Time has come for U.S. recognition of Taiwan

Sometimes a Freudian slip is the most truthful statement, especially in the scripted world of diplomacy, in which communications are typically designed to conceal what the speaker is really thinking.

President George W. Bush sparked an international incident Thursday when, in a State Department speech, he referred to the two newest World Trade Organization members as “both countries, both the Republic of Taiwan, and of course China.” Already chilled relations between the United States and the People’s Republic frosted over again, the typical result when a U.S. official suggests China’s “renegade province” – which the United States considered the true China until 1979 – be accorded full diplomatic recognition.

The administration quickly disclaimed the president’s statement as an “oral mistake,” once again clinging to U.S. foreign policy’s greatest impossible dream – a one-China policy that refuses to recognize Taiwan’s independence but has no problem selling the island state-of-the-art combat aircraft and protecting it with the U.S. 7th Fleet. That fiction remains, as it has been for years, untenable and unbelievable, and the White House’s devotion to that Cold War relic has caused it to miss an opportunity to signal China what the future holds.

For all practical purposes, the United States treats Taiwan as an independent state. A decade before the Cold War’s end made the one-China facade an outdated embarrassment, the Taiwan Relations Act guaranteed Taiwan’s security. At least as recently as 1995, the Defense Department ran computer simulations to predict the outcome of a Chinese invasion of the island, and the PRC’s missile tests over the Taiwan Strait drew two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups in response.

Bush pledged a year ago the United States would do “whatever it took” to protect Taiwan, a commitment underscored by Taiwanese Foreign Minister Tien Hung-mao’s meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney in June. In February, Bush assured the Japanese Parliament “America will remember its commitments to the people on Taiwan,” and Taiwanese Defense Minister Tang Yao-ming no doubt received a similar promise when he met with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz at a conference in Florida last month.

In a world in which even the layout and character sets of Chinese-language newspapers indicate to many their allegiance to Taiwan or the PRC, U.S. East Asia policy cannot serve two masters. Full recognition of the de facto independence Taiwan has already obtained will tell the world the United States stands by its allies, create a new U.S. foothold in Asia to replace a now-freestanding Japan and tell Beijing more than 50 years of bluffs have been called.

Perhaps the next time Bush “misspeaks,” his foreign-policy handlers should keep their own mouths shut – and let the PRC draw its own conclusions.