The world is not just
In a world operating on ethical principles, where justice and good would always prevail, there would be no question about whether the United States should formally recognize Taiwan as the clearly free, independent, and democratic country that it is. Tragically, we do not live in such a world. A decision about diplomatic recognition of Taiwan is therefore far from simple.
We live in a world where the People's Republic of China in 2005 passed an “anti-secession” law publicly setting forth conditions under which it would employ “non-peaceful means” — that is, violence — to protect its own definition of sovereignty and territorial integrity, meaning the subjugation of Taiwan. We also live in a world where the PRC continues to assert sovereignty over the entirety of the South China Sea despite a unanimous International Court ruling in 2016 that its claims were entirely unjustified.
And we live in a world where a thuggish Russian dictator can decide to invade neighboring Ukraine simply because he covets its territory and is willing to bomb civilians — including women, children, and the aged — to achieve his goals, and where his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (習近平) is considering how to help him.
There is no question that Taiwan deserves worldwide diplomatic recognition. Taiwan is a democracy where there have been direct presidential elections since 1996.
Taiwan is a country that, in fact, thrives on freedom. In Freedom House’s 2021 rankings of political freedom in 210 countries and territories, Taiwan tied for seventh place. The U.S. tied for 16th. Taiwan scored 94 points, the U.S. 83, and the PRC 9, tying for eighth from the bottom. Similarly, in the Heritage Foundation's 2022 index of economic freedom, Taiwan ranked 6th in the world out of 177 countries; the U.S. ranked 25th, and the PRC ranked 158th.
While Taiwanese are unduly modest, everyone should realize that Taiwan’s population is actually larger than 76% of the world’s 238 countries and territories. With almost as many people as Australia, Taiwan ranks as the 57th most populous country. We may think that Taiwan is small, but it has more land area than 46% of the world’s countries and territories.
In terms of size alone, as the late Bruce Jacobs, one of the world’s leading foreign experts on Taiwan and a true friend of this country, first argued, Taiwan is a “middle power” in the world.
Although Taiwan has limited natural resources, intelligent, educated, and hard-working Taiwanese have lifted their country as of 2021 to the 22nd-highest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and, in Purchasing Power Parity terms, the 15th highest GDP per capita, according to the IMF.
A key reason for Taiwan’s economic success is cutting-edge technology. Everyone knows that Taiwan leads the world in microchip technology. But its technological prowess is far broader. The U.S. Patent and Trade Office (USPTO) reported that Taiwan ranked sixth in the world in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021 in the number of USPTO patents granted. Only the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Germany, and the PRC did better, and they all have much larger populations.
Taiwan also has business know-how. In 2021 Forbes ranked Taiwan 12th out of 161 countries in its annual list of “Best Countries for Business,” which takes into equal account property rights, innovation, taxes, technology, corruption, freedom (personal, trade, and monetary), red tape, investor protection, and stock market performance.
Also in 2021, Taiwan was ranked as the world's fourth best investment destination, according to U.S.-based Business Environment Risk Intelligence (BERI). In its outlook for 2022, BERI predicted that Taiwan would rise to third place in the world. In terms of political risk, however, Taiwan ranked only 25th in the world and seventh in Asia, no doubt reflecting the PRC’s continuing bellicose threats to Taiwan.
Taiwan is also recognized globally for its low crime rate, safety, and excellent health care. According to Numbeo’s crime and safety index for 2021, Taiwan ranked second out of 135 countries for its safety and low crime rate and first in health care out of 93 countries. CEO World magazine similarly ranked Taiwan second in the world for countries with the best health care systems in 2021.
Given all of these consistently high valuations of Taiwan, it comes as no surprise to an expat like me — someone who has lived almost 14 years in Taiwan — that in 2021, Taiwan was ranked as the best place in the world for expats, based on a survey of 12,420 expats representing 174 nationalities living in 186 countries or territories. In the Quality of Life Index, Taiwan placed first for the fourth time, scoring first in Health & Well-Being and eighth in Travel & Transportation.
Purpose-built new AIT facility
It is also no wonder, given Taiwan’s economic, technological, and geostrategic importance as well as its great success as a democracy, that the U.S. places high importance on it and has enormous respect for its achievements. Concrete evidence of this was the new US$255 million building housing the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which opened in June 2018.
Reportedly the first purpose-built diplomatic facility since the British consulate was built in Kaohsiung in 1865, the specially designed AIT structure is a striking symbol of the significance of U.S. relations with Taiwan. This was a point I made to former Vice President Wu Den-Yih (吳敦義) while I was the director of AIT and faced bureaucratic obstacles to construction. The vice president agreed and helped thereafter to ensure that obtaining construction permits would be a smoother process. Meanwhile, we also took steps to move our constituent post in Kaohsiung to the more secure and decidedly better-looking China Steel Building.
