with China’s threatened military options facing the promised U.S. defense, has dangerous implications for the region and the world. By its insouciance toward Taipei and its deference to the PRC on what one might call ceremonial issues, Washington has incurred military liabilities to defend a government over whose behavior it has only indirect influence.

The lack of U.S. diplomatic support for Taipei lessens the chance of a negotiated solution. It weakens the Taiwanese hand while encouraging Chinese obstinacy. If the United States has no official relations with the island, then why should Beijing? The recent appearance of President Bush at the presentation of the Congressional Medal of Honor to the Dalai Lama demonstrates that the sky does not fall in when Beijing is displeased. It is time for serious and open relations with Taiwan, predicated on the latter’s abdication of any revanchist claims to the Mainland.

Ian Williams contributes frequently to Foreign Policy In Focus ( on UN and international affairs. More of his work is available on

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