US relations with PRC and Taiwan in a time of 'plague': William Stanton

What will it take for the US to confront the PRC?

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(Getty Image photo)

(Getty Image photo)

The United States’ relations with the PRC have inexorably but inevitably worsened since the accession to power of Xi Jinping (習近平) in 2012.

We have witnessed the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) increasing arrogance and aggression both at home and abroad; its imprisonment of a million or more Uighurs in labor camps; its crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong; its suppression of all unorthodox views on domestic issues; its arrest of foreigners as hostages; and its clear ambition to upend the global economic and security order that the U.S. established at the end of World War II—from which the Chinese government itself benefitted.

The PRC’s tactics have included bullying of other countries; seizure of islands and their militarization in the South China Sea; debt traps for poor countries; taking control of the UN agencies; blatant espionage directed at U.S. bases and elsewhere; the expulsion of U.S. journalists working for the most prominent newspapers in America; efforts to reshape the worldwide internet in accordance with CCP preferences; massive intellectual property theft, and threats to cut off supply chains of Chinese products on which we depend, including rare earth elements and pharmaceuticals. Although the PRC has voted for UN sanctions against North Korea and Iran to inhibit their nuclear and missile programs, it is evident the PRC does not abide by these commitments and continues to be the main source of proliferation technology for Pakistan as well.

One would hope that such behavior would begin to make an impression on even the most besotted believers in the possibility of mutually beneficial U.S. cooperation with the PRC. Those Americans who signed the letter to the Washington Post last year urging President Trump not to “Make China an Enemy” surely should re-examine their thinking in light of continuing PRC hostility toward the U.S. and other democracies unwilling to subjugate their own interests to those of the CCP.

Xi Jinping is a committed Marxist pursuing Socialism’s triumph

Those who would like to believe that the PRC is not a hostile power should pay attention to what its leadership says. This is a key message of Charles Parton, a former British diplomat, in a superb March 25 essay “China Has a Strategy and Britain Doesn’t”.

As Parton points out, as long ago as early 2013, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping in his very first speech to the Politburo, forecast a “long-term struggle between the two social systems” of socialism and capitalism and specifically expressed his belief and intention that socialism would win:

“Most importantly, we must concentrate our efforts on . . . building socialism that is superior to capitalism, and laying the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.”

We should recognize that Xi Jinping is a committed Marxist who, in the same address, argued that:

“Facts have repeatedly told us that the analysis of the basic contradictions of capitalist society by Marx and Engels is not outdated. The historical materialism view that capitalism is inevitably dying and socialism is inevitably victorious is not outdated.”

Wuhan Coronavirus Should Change Global Perceptions of the PRC and Taiwan

It is now also clear that the deadly consequences of the Wuhan Flu might have been mitigated if the CCP had not tried for weeks to cover it up. A South China Morning Post article, based on PRC Government records, indicates the first person infected with the Wuhan Flu may have been identified as early as November 17, 2019.

There is also evidence that the PRC has hidden the truth about the number of citizens who died from this virus, and is now also withholding all information about the disease’s ongoing resurgence, as well as the number of its citizens who continue to fall victim and die from the virus that first bloomed in Wuhan. Meanwhile, PRC government spokespersons have spread false and malicious rumors that the origin of the disease was from a U.S. military on a visit to Wuhan.

Even some of the PRC’s reported efforts to aid other countries caught in this pandemic have turned out to be fraudulent. “Donations” to other countries of virus test kits have sometimes actually been sales instead, and the kits themselves have often been proven to be defective including in the Czech Republic, Spain, and Turkey.

Simultaneously, the obsequious behavior of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) leadership promoting policies and spreading misinformation that served the PRC rather than global interests, has further eroded public confidence in the WHO.

The devastating consequences of the coronavirus have riveted the world’s attention and fear. In contrast to the PRC’s performance, Taiwan’s handling of the virus has received universal acclaim – aside, of course, from the PRC or the WHO. Recognition and praise for Taiwan’s performance has appeared in, among other media outlets, the Financial Times, The Guardian, the Japan Times, the BBC, Aljazeera, The Diplomat, NBC News, Time Magazine, the U.S. National Public Radio, The New York Times (NYT), Wired, and Foreign Policy.

The Economist, on March 26, published an editorial “Let Taiwan into the World Health Organization.” Many in the media also criticized both the PRC and the WHO’s management of the problem. The Diplomat’s article on the coronavirus outbreak was sub-titled, “How Democratic Taiwan Outperformed Autocratic China.”

Now that international opinion of Taiwan is so high, and opinions about the PRC – certainly in the U.S. – are so low, it is an opportune time for the U.S. to strengthen its relationship with Taiwan and to continue to reshape U.S. relations with the PRC. It is unclear, however, if this will happen.

Some commentators are now arguing that given the mistakes the U.S. government itself has made in its early handling of the pandemic, the PRC will emerge stronger and more capable of establishing a new world order in its own image. My own view, however, is that to have achieved its current level of success as a nation, the PRC depended above all others on the U.S. open markets, investments, technology, educational opportunities, and woefully benign policy responses to its provocations.

Those days, however, are ending and the simple truth is that the PRC has always needed the U.S. far more than the other way around. The U.S. is self-sufficient in food production and energy while the PRC is not.

Only some 12% of U.S. GDP depends on the overall exports of its goods and services. The largest percentage of those exports go to Mexico, Canada, and EU countries, followed by the PRC.

Not many people want to emigrate to the PRC even if they could, whereas the U.S. continues to attract international talent.

Future US policies toward the WHO and Chinese supply Chains

Still, the U.S. needs to do more, particularly based on lessons learned during the ongoing pandemic. Washington, more than ever, needs to strengthen its relations with fellow democracies.

None is more deserving of U.S. attention than Taiwan. Taiwan not only has garnered international acclaim as the country that best handled the deadly virus, but it is also widely recognized as an ideal model of democratic transformation.

The WHO: A simple start would be using the leverage of the U.S. as the largest contributor in both assessed and voluntary contributions to the WHO to stop the organization from acting as a surrogate for the PRC, extolling its alleged achievements, overlooking its failings, and for political reasons acceding to Chinese demands to exclude Taiwan from being an observer, much less a participant in WHO activities. Bruce Aylward, a senior advisor to the WHO Director-General, went so far as to hang up on a reporter rather than answer a question about Taiwan; as if Taiwan did not exist, were not a significant contributor to global health, and did not serve as a model for fighting the Wuhan coronavirus.

If the WHO is no more than a messenger boy for the PRC government, the U.S. should halt its assessed funding to the bureaucratic-heavy organization. At the same time, the U.S. should also abandon the foolish policy President Clinton enunciated in an informal forum during his June 1998 visit to the PRC, when he stated that the U.S. did not “believe that Taiwan should be a member in any organization for which statehood is a requirement.”

This policy was foolish for several reasons. The U.S. received nothing in return for this concession to Chinese preferences except perhaps for a smile from CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin.

It also failed to take into account the scientific and technological contributions Taiwan made and could make in the future to international organizations.

Just as important, this policy contradicts U.S. law as set forth in Section 4d. of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which specifically states “Nothing in this Act may be construed as a basis for supporting the exclusion or expulsion of Taiwan from continued membership in any international financial institution or any other international organization.” It is past time for U.S. administrations to abide by this. law.

End medical supply dependence on the PRC: The coronavirus has also made the world, and certainly the U.S., more aware of how dependent we all are on the PRC for the manufacture of medical supplies, including pharmaceuticals, ventilators, protective clothing, and surgical masks. According to the NYT, the PRC was making half of the world’s surgical masks before the virus erupted and greatly expanded production after the outbreak; but was only beginning to sell some masks to others in mid-March.

Meanwhile, the PRC government mouthpiece Xinhua news service threatened via Twitter on March 4 in English that “if China imposes restrictions on pharmaceutical exports, the U.S. will be ‘plunged into the mighty sea of coronavirus.’” Clearly, the U.S. and other countries need to break their supply chain dependency on the PRC for vital products.

As some U.S. legislators have already discussed, laws need to be enacted to break this dependence.

The U.S. must do more for Taiwan

The TAIPEI Act: All of us who support stronger Taiwan-U.S. relations welcomed President Trump’s decision to sign the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act (TAIPEI Act) into law on March 26. The timing was a bit surprising, however, since he called Xi Jinping the very next day.