AIT functionally achieves the work of diplomatic recognition
Although the American Institute in Taiwan is not called an embassy, I can assure you — as someone who served for 34 years as a U.S. diplomat — it functions like an embassy in every way but titles and section names. Fairly often, Taiwanese officials and others would even politely refer to me as “大使 (Dàshǐ) or even “Ambassador” in English, although I certainly never used the title.
AIT remains a highly successful operation. When I was at AIT, there were some 140 Americans representing some 11 U.S. government agencies and services and some 375 foreign national employees, working family members, and contractors at AIT Taipei and our constituent post in Kaohsiung, as well as the Department of State's Chinese-language school, then in Yangmingshan. Overall, our annual AIT and interagency operations were budgeted at some US$70 million. Presumably, it has grown, and grown by a lot.
During my time there, I worked to convince Washington that we should raise the U.S. flag over AIT, and with the help of then-former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, we did so. (As I used to point out, if we were working in the American Institute of Insurance, as Americans we could of course fly the flag, so why not at AIT?) It still flies and, moreover, the Great Seal of the U.S. now hangs over the entrance to the new AIT facility. So diplomatic recognition would change very little in how the U.S. engages with Taiwan. The issue of diplomatic recognition is simply not a functional or operational question or requirement.
Secretary Pompeo raised the issue
The issue nonetheless came to the forefront of Taiwan’s attention during the recent March 2-5 visit of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Along with former National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary Pompeo was one of few top officials in the Trump administration who really cared about Taiwan, and I respect him for that reason.
Moreover, he took practical steps to address outdated contact policies with Taiwanese officials that were not consistent with the dignity we should afford our Taiwanese interlocutors nor with the importance of our relationship. (Truth be told, some practical steps along these lines had already been quietly initiated, at least in the State Department, during the Obama administration. A big difference was that former Secretary Pompeo pulled no punches in talking openly about the need to revise our contact policies as he put those and other steps into action.)
Nonetheless, no one expected or was prepared for Pompeo’s public announcement on March 4 via Facebook that the U.S. should grant Taiwan diplomatic recognition. Prior to his announcement, there was no hint of this coming out of his meetings. Pompeo’s announcement was the following:
“It is my view that the U.S. government should immediately take necessary, and long-overdue, steps to do the right and obvious thing, that is to offer the Republic of China (Taiwan) America’s diplomatic recognition as a free and sovereign country. This is not about Taiwan’s future independence, it is about recognizing an unmistakable, already existent reality. That reality is this, as many of your past and present leaders have made clear there is no need for Taiwan to declare independence because it’s already an independent country. Its name is the Republic of China (Taiwan). The people and government of the United States should simply recognize this political, diplomatic and sovereignty reality. The Taiwanese people deserve the world’s respect for a free, democratic and sovereign country.”
Setting aside whether Secretary of State Pompeo had ever proposed this to President Trump, a more important question from my perspective is whether he discussed this first with the Taiwanese government, either before or during his visit.
My personal view has always been that the U.S. should certainly stand with Taiwan, express our firm view that it is a sovereign country, and help defend it if it comes to that. At the same time, I have always firmly believed that any shift in what we say publicly that affects the cross-Strait relationship must be coordinated with the Taiwanese government. After all, it is easy for a U.S. politician to take a forward-leaning stand on Taiwan, but Taiwan will always bear the brunt of any PRC reaction to policy shifts. Therefore, any such moves must be carefully considered in consultations between our governments.
Consider the costs as well as the gains
Moreover, as I have argued here, while I strongly support Taiwan as a free, independent, and democratic country and am always willing to say so, publicly and privately, there is no pressing functional reason for a shift in Taiwan’s diplomatic status absent careful consideration of the consequences of that shift. The Taiwanese government needs to consider not only the practical potential gains of diplomatic recognition but also the possible costs.
Practical measures of support are most important
Meanwhile, instead of just rhetorical support, the U.S. needs to undertake practical, concrete steps that will strengthen its relationship with Taiwan and also the country’s defensive capabilities. President Biden and his administration have repeatedly said U.S. support for Taiwan is “rock-solid,” but no one knows what that specifically means. Even the metaphor is troubling. Not all rock is solid. Shale is usually soft and brittle, and limestone is soft as well.
We need more bilateral practical measures to assist Taiwan. As I have long argued, this would include a free trade agreement, lifting Missile Technology Control Regime restrictions that limit the distance Taiwan’s missiles can travel, and more people-to-people programs like the Flagship Mandarin language program that is bringing more and more young Americans to Taiwan.
In a world where the U.S. has more than a few diplomatic relationships with countries whose governments are less than democratic, it would be refreshing, as well as just, to grant Taiwan the diplomatic recognition it deserves, but we face even more pressing challenges.