The offshore Chinese republic is an exemplary law-governed democracy facing a daily existential struggle with an imperialist neighbor that treats it as a rebel province masquerading as a country. That is pretty much the way that the Kremlin sees the former captive nations of the Soviet empire.
Another similarity is that for most of the outside world, economic self-interest and political cowardice reinforce each other. The only real guarantor of European security is the American role in NATO. Similarly, Taiwan’s fragile sovereignty rests on a dog-eared and ambiguous security guarantee from the United States.
But Taiwan is worse off, because Western countries accept a neurotic ban imposed by the Beijing regime on political ties with the offshore Chinese state. That sends a subservient message to the Chinese Communist Party: as with Tibet and Hong Kong, we accept your rules.
That has just changed. In the dying days of the Trump administration, Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, lifted longstanding restrictions that limit US diplomatic relations with Taiwan. These mean, for example, that American officials rarely meet Taiwanese counterparts in an official context or venue. One sign of what the change means in practice is that the American ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, is to visit Taiwan shortly.
Praising the Trump administration for anything is not exactly fashionable right now. It is possible that the move was made for mean-spirited motives: to embarrass the Biden administration by giving it an immediate and difficult choice between a furious row with mainland China, or looking weak on a vital security issue.
But it is also possible to see this as a master-stroke. China cannot retaliate because the decision was taken by the outgoing administration. The Biden administration can argue it is simply maintaining the policy it inherited. China will huff and puff, but so what? As the issue is inherently symbolic, the costs are quite low (selling weapons to Taiwan, by contrast, carries real political risk).
The American move creates space for other countries to act too. They must do so, with speed and decisiveness. If, say, the European Union announces that it too wants to treat Taiwan with the attention and respect it deserves, it will be far harder for the Biden administration to walk back the policy. Suddenly, the Chinese taboo starts looking empty. Countries such as the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia should seize the initiative and demand that the European Commission moves promptly. They, and other countries such as Britain and Ukraine, should also take their own steps: opening missions in Taipei if they do not have them, or increasing their size and status of any offices they do maintain there.
This does not — for now — mean abandoning the “one-China” policy, in which countries agree that they can have formal diplomatic relations with only one of the two countries that both claim to be the legitimate rulers of China. (Taiwan’s official title is “Republic of China”, as it has been since the anti-communist leadership fled to the island following their defeat by Communist forces in 1949).
But even within the “one-China” framework, countries have far more room for maneuver than they think. The Chinese ban on political and diplomatic contacts with Taiwan works only because outsiders accept it. The more countries that refuse to kowtow, the less the ban matters — and the braver everyone else feels as a result.
And safer, too. For countries that are scared of Russia, international solidarity is the best defense. Supporting Taiwan makes it credible.