The U.S. and China are in tension over Taiwan. But this is not a legal antagonism, founded on some poor understanding of Taiwan’s status. It is instead a strategic antagonism over mutually conflicting long-term political, military and economic objectives.
The Sino-American relationship hinges on the status of Taiwan as articulated in the 1970s. The Nixon-Kissinger opening to China, the result of a long diplomatic dance, was excruciatingly difficult to execute. Beijing was then a highly ideological Marxist-Maoist regime, inimically opposed to a de facto, let alone de jure, political unit on Taiwan, which was and remains the key to the American Indo-Pacific defense system.
The American policymakers of the 1970s never actually expected an indefinite settlement with the Chinese. Beijing was, as it is today, a fundamentally acquisitive, expansionist regime unable, to escape the specter of Mao’s messianism. The goal of the U.S.-China understanding over Taiwan, at least as originally conceived, was not to reach any kind of concrete end-state. Nor was it to establish procedures or principles for American or Chinese engagement. Rather, the arrangement was political. The U.S. and China, after an enormous amount of lexical wrangling, found a way to bracket the Taiwan question.
Taiwan’s status was not the root of Sino-American antagonism, but it was the clearest expression of it. By paying lip service to the political-ideological nature of the crisis and cloaking it in language of national determination — and thereby committing to accept a “political solution” to the Taiwan issue, in the abstract at least — the U.S. removed the public objective of “regime change” in China. In turn, absent the need to reject all U.S. security interests in Asia, Beijing was free to accept the reemergence of a natural security relationship with the U.S., as had existed until communist victory in the Chinese civil war.
Once the Cold War had ended, the U.S. and China no longer needed to maintain a security relationship vis-a-vis the USSR. Yet the ideological antagonism had been thoroughly obfuscated through a combination of cultural, economic, and political contacts, facilitated by the U.S. de-recognition of Taipei. The result was a continuation of a Sino-American cultural relationship that goes back a century.
The U.S. and China do not have the same sort of cultural connection as Russia and Germany, for example. But they do share common structural characteristics. Both are regional heavyweights. Both have a complex relationship with Europe politically, societally, and intellectually. Both share a history stretching back to the 19th century, when American missionaries built a link with China, and subsequently when U.S. policy supported free access to Chinese markets, in opposition to the Europeans. To that end, the U.S. supported Chinese territorial integrity, at least in diplomatic contexts.
It is natural that, after 1991, China and the U.S. should revert to their pre-Cold War relationship, albeit on a much greater scale, with American capital and technology joining hands with Chinese productive capacity to transform the global economy.
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Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.