Or, perhaps the legislation, which Xi certainly did not welcome, was one reason Trump initiated the call. Thereafter, he tweeted that he had a “very good conversation” with Xi and they were “working closely together.” He ended with the comment “much respect,” hardly a commendation I would have chosen for a Marxist dictator.

In contrast, President Tsai Ing-Wen described the TAIPEI Act in a tweet, as “a testament to Taiwan-U.S. friendship & mutual support as we work together to address global threats to human health & our shared democratic values.”

In fact, the final version of the TAIPEI Act as signed was disappointing. Above all, it is sadly ironic that the United States, which broke relations with Taiwan in 1979 should pass a law in 2020 intended to discourage— through incentives and disincentives— Taiwan's 15 remaining diplomatic allies from breaking relations with Taiwan because of PRC inducements or pressure.

Moreover, the final version of the bill, before it was passed, hedges quite a bit. As usual, the Congress inclines toward cautious and hortatory language. For example, the Act states “It is the sense of Congress that the United States Government should— (2) consider, in certain cases as appropriate and in alignment with United States interests, increasing its economic, security, and diplomatic engagement with nations that have demonstrably strengthened, enhanced, or upgraded relations with Taiwan”; and that (3) the U.S. Government should “consider, in certain cases as appropriate, in alignment with United States foreign policy interests and in consultation with Congress, altering its economic, security, and diplomatic engagement with nations that take serious or significant actions to undermine the security or prosperity of Taiwan.” Hardly bold or firm commitments!

In addition, the Act includes unfortunately familiar language calling for advocacy “as appropriate—(A) for Taiwan’s membership in all international organizations in which statehood is not a requirement and in which the United States is also a participant; and (B) for Taiwan to be granted observer status in other appropriate international organizations….”

The Senate version of the Act which prevailed was even more generic and reserved on the issue of trade. While the House version of the bill had called for the United States to “engage in bilateral trade negotiations with Taiwan, with the goal of entering into a free trade agreement that is of mutual economic benefit...,” the signed version of the Act did not mention a free trade agreement at all: “The United States Trade Representative should consult with Congress on opportunities for further strengthening bilateral trade and economic relations between the United States and Taiwan."

This is very disappointing because the U.S. should enter into negotiations with Taiwan on a trade agreement as soon as possible

Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019: The U.S. House of Representatives on May 7, 2019, passed a piece of legislation that is more forward-leaning toward Taiwan. The draft version of the Act, however, is currently stalled in the Senate and observers doubt it will move forward.

This is unfortunate, as it is partly intended to address the much needed and long overdue review of the “self-imposed restrictions that the United States maintains on high-level visits” between the United States and Taiwan.

The Act would require the State Department to review the guidelines governing U.S. contacts with Taiwan officials and propose any necessary revisions “with the intent to deepen and expand United States-Taiwan relations...based on the value, merits, and importance of the… relationship.” These guidelines should be designed to give “due consideration to the fact that Taiwan is governed by a representative democratic government that is peacefully constituted through free and fair elections that reflect the will of the people of Taiwan, and that Taiwan is a free and open society that respects universal human rights and democratic values.”

Finally, the guidelines “should ensure that the conduct of relations with Taiwan reflects the longstanding, comprehensive, and values-based relationship the United States shares with Taiwan, and contribute to the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.”

In my view, the U.S. and Taiwan governments have accomplished a lot over the past three years to strengthen bilateral relations. It is also evident, however, that more can, and should be done.

It is nonetheless unlikely that the coronavirus, which has cast a long shadow on the PRC and a bright light on Taiwan, will fundamentally change U.S. policies, however much we might wish it would.

William A. Stanton is vice president of National Yang-Ming University. He previously served from August 2017 to July 2019 as a professor at the Center for General Education at National Taiwan University. Dr. Stanton previously worked for four years as the George K.C. Yeh Distinguished Chair Professor and founding director of the Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing Hua University (NTHU). From October 2014 through January 2016, he was also NTHU’s senior vice president for Global Affairs. Dr. Stanton previously served for 34 years as a U.S. diplomat. His final posting was as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (2009-2012).