While the media focuses on China’s crackdown on unrest in Tibet,Taiwanhas proven to be a beacon of freedom and democracy inEast Asia. In late March, 76 percent of Taiwan’s 17 million eligible voters chose a new president, Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party, over the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. This vigorous election represents the second peaceful transition of power through free elections sinceTaiwan’s first direct presidential election in 1996.Taiwanboasts Asia’s fifth-largest economy and the 25th-freest economy in the world, according to the2008 Index of Economic Freedom ranking ahead of Sweden, Austria and Spain. These accomplishments are testament to the incredible progressTaiwanhas made in the last 60 years, evolving from a poor nation under an authoritarian regime to an economic powerhouse with a vibrant democracy.
As the United Statesadvocates the spread of democracy and freedom around the world, we should not neglect our friends inTaiwan. Specifically, we must take action to improve our close ties withTaiwan, which have been somewhat weakened in recent years as the standoff betweenChinaandTaiwancontinues.
AsChinagrows in influence as an economic force with commensurate international stature, the United States has a greater need for Chinese cooperation, particularly in dealing with problems includingNorth Koreasnuclear program.Chinahas been flexing its muscle, building up its cross-Strait military power with more than 1,000 missiles aimed atTaiwan, and boxingTaiwanin at every opportunity on the international stage. An emboldenedChinaonly points to a greater likelihood of conflict and coercion to regainTaiwanwithout the consent of the Taiwanese people.
The election ofTaiwan’s new president offers an opportunity to refresh and strengthen the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. Mr. Ma ran on a platform of being less confrontational withChinaand is seen as having closer ties to theUnited States.The best way to blunt further Chinese aggression would be for America and Taiwan to establish a new, common agenda to include the following:
* First, strengthen Taiwan’s defenses. A strong, ready military force inTaiwancan be a deterrent to Chinese aggression and can protectTaiwanfrom being squeezed into acquiescence to an overwhelmingly powerfulChina. Mr. Ma must follow through on his promise to increase Taiwan’s defense budget to more than 3 percent of gross domestic product and to pursue purchases of arms approved by the United States. The United States should also approve sales of F-16C/D fighters requested byTaiwanand strengthen communications and ties between our militaries on a common defense strategy. This is consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.
* Second, promoteTaiwan’s international presence. The duly elected government ofTaiwanand its 23 million citizens are the only nation denied any kind of representation in the United Nations. TheUnited States and other nations should includeTaiwanin international civic organizations on issues such as public health and democracy promotion. For example,Taiwanshould at least be accorded observer status in the World Health Organization so that it can contribute knowledge from its world-class public health system and receive warnings of health emergencies. Presently, the WHO sends all communications toTaiwanthroughChina, which may or may not pass them along (usually not). In 2007, notification of an outbreak of a dangerous food-borne pathogen did not reach Taiwanese officials for 10 days becauseChinadid not relay the warning.
* Third, pursue a free trade agreement. Absent diplomatic recognition from most countries,Taiwan’smain presence on the world stage is economic.Taiwanis America’s ninth-largest trading partner and the 11th-largest export market for U.S. goods. The U.S. can build on this relationship and boost both America’s andTaiwan’seconomies by negotiating a free trade agreement withTaiwan. Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, and Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, have introduced legislation calling for theUnited States to launch just such negotiations, but the Senate has not acted on it yet.
The stronger and closer the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, the less likely it is thatChinawill misinterpretAmerica’scommitment to defendTaiwan. And while we seek to prevent the chance thatChinawill try to conquerTaiwanby military force, we also do not want to seeChinaretakeTaiwanthrough economic coercion and international pressure because theUnited Statesdid not offer support or an alternative. As a Taiwanese friend recently pointed out to me, Americans should have no more interest in seeingTaiwanreunified with Communist China than we would have had in seeing theU.S.reunited with the British monarchy. Nor shouldMexicothink that they have a right to take backCalifornia, norSpaina right to take back Puerto Rico or thePhilippines.
Americamust defend the right of the people ofTaiwanto determine their own destiny without coercion fromChina.