- - Thursday, March 22, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Republic of China — sometimes called Taiwan colloquially — is the Rodney Dangerfield of nations: “It don’t get no respect.”

Barred from the United Nations and its subsidiary organizations, like the World Health Organization, it has formal diplomatic relations — embassies, ambassadors — with a mere 20 countries. And most of these are such powerhouses as the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Nauru. (The Vatican remains, but there’s speculation that the Holy See, so eager to enhance its brand on the mainland that it allows the Chinese Communist government, godless or not, to help it choose cardinals, will soon switch recognition to Beijing. In Washington, rather than an embassy, Taiwan has the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office.”

Taiwan’s estrangement from the world is a shame, given what a triumph the tiny island is, an economically successful, democratic Chinese country. Its very existence gives the lie to Beijing’s propaganda that the Chinese people are incapable of successful, democratic, free market rule, and prefer a leader-for-life. Nearly 70 years after the defeated Nationalists fled to Taiwan and founded their government in exile, the Republic of China on the island has become one the world’s true success stories.

President Donald Trump has shown more respect to Taiwan than it usually gets from American presidents. Other nations have adhered strictly to the One China Policy, the notion that there is only one Chinese government, and that is the Communist one in Beijing. That’s been official U.S. policy since 1979, when we moved our embassy from Taipei to Beijing.

The United States does sell weapons to Taiwan; it is, after all, the only actual republic of China, peoples’ or otherwise. Washington doesn’t get too friendly; the president of the Republic of China on Taiwan does not set foot in Washington, for example. When she travels to Central or South America, she “transits” through the United States via another city, Chicago, perhaps, or Los Angeles.

But before Donald Trump was even inaugurated, the president-elect took a personal telephone call with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, the first president-to-president contact since 1979. This was big news. Beijing was outraged, and liberals in the United States were aghast. It was nevertheless the right thing to do, a display of solidarity with a beleaguered democracy, daily threatened by Chinese aggression.

Last week the president struck another blow for Taiwan. He signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which passed Congress last month. The new law will “allow officials at all levels of the United States government, including Cabinet-level national security officials, general officers and other executive branch officials, to travel to Taiwan to meet their Taiwanese counterparts.” It’s a significant upgrade of Washington-Taipei relations, and a step towards “normalizing” how the two countries conduct business with each other. The government of Taiwan, ever grateful for any acts of global kindness, thanked the Trump administration kindly.

The United States and Taiwan are already linked closely, economically and culturally. Taiwan is the 10th largest export market for the United States; the United States is Taiwan’s second largest. Close to half a million Taiwanese Americans reside in the United States. The new law simply codifies what everyone knows is true, that Taiwan and the United States are closely linked, and even though nobody (except those 20 outlier nations) will say it, Taiwan is an independent, sovereign nation. It only makes sense that high-level officials from the two nations meet from time to time.

Beijing, which deplores Taiwan as an illegitimate breakaway province, sharply criticized the new law. The Taiwan Travel Act “severely violate[s] the one-China principle, the political foundation of the China-U.S. relationship,” the Chinese embassy in Washington said.

“China is strongly dissatisfied with that and firmly opposes it the United States should stop pursuing any official ties with Taiwan or improving its current relations with Taiwan in any substantive way.”

The president’s signing of the Taiwan Travel Act is another piece of evidence that relations between Washington and Beijing are not as placid as they were a year ago. “Bromance” is no longer in the air, as it was when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Mar-a-Lago for a round of presidential golf last winter. Instead, Mr. Trump is going after the Chinese now where it hurts, calling out Beijing for intellectual property theft and new tariffs as a demonstration of support for tiny, fledgling, Taiwan, which mainland China abhors. Mr. Trump’s fillip to Taiwan isn’t just about the Republic of China on Taiwan — it’s about telling Beijing that he means to get serious.

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