Time for Washington to change how it talks about Taiwan

(Image credit: Taiwan Today)

(Image credit: Taiwan Today)


The recent 40th Anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) was an important reminder that foreign policy changes over time to reflect a country’s changing interests and perspectives. The TRA, signed into U.S. law on April 10, 1979, was in fact a unilateral revision of U.S. policy toward Taiwan as set forth in the first two Sino-U.S. communiqués of Feb. 28, 1972 and Jan. 1, 1979. The TRA reflected the recognition that the United States, in its eagerness to establish diplomatic relations with China, had not seriously addressed what to do about the significant multifaceted U.S. interests in, and relations with, Taiwan, or the needs of U.S. citizens in Taiwan, much less the interests of the people of Taiwan.


In retrospect, the eagerness of President Nixon and Henry Kissinger to establish relations with China in 1971-72 was nonsensical when we consider that the chaotic Cultural Revolution which devastated China was still continuing. While Kissinger and Nixon were negotiating the communiqués, China was disorganized, very poor, and very weak. But the Vietnam War was at the forefront of Nixon’s concerns and the collapse of the Soviet Union would not occur for another two decades and so Hanoi and Moscow preoccupied Washington, and the threats that China now presents to the United States were seemingly unimaginable. So it was that President Jimmy Carter, who ironically made human rights a centerpiece of his foreign policy, would sign the 2nd Communiqué establishing U.S. diplomatic relations with the PRC, but then turn around and also sign off on the TRA.

It is always easier to know the truth in hindsight. When the U.S. negotiated the three joint communiqués with China, it is clear that Washington envisioned a long-term cooperative relationship with China, and wrongly believed that China would help end the Vietnam War sooner, and help counterbalance the long-term Soviet/Russian threat. China was perceived as a country with enormous potential that would provide the United States with long-term mutually beneficial strategic, political, and economic relations. Washington also clearly expected that Taiwan under the autocratic leadership of Chang Kai-Shek would likely wither and soon become part of China. These expectations proved entirely wrong and short-sighted. Fortunately, the U.S. Congress with the TRA and President Reagan with the 6 Assurances (in July 1982) preserved and protected U.S.-Taiwan relations.

The 3 Sino-American Communiqués are in fact Cold War relics. Dan Blumenthal and Randall Schriver in an article The National Interest on “Reality Check: Trump's Taiwan Call Was a Step Toward Balanced Relations” (Dec. 5, 2016) called attention to “a deeper and more complicated set of questions regarding the utility of communiqués drafted during the Cold War when an authoritarian Taiwan still claimed to rule ‘all of China.’ … It is hard to think of another set of relationships still governed by joint communiqués from the Cold War era.” Nonetheless, U.S. Government representatives, often spokespersons with no knowledge of the history of U.S. relations with China, almost always refer to the 3 Communiqués and “our one-China Policy” derived from the Communiqués as if these documents are sacred scripture defining U.S. policy.


In fact, however, the 3 Communiqués are deeply flawed. The central premise of the 1st Communiqué is that “the United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States government does not challenge that position.” Unfortunately, the first statement is entirely untrue. First, there was no factual basis for such an assertion about people’s views on both sides of the Strait. While it was true that the governments of both the ROC and the PRC in 1971 believed there was only one China and that Taiwan was part of it, no one asked or cared what the people on either side of the Strait thought. Neither Mao Zedong nor Chiang Kai-Shek consulted their peoples and no polls were taken. Moreover, even if the United States did not challenge this imagined common position, it did not accept it either.

The 2nd Communiqué, which established Sino-U.S diplomatic relations, created additional confusion. Dropping any mention of what people on either side of the Strait might think, Washington instead ambiguously stated, “The government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” Washington intentionally did not use the English word ''recognizes'' -- instead of “acknowledges”-- as China wished, but the Chinese version of the text used 承認 (chéngrèn) which can be translated as “to admit, to concede, or to recognize.”To make matters worse, it was agreed that the PRC version of the text would be authoritative for China and the English version would be authoritative for the United States. In effect, there would continue to be two separate versions of this critical statement. Hence, we have had continuing confusion over the U.S. one-China policy and China’s “one-China Policy” or “one-China Principle” and what they mean.

The 3rd Communiqué was Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s effort on August 17, 1982 to calm apparent PRC anger over continued U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. President Reagan eventually fired him over this and other issues. The 3rd Communiqué was a bad idea from the start. The best proof of this is that the United States never abided by the ambiguous pledge that it “does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, or its promise “that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, and that it intends gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan, leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution.”

In any case, after signing off on the communiqué, President Reagan filed a secret reservation with the National Security Council, to document his interpretation of the Communiqué, consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act: "The U.S. willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of the Taiwan-PRC differences. And this is a permanent imperative of US foreign policy. The quantity and quality of the arms provided Taiwan [will] be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC. Taiwan's defense capability relative to that of the PRC will be maintained." This ultimately led in late July 1982 to U.S. approval of Taiwan’s proposed “Six Assurances” which included commitments that the U.S. had not agreed to set a date certain for ending arms sales to Taiwan nor agreed to engage in prior consultations with the PRC on arms sales to Taiwan.


Given the complicated history and substance of U.S. agreements with China on Taiwan, Washington needs to adopt what are in fact rather easy changes in how it discusses U.S. policy toward Taiwan in the future. It simply needs to stop citing familiar well-worn policy phrases.

-- First, Washington should eliminate all U.S. government references to “one China” in any form when referring to issues and policies involving Taiwan. Taiwan was never part of China and the use of “one China” -- which has always had different meanings, interpretations, and connotations for Washington and Beijing -- is inaccurate, misleading, and confusing.

-- Second, the United States should also stop referring to the “3 Communiqués.” The first is factually incorrect, the second is ambiguous, and the third was effectively repudiated by the TRA and the “Six Assurances” and has never been observed in any case. (Read Joseph Bosco’s excellent article “Scrap the Third Communiqué with China, Keep the Six Assurances to Taiwan” in The Hill, Oct. 12, 2018.)

-- Third, instead of such references, Washington should stress that U.S. policy remains consistent with the emphasis in the Taiwan Relations Act on peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues and on acting in accordance with human rights. The U.S. should regularly reiterate, as the TRA states, that “the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means; to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means … a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area …; to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” Moreover, “Nothing … shall contravene the interest of the United States in human rights, especially with respect to the human rights of all the … inhabitants of Taiwan. The preservation and enhancement of the human rights of all the people on Taiwan are hereby reaffirmed as objectives of the United States. “

-- Fourth, the Washington should openly repudiate or at least stop publicly repeating President Clinton’s policy statement that the U.S. would not support Taiwan's participation in any international organization for which statehood is required. This policy contradicts U.S. law as expressed in the TRA which specifically states: “Nothing in this Act may be construed as a basis for supporting the exclusion or expulsion of Taiwan from continued membership in any international financial institution or any other international organization.”

-- Finally, