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Not So Dire Straits
Since 2005, Taiwan and China have been moving into a closer economic and political embrace -- a process that accelerated with the election of the pro-détente politician Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan's president in 2008. This strengthening of relations presents the United States with its greatest challenge in the Taiwan Strait since 1979, when Washington severed ties with Taipei and established diplomatic relations with Beijing.
In many ways, the current thaw serves Taipei's interests, but it also allows Beijing to assert increasing influence over Taiwan. As a consensus emerges in Taiwan on establishing closer relations with China, the thaw is calling into question the United States' deeply ambiguous policy, which is supposed to serve both Taiwan's interests (by allowing it to retain its autonomy) and the United States' own (by guarding against an expansionist China). Washington now faces a stark choice: continue pursuing a militarized realist approach -- using Taiwan to balance the power of a rising China -- or follow an alternative liberal logic that seeks to promote long-term peace through closer economic, social, and political ties between Taiwan and China.
A TALE OF TWO DÉTENTES
After the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949, Taiwan and mainland China became separate political entities, led, respectively, by Chiang Kai-shek's defeated nationalist party, the Kuomintang (KMT), and Mao Zedong's victorious Chinese Communist Party (CCP). For nearly three decades, Chiang and Mao harbored rival claims to the whole territory of China. Gradually, most of the international community came to accept Beijing's claims to territorial sovereignty over Taiwan and a special role in its foreign relations. By 1972, when U.S. President Richard Nixon visited China, 69 percent of the United Nations' member states had already severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of relations with China.