Few people remember December 15, 1978. On that dark day in American history, President Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. would abandon Taiwan, its faithful ally, and establish diplomatic relations with communist China.
This event brought to a tragic end a drama that began twenty-nine years earlier. On December 10, 1949, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek escaped capture by Mao Zedong’s communists by exiling himself on the island of Taiwan. For the rest of his long life, Chiang claimed to be the legal Chinese head of state.
Until 1971, the United States had stood behind Chiang’s assertion. Chiang’s ambassador had standing in Washington, and his representative had veto power in the United Nations’ Security Council. U.S. troops were stationed on the island to prevent a communist takeover.
President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger changed this position drastically. They claimed that the United States might drive a wedge between communist China and the U.S.S.R. by opening up to the Chinese. This advantage would come by abandoning Taiwan. When the United Nations voted to expel Taiwan in 1971—under the title of Nationalist China—the United States did not object. Indeed, Dr. Kissinger spent much of 1971 secretly flying back and forth to communist China to lay the groundwork for President Nixon’s 1972 tragic visit.
On March 12, 1972, the Brazilian Catholic scholar, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira wrote in the Folha de S. Paulo: “Given the Americans’ easy-going naiveté and the cunning of the Chinese communists, the agreement will highly benefit the communists, who will take advantage of every opportunity to advance their ideology.”
President Carter’s announcement of diplomatic recognition was the culmination of the Nixon-Kissinger strategy. Indeed, Professor Corrêa de Oliveira’s assessment had been correct. Mr. Carter did mention Taiwan in the second paragraph of the speech that he gave on that dark day. “[T]he people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.” However, later in the speech, he delivered the blow of his betrayal. “The Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”
From that day on, Taiwan has existed in a state of ambiguity. It operates as a country but is not acknowledged as being an independent nation. The Taiwan government developed a strong economy based upon foreign trade, gradually instituted democratic forms of government, and prayed that the United States would not betray them again if China invaded. Gordon Chiang, the author of The Coming Collapse of China, spelled the situation out succinctly in a recent article.
“‘Ambiguity’ pervades America’s approach to Taiwan. Today, Washington’s policy is said to be one of ‘strategic ambiguity,’ in other words, not telling either Beijing or Taipei what the U.S. will do. The idea is that America should keep Chinese aggressors guessing as to whether it will defend the island republic.”
There are several signs that the Chinese communists intend to move against Taiwan in the near future.
The most immediate is its current attempt to solidify control over Hong Kong. The United Kingdom turned over the one-time Crown Colony to China in 1997. In return, the communists placated the British with promises to institute the policy of “One Country, Two Systems” (1C2S). China would take possession of Hong Kong, yet respect the people’s traditional rights and free markets. Under cover of the coronavirus crisis, Beijing has now consolidated its control over the city.
Taiwan is the next item on China’s wish list. Its vibrant trade and highly developed infrastructure would give Beijing an economic boost, which it badly needs.
Xi Jinping makes no secret of his desire to end the seventy-year standoff. On January 2, 2019, he made a speech offering Taiwan the “benefits” of the 1C2S policy. He continued with a veiled threat. “Our compatriots in Taiwan, regardless of political affiliation, religious belief, social status, or origin of birth, whether civilian or military: You must see that ‘Taiwan independence’ will only bring disaster. You should resolutely oppose ‘Taiwan independence’ and join hands with us to pursue the bright prospects of peaceful reunification. We are willing to create vast space for peaceful reunification; but we will definitely not leave any room for separatist activities aimed at ‘Taiwan independence’ in any form.”
Xi’s words have not always been so conciliatory. According to scholar Francis Fukuyama’s May 2020 article for The American Interest, “Xi has stated very clearly his intention to re-absorb Taiwan within the decade, if necessary by the use of force.”
The population of Taiwan wants nothing to do with Xi’s plans for its future. According to a poll reported by the Taiwan News, survey participants were asked, “Do you think you are Taiwanese or Chinese, or do you have another identity?” “Of those who responded, 83.2 percent view themselves as Taiwanese, followed by 5.3 percent who consider themselves Chinese, while 6.7 percent claim to be both Taiwanese and Chinese and 4.8 percent have no opinion or refused to answer the question.” According to the BBC, the victor in Taiwan’s 2016 and 2020 Presidential election, Tsai Ing-wen, openly leans toward independence.
Maintaining Taiwan’s independence is crucial to the U.S. role in the Pacific to contain the ambitions of the Chinese communists.
John Yoo and Robert J. Delahunty describe Taiwan’s strategic importance. “Taiwan, which General Douglas MacArthur once called ‘an unsinkable aircraft carrier,’ occupies a vital strategic position in the region. Not only does it sit 100 miles off the Chinese mainland, but it is also 200 miles from the Philippines, 700 miles from Japan, and 900 miles from Vietnam. Taiwan plays the forward position in the ‘first island chain’… that can hem in the Chinese Navy if it seeks to break out to deeper Pacific waters.”
Seth Cropsey of the Hudson Institute summed up the political situation. “The past forty years of American—and Western—China policy has failed. The Beijing regime is no more tolerable in 2020 than it was in 1950, or 1989: it is, however, far richer as it continues to build a military equal to its global ambition. Taiwan is democratic, prosperous, and free. Not all nations are equal, despite the pretensions of the UN General Assembly. Recognizing Taiwan presents a rare opportunity to align American values at home and interests abroad.”
For some, President Carter’s betrayal of Taiwan was a positive development. The Carter Center describes it in glowing phrases. “President Carter’s decision to normalize the relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China in 1979 changed China, the United States, and the world. The Carter Center’s China Program is dedicated to preserving this legacy and advancing U.S.-China relations by building synergy between China and the United States, fostering greater cooperation between them and other nations.”
As China aggressively pursues its sinister goals, the glowing image of the communist nation is proving deadly. President Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s betrayal was wrong in 1971. President Carter’s betrayal was wrong in 1978. Today’s betrayal is also wrong.