Bob Stewart is Member of Parliament for Beckenham and is a Member of the Defence Select Committee.
The infamous telephone call between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and President-elect Donald Trump earlier in December was a typical storm-in-a-teacup crisis. The call was brief, only ten minutes, one democratically-elected leader called another democratically-elected leader to congratulate an electoral victory. Scanning the headlines, one would have thought that the call risked starting a Third World War. One outlet called the phone call a “dangerous gambit” which risked a confrontation. Trump then tweeted where angels fear to tread, pushing back on Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea. To cap it all, he’s hinted that the “One China” policy – an understanding that the United States recognises China as the official China, may no longer apply to the relationship.
Initially, Beijing sought to downplay the issue, preferring stability in its relationship with Washington. Chinese diplomats issued a formal note of protest to the State Department, called the call a “petty gambit” and wrote a few cross pieces in the Global Times and Xinhua. One English-language news site, China Daily, stated there was “no need to over-interpret” the call. However, in the wake of Trump’s Fox interview, US-China relations are beginning to look like they may be in permanent crisis mode under Trump. While no one suggests that this is the way to conduct a responsible foreign policy, watching our own media take China’s side in all this says much about how we have forgotten our values in dealing with Beijing.
When the US agreed with Beijing on the One China policy in the 1972 Shanghai Communique, Taiwan was not a democracy. It is now. Shouldn’t this bother us? Indeed, the fact that it was Trump who revealed our hypocrisy, is a bittersweet irony. When it comes to democracy, we stand by it one hundred percent, except when we don’t. Why do we allow the leaders of one autocratic regime to regulate how we deal with the leaders of a fellow liberal democracy? As a 2015 report by the American think tank CSIS revealed, over the past few years, Beijing has successfully blocked Taiwan from more and more international fora, even as observers. It is unable to take part in Interpol, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the World Customs Organisation’s SAFE Framework, among many others. And we mostly sit by, while Taiwan’s 24 million people are increasingly marginalised from the rest of the world.
To understand how this came about, we have look back to the tail-end of the Cold War, when a grand bargain was struck between President Carter and Deng Xiaoping. Based originally on geopolitical considerations, economic incentives quickly came to the fore. Over the fall of 1978, American diplomats carried out secret negotiations with Chinese leaders, and in December of that year, Jimmy Carter’s administration capitulated to the Chinese demand to withdraw diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in exchange for mutual recognition (Britain had done this already in 1950). This was a critical point from which all else has followed. After all, China recognises both South Korea and North Korea, without this being a statement of which is the “true” Korea. It was remarkably smart diplomacy by China, and terrible liberalism by the West. We gave Taiwan away.
It must be remembered that for all its passion and anger, the Communist Party has never itself administered the island. The last mainland government to do so was the KMT. The irrational anger over the issue does not make China right. These 24 million people are a model for how China can and should develop, and rather than seeking to destroy Taiwan, China should embrace how the island has developed and accept its separate status. The Chinese population and leaders would view any attempt in the direst terms. But that need not mean we help bury Taiwan. This casual forgetting of the right of self-governance of 24 million human beings stands in direct contrast to our fundamental beliefs and political heritage. While many of the commentators mentioned above wrote about the telephone call in terms of security, few have remembered the values that are the bedrock of that security. Some have even become a spokesman for the age. For them to prioritise Beijing’s framing of the relationship is a testimony to the incremental abandonment of a set of values that won the Second World War and the Cold War.
What has come to the fore from Trump’s call with Tsai is how much we have departed from our values when dealing with China over Taiwan. Trump spoke to Tsai Ing-wen for ten minutes, one elected official to another. Our willingness to argue China’s corner is but a microcosm of how we continue to get this relationship wrong. We simply don’t stand up for our values – and if we do, they only represent the minimal gestures to please domestic constituencies. It is high time that Taiwan was a full member of the United Nations.
The dilemma for China is that it wants to keep control, but knows that the way forward it to have a market economy. Taiwan shows China how it can move to democracy and help achieve stable government and a high standard of living for all of its citizens. As for our own part, we must not prioritise “stability” or economic growth in our relations with China, over the Western liberal values that undergird our culture. After all, they let authoritarian states know who we are and what we stand for.