Ironically, the only thing stopping Taiwan from giving up the Republic of China name entirely is… China. Beijing would throw a fit (and maybe a few missiles) if Taiwan ever removed “China” from its official name. Yet little by little, as with its internet domain, Taiwan is giving up any pretense of being Chinese. The vestigial mainland seats were removed from its legislature in 1991. Its maps and tourism posters show only the island of Taiwan. It maintains its expansive Chinese-heritage claims to the South China Sea, but without much conviction. Slowly but inexorably, Taiwan is going its own way.
More than 90 percent of Taiwan’s current population was born after the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, and fewer than 2 percent were adults when the two Chinas parted ways. Most of those who were adults in Taiwan back then actually grew up Japanese: The island was ruled from Tokyo between 1895 and 1945. In fact, Taiwan has only been governed from the mainland for five of the last 125 years, and even during that short period, the mainland-based KMT authorities managed to massacre tens of thousands of Taiwanese civilians. Whatever the legal status of Taiwan, its moral connection to China is tenuous at best.
Today, surveys suggest that 56.9 percent of Taiwan’s people consider themselves to be solely Taiwanese, with a further 36.5 percent identifying as both Taiwanese and Chinese. Only a residual 3.6 percent identify as solely Chinese (with the remainder declining to respond).
There is no debating the fact that Taiwan draws its culture mainly from China. But Taiwan is not China, any more than Austria is Germany or the United States is England. Like everywhere else in the world, Taiwan has a complex history. China is a big part of that history, but it makes up a smaller and smaller part of Taiwan’s present. The days when China could consider Taiwan its so-called little brother, a mere appendage of Fujian province across the strait, are over. Taiwan has grown up—and is ready to move out.
But after seven decades of de facto independence on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, the “One China” myth is wearing thin. Taiwan is never going to vote to become a province of China, and China is never going to invade Taiwan, one hopes. Although Chinese leaders have repeatedly left open the possibility that they might use military force to take over the island, China’s capacity to undertake such a logistically challenging amphibious assault is doubtful, to say the least. Threats of future hostility are no reason to keep a country of 24 million people in perpetual limbo. It’s high time for the world to recognize Taiwan as a member of the global community of nations. If not now, when?
Taiwan has not declared its independence, though the DPP maintains that the country is already independent. Either way, the most practical next step isn’t a formal declaration that throws down a gauntlet to an already-embattled China. It’s the simple recognition of realities on the ground through actions that treat Taiwan more like an ordinary country. No one can reasonably expect Washington to recognize Taipei out of some vague sense of historical responsibility. But the United States is now locked in an epic struggle with China to shape the character of the Pacific Basin for generations to come. Taiwan is a key node in pan-Asian technology and production networks. With Hong Kong’s autonomy now compromised, Taiwan may also become the last free media zone in the Chinese-speaking world.
The United States doesn’t need naval facilities or air force bases in Taiwan. Such trifles are the stuff of geopolitical fantasies, of overgrown boys playing at war by putting markers on maps. But the United States would benefit from seeing Taiwan’s autonomy put on a firmer footing. Obviously, nothing so dramatic as full U.S. diplomatic recognition of Taiwan is imminent, and little could realistically happen before the November elections. But—if Tsai asks for it—a gradual escalation of U.S.-Taiwan relations should be on the next American administration’s agenda in 2021.
In any case, the main benefits to the United States are to be gained from the process of recognizing Taiwan—from the slow but consistent ratcheting up of the diplomatic pressure on China—not from reaching the end goal of normalized relations.
Taiwan deserves to be a normal country. That’s not America’s problem, but the United States can use gradual steps toward the recognition of Taiwan to help it achieve larger goals such as economic liberalization and the promotion of human rights. Regional allies such as Japan and South Korea, as well as emerging partners such as India and Vietnam, can and should be brought into these efforts. Taiwan is not the only country being bullied by China. If the United States starts the wheels turning, it may find the rest of Asia bandwagoning on its side.