America's modern China policy has been extraordinarily successful. Formulated between 1972 and 1982, it's embodied in the Three Joint Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act, which officially recognized the People's Republic of China as China's government and articulated U.S. interests in Taiwan's security. The policy has provided a time-tested framework for the United States to interact with China as it has climbed the development ladder to become the world's second-largest economy, and it has kept the United States committed to the maintenance of stability across the Taiwan Strait.
With a three-decade demonstrated track record, the adage, "If it isn't broke, don't fix it," would seem sound policy advice. Yet policy machinery does require periodic maintenance. America's relationship with Taiwan, an important component of the United States' China and Asia-Pacific strategy, needs a tune-up and perhaps some part replacements in the areas of security, trade, and diplomacy.
It's difficult to overstate the progress in cross-strait relations, and in Taiwan itself, over the last four decades. I first went to Taiwan as a West Point cadet in 1971, and visited its island garrison of Kinmen, close to the mainland. I observed People's Liberation Army (PLA) and Taiwanese forces blaring propaganda insults across the narrow body of water that separated them. (At its closest point, Kinmen is less than a mile and a half away from the mainland.) The scene of major air battles between mainland China and Taiwan, Kinmen absorbed nearly half a million PLA artillery shells over 44 days in 1958.
When I returned to Kinmen in March, I stopped by a shop where a local entrepreneur named "Maestro" Wu Tseng-dong fashions knives from the steel of the dormant PLA shells that once blanketed the island. A large number of his clientele that afternoon were mainland Chinese tourists who were in essence buying back their army's own expended ordnance.
Taiwan, the world's 18th largest economy, boasts an impressive history of domestic accomplishments. It is one of very few nations to have transitioned from authoritarian rule to democracy and from poverty to prosperity. It now accounts for more trade in goods with the United States than India does. And it provides a model of political reform for China, which even Prime Minister Wen Jiabao admitted is needed when he called for pressing ahead with "both economic structural reform and political structural reform" in March.
All the good news may have led to disinterest in Taiwan in favor of its bigger neighbor across the strait, but there are facets of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship that must be addressed: the bilateral inability to address a dysfunctional arms sale process, Taiwan's insufficient investment in its own defense, lack of progress on trade caused chiefly by a dispute over the safety of U.S. beef imports, and America's inadequate official contact with a major Asian power.
The argument that the United States should abandon Taiwan altogether by gradually phasing out arms sales has been convincingly dismissed in these pages and is unlikely to become policy. But the current policy drift bears more subtle costs at precisely the time the United States should be strengthening its existing partnerships in the Asia-Pacific. There is already troubling evidence that U.S. allies in the region are hedging their bets, skeptical that the United States will meet its commitments, and wary of China's rising military power. American actions toward Taiwan matter to U.S. alliances elsewhere. This is true even beyond the Asia-Pacific as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan amid promises to remain engaged there.
The United States should simplify the inefficient and unpredictable process by which it sells military hardware to Taiwan. Currently, Taiwan's legislature appropriates funds for weapons programs with no guarantee the United States will approve the sale; conversely, the United States approves a sale with no guarantee that it will eventually transfer the hardware. The four main players -- the executive and legislative branches of both the United States and Taiwan -- should collaborate and attempt to put in place a more predictable and credible process.