President Donald Trump has plenty to do before the Inauguration. But even now, he can take a single simple step that will add crucially to U.S. security.
Half a century ago, the United States adopted a policy that wound up gravely diminishing American power. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. The United States was locked in a deadly rivalry with the Soviet Union. As a way out of his Soviet dilemma, President Richard Nixon chose to take a backward behemoth and elevate it to great-power status.
When Nixon sent his adviser Henry Kissinger on a surprise visit to mainland China in July 1971, he extended de facto recognition to the People’s Republic. As a diplomatic gesture, the move gained universal success. For the first time and not the last, monolithic communism appeared as a paper tiger. The U.S.–Soviet conflict was suddenly far less ominous.
Nixon and Kissinger’s China diplomacy became the basis for a new world order. Only a single further change was needed: withdrawing recognition from an out-of-the-way government that still represented China in the international community.
The Republic of China had taken its place as a world leader in the waning days of World War II. But in short order, Chiang Kai-shek’s regime lost power to the communists and hurried into exile on the island of Taiwan. The United States, as part of its global anti-communist policy, sided with the exiled regime. Within two decades, thanks to a free economy and much U.S. help, Taiwan flowered as an Asian success story on a par with its island neighbor Japan.
In its first exchanges with Kissinger, Mao Zedong’s regime demanded that the United States remove recognition from Taiwan. The communist leaders represented the largest population on earth. Their claim to legitimacy, they felt, depended on being recognized as the sole rulers of China.
With all their graciousness, Mao and Zhou Enlai were plenty desperate about it. A few days after Kissinger’s visit, Albanian diplomats raised the issue at the United Nations. Albania spoke for the Maoist regime, and speedy compliance was given; the Taiwan government lost its seat on the U.N. Security Council and was expelled from the world body.
The United States took its time in making the change, but since 1979 America has grown ever closer to the Chinese communists. In four decades, hardly a political or opinion leader in the United States has raised the issue of reinstating relations with Taiwan.
This is unfortunate, especially from the perspective of 2021. The cumulative threat from China is far more significant than any of the occasional crises the Soviets ever presented.
President-elect Joe Biden ferociously denies this reality. He seems determined to block out the strong measures by Trump that have effectively countered the Beijing regime. Under a Biden administration, large sectors of the U.S. economy are destined to fall under the sway of the Chinese. Where economic dominion takes hold, political control surely follows.
All the while, another aspect of the China policy has gone unnoticed. During its decades of playing up to China, the United States has effectively abandoned its most crucial Asian ally.
U.S. work reconstructing Japan after World War II remains one of the most inspiring sagas of U.S. foreign policy. Unfortunately, it’s been forgotten under the dual impetus of the China relationship and the trade war that broke out when a reinvigorated Japan challenged the U.S. auto industry.
Trump is the only president since the elder George Bush to have recognized Japan’s importance. Japan's policymakers, of course, have been acutely aware of the problem. So have some 90 percent of Japan’s people, 130 million strong, who fear and loathe the Chinese Communist Party as most of China’s neighbors do.
This is not a racial matter. Japan holds out a conspicuous respect and affection for the Republic of China on Taiwan. Together, Japan and Taiwan—under the impetus of a smart U.S. policy—could present a strong barrier to Chinese communism, just as the Maoist regime presented a problem to the Soviets in Nixon’s time.
Trump has the power to start this process with the stroke of a pen. He is perfectly free to recognize two Chinas, not just one. He is well advised, forthwith, to announce the goal of restoring U.S. recognition to the Republic of China on Taiwan.
David Landau is an author and a contributing editor to the Impunity Observer. His latest book is "Brothers from Time to Time," a true story of the Cuban revolution.