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The Taiwan Issue in US-China Relations by Kishore Mahbubani, Previous President of the United Nations Security Council (Singapore)

SINGAPORE - Media OutReach - 23 July 2019 - The most dangerous issue in US-China relations is Taiwan. This is
why it was unwise for the Trump Administration to allow a high-profile transit
by President Tsai Ing-wen through the US in July 2019. Ignoring past
precedents, the Administration allowed her to have public meetings attended by
the media and meet with UN representatives of Taiwanese allies. This has angered
Beijing.


Taiwan is the only
issue that can trigger a war between the US and China. Yet, despite this, war
is unlikely. Over several decades, the US and China have worked out an understanding
on the Taiwan issue that has kept the peace. However, some ambiguity is
embedded in this understanding. On one hand, the US acknowledges that both Beijing
and Taipei "maintain there is but one China" and withdrew diplomatic
recognition of Taipei in 1979. On the other, Congress passed the Taiwan
Relations Act (TRA) that same year, which provides for American support for
Taiwan's defense. Despite this ambiguity, the US and China have managed to
maintain a stable relationship on the Taiwan issue.


This consensus may
change under the Trump Administration, which is less sensitive to Beijing's
concerns on Taiwan. President Trump took a personal congratulatory call from
Tsai Ing-wen upon his election. He authorized new defense sales and allowed
Tsai to travel through the US. His National Security Advisor, John Bolton, has
been even more provocative in his call for Washington to "revisit" the
one-China policy. Paradoxically, the Trump Administration's erratic behavior on
several international issues may work to Beijing's advantage. Richard Bush, an
American expert on Taiwan, has said that the Trump Administration may be
prepared to sacrifice Taiwan if it wants to settle larger issues with Beijing,
making Taiwan a geopolitical pawn.


The biggest concern
for Beijing is whether other countries would follow the Trump Administration's lead
and step up ties with Taiwan. This will not happen. As China will inevitably become
the world's largest economy, no country will sacrifice its relations with China
for the sake of Taiwan. Taiwanese leaders should therefore develop a sense of
geopolitical realism in dealing with China. The best way for Taiwan to expand
its diplomatic space is to accept the 1992 Consensus. Similarly, Washington should
also develop greater geopolitical sensitivity. It has two choices towards
Taiwan. If it views Taiwan as an unsinkable aircraft carrier, this would only
reinforce Taiwan's isolation from the mainland and, consequently, the rest of
the world. However, if the US views Taiwan as a healthy virus, it would
encourage greater contact between the mainland and Taiwan, which, in the long
run, could lessen the differences between the political systems of the mainland
and Taiwan. In short, there is a possibility of a happy outcome of the Taiwan
issue if Beijing, Taipei and Washington learn to handle it sensitively.


This paper is
commissioned by Flat Globe Capital.


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