The Taiwan strait has unexpectedly become a major news story this week; generally, it’s the world’s least-talked-about world war waiting to happen. President-elect Trump took a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, who herself was just elected, this past May. As NRO readers are doubtless aware, this was somewhat scandalous: The U.S. has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, having chosen instead to accept, officially, that Taiwan remains part of China and that Beijing is the legitimate seat of China’s government.
Of course, as secretary-of-state short-lister John Bolton said, “China doesn’t tell us who we can talk to.” More than that, we already have extensive unofficial relations with Taiwan — and for good reason: Taiwan is one of our best friends in the world, one of our friends most deserving of support and most in need of it. Taiwan is the Israel of East Asia, a first line in the defense of democracy, a country whose existence is threatened by looming bellicose tyrants.
I had the pleasure of being in Taiwan not too long ago. This was not long after investigative journalist Ethan Gutmann reported that roughly 100,000 practitioners of neo-Buddhist Falun Gong had been arrested and murdered, and had their organs harvested. In Taipei, I saw several groups of Falun Gong peacefully meeting in parks, doing tai chi–type meditative exercises. I saw other groups of Falun Gong protesting China’s treatment of their coreligionists outside tourist attractions popular with Chinese visitors. None of the Falun Gong I saw was attacked, beaten, tortured, or murdered — because, of course, Taiwan has freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. These protests directed at Chinese tourists are a source of embarrassment to the Taiwanese government, which knows that every provocation of China might end in war. Nonetheless, I saw a policeman outside the skyscraper Taipei 101 eye a few Falun Gong protesters and then go back to his work with an implied shrug of the shoulders. Taiwan, of course, has freedom of speech.
While I was in Taiwan, I had a chance to talk to two students who had been part of the Sunflower protests of fall 2014; they had marched in opposition to a proposed cross-strait agreement with Beijing that many Taiwanese felt would make Taiwan too beholden to China. They succeeded in getting the new pact postponed, and not a single protester was run down by a tank, or thrown into a labor camp without trial. Because, of course, Taiwan has an independent judiciary.
Partly because of the sentiment of the protests — opposition to increased closeness with Beijing — the majority party that negotiated the tentative deal became the minority party. Because, of course, Taiwan has free elections. While I was there, I had a chance to attend a pre-election presidential press conference, where then-president Ma Ying-jeou was asked by a (rude) Taiwanese reporter about his very low approval numbers. The reporter wondered if Ma was bothered by people making fun of him. President Ma gave a polite politician’s answer; the reporter was not arrested or dressed down. Because, of course, Taiwan has a free press.
Our American free press is having a conniption over President-elect Trump talking to President-of-Taiwan Tsai. They foresee dire consequences — ruined diplomatic relations, treaties sunk, maybe even war. What they don’t understand is that Taiwan doesn’t exist just as bargaining chip to be played against Beijing. We support Taiwan not because it’s in our interest (though frequently it is) but because it’s the right thing to do. General James Mattis said we pay a price in the Arab world for supporting Israel. He’s right, and it’s a price worth paying. When Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin asked LBJ why the United States chose to side with tiny Israel against 80 million Arabs, Johnson said, simply, “Because it is right.” There are only two true, liberal democracies that, without American support, might be obliterated tomorrow. The other is Taiwan.