The historically strained relationship between the United States and China has seen rising tensions in recent months, as President Joe Biden has promised to reinforce American presence in international institutions and promote a pro-democracy ideology that threatens China’s authoritarian efforts to annex the democratic island of Taiwan. Negotiations between the United States and China regarding Taiwanese sovereignty date back to the Cold War. This topic is an especially contentious issue for Chinese-U.S. relations, because China believes that the U.S. government reneged on promises to acknowledge Chinese control over Taiwan. The United States has pledged to defend Taiwan for moral reasons, as the U.S. sees itself as a standard-bearer for democracy worldwide. From this standpoint, the choice for the United States is clear: Taiwan must be defended to protect the institution of democracy as well as the individual rights of Taiwanese citizens.
However, the U.S. government often fails to walk the proverbial walk when it places human rights-based ultimatums on other countries, and it has a history of neglecting democracy when it benefits America economically, even going so far as to overthrow democratic governments for its own economic means. Recently, President Biden declined to penalize Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman for human rights abuses, including the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi; this indicates that although Biden promotes a pro-human rights rhetoric, he is willing to abandon this when it conflicts with American political interests. Tragically, history indicates that if faced with an ultimatum, the United States may cede control of Taiwan to China if it deems doing so politically necessary.
Although this solution would undermine Taiwanese sovereignty and infringe upon Taiwanese citizens’ human rights, it would result in an immense improvement in Chinese-U.S. relations. For all-too-influential realist foreign policy thinkers, who prioritize maintaining political power, the potential political pitfalls of protecting China outweigh the United States’ moral imperative to uphold democracy and defend human rights worldwide. For nearly all of his term, President Trump ignored human rights abuses in China, most notably by initially failing to punish — and allegedly endorsing — China’s persecution of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang province.
Although Biden portrays himself as Trump’s political polar opposite, his administration has also hesitated to punish China for its human rights abuses, because despite the government’s hawkish anti-China rhetoric, China remains the United States’ largest trading partner. Moreover, other “progressive” nations in the European Union have also eschewed sanctions for China’s genocidal actions, demonstrating the power of realist policies worldwide. Considering the current global recession, realists find little reason to expect the Biden administration to prioritize foreign human rights issues over domestic economic recovery.
President Biden must not yield in his pledge to uphold democracy in Taiwan. However, his administration has so far done little to punish China — or other perpetrators, such as Saudi Arabia — for its rampant human rights abuses. Because of historical context and the current political atmosphere, I fear that American policymakers will prioritize mutual economic gains over the sovereignty of Taiwanese citizens when making foreign policy decisions.