For decades, America has claimed the mantle of moral legitimacy on the world stage.
Throughout World War II and the Cold War, American leaders made a point of asserting that the struggle between the United States and its adversaries was a profoundly moral struggle, that the dispute was not just one of two competing superpowers like Rome and Carthage, but a battle between freedom and tyranny.
The fact that America has not always lived up to its own standard is beside the point. Our desire to do right on the world stage is embedded deeply in our national DNA, and at worst, it can be said of us that we betrayed our own values – a claim that cannot be made of Nazis or Communists.
In the post-Cold War era, this national aspiration has continued. Most of our foreign policy actions, such as the War on Terror and the delivery of foreign aid, have been justified on moral grounds. Accusing a politician of “betraying American values” is a very powerful slur, as Democrats who have accused Trump of softness on Russian president Vladimir Putin can attest. Trump, for his part, had accused his opponents of lenience towards regimes such as Iran.
In recent years, however, America’s claims to moral high ground have grown increasingly hollow, as a growing power on the world stage has repeatedly trampled the values we claim to hold dear, while our leaders have not only remained largely silent but also aided and abetted this rogue state.
A Rogue State & Global Threat
It is difficult to imagine a nation more inimical to American values than the People’s Republic of China (PRC). While the recent mishandling of the Wuhan coronavirus has generated a great deal of international ill will for the PRC, the virus is only the culmination of a dark and sinister legacy reaching back seven decades.
When the PRC ruthlessly crushed dissent in Hong Kong and elsewhere with an efficiency that Vladimir Putin could only dream of, when it placed over a million Uighurs in concentration camps, when it forcibly suppressed the Falun Gong religious movement, when it maintained (and continues to maintain) its brutal decades-long occupation and cultural genocide of Tibet, when it implemented an omniscient surveillance state culminating in a “social credit” system that transcends the Orwellian – when the PRC did all of these things, the West turned a blind eye or offered only the most token condemnation.
For years, our politicians ignored the plight of the Uighurs, and the other victims of the PRC, out of cynical realpolitik. Now the perfidy of the PRC has brought a deadly disease to our doorstep. One is tempted to quote “First they came for the Jews…”
Indeed, our appeasement of a communist power which holds a billion human souls in its thrall should give us just cause to wonder whether we were somewhat premature in declaring victory in the Cold War. Even Francis Fukuyama, who famously declared “The End of History” in 1992, has acknowledged that the PRC’s model of authoritarian quasi-capitalism could pose a serious challenge to the supremacy of liberal democracy.
Fortunately, the tone among American politicians regarding the PRC has begun to shift in recent months; a bill condemning China’s treatment of the Uighurs was passed by an overwhelming majority in the House, and the need to “hang tough on China” has been one of the few areas of concordance between President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. While it should have happened earlier, this shift could provide strong impetus for us to begin taking steps in the right direction.
It’s Time to Recognize the Republic of China
If the American politicians who speak about standing up for democracy and the rule of law support these values as much as they claim to, then the best way for them to demonstrate their conviction would be to take steps that would allow for the eventual recognition of the Republic of China (ROC), better known as Taiwan, as the true and legitimate government of China.
The United States recognized the legitimacy of the Republic of China – our former World War II ally – until 1979, and the ROC even held China’s seat at the United Nations until 1971. The switch was made for purely strategic reasons: after the Sino-Soviet split a decade before, the United States decided to make common cause with the PRC against the Soviet Union. In a post-Soviet world, such concerns are no longer particularly relevant and potentially even reversed.
In the 1970s, Taiwan was a one-party state; today, after several decades of significant political reforms, it is a stable democracy with strong legal institutions. It is recognized as a “free” country and given a 93/100 rating for political rights and civil liberties by the nonprofit organization Freedom House. For comparison, the United States has an 86 and the PRC a 10. In short, it is precisely the sort of government that the people of China deserve.
Admittedly, Recognizing the Republic of China as the legitimate government of all of China would be a move of unprecedented audacity. The general foreign policy consensus is that the most Taiwan can hope for from the international community is for its independence from China to be recognized, and even that is a stretch. Difficult as full recognition might be, however, it is the right thing to do. The United States, despite recent dealings with dictator Kim Jong Un, still recognizes the Republic of Korea (South Korea) as the legitimate government of the entire Korean peninsula because we understand that legitimizing the rule of an oppressive communist tyranny would be a betrayal of our values. There is nothing different in the case of China except the scale; if the United States is to stand up for freedom only when it is convenient for us to do so, then we justify being labeled as cowards.
Technically speaking, it would be as easy for the United States to recognize the ROC as it was for us to recognize Juan Guaidó as the president of Venezuela. Practically, the American economy would first need to be decoupled from that of the PRC to ensure that our supply of vital drugs and manufactured goods remains uninterrupted. When the PRC supplies around 90% of our antibiotics, and when it has already threatened to revoke this supply, we are in no position to stand up to them without causing serious harm to our own citizens.
We are, essentially, as compromised as we would be if we were buying most of our pharmaceuticals from Germany in 1939 or the Soviet Union in 1950.
This has to change if we are to retain our dignity as a nation. We should start taking immediate steps to extricate ourselves from our financial codependence from the PRC. This will likely involve implementing the sorts of protectionist measures of which market-oriented conservatives and liberals are rightfully skeptical, but if there was ever a case where tariffs were justified, this is it. Freeing ourselves from China will, on the whole, be a net win for capitalism and individualism.
If we can succeed in this venture, we will be free to begin treating the People’s Republic of China as the dangerous rogue nation that it is, condemning its unconscionable human rights abuses as thoroughly as we do nations such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea by coordinating with our allies to sanction leadership, set up a blockade of tariffs, and relocating supply chains to freer, friendlier nations. If not, we will remain a subservient power whose destiny is not decided at the ballot box, but at the whim of a dictator far across the sea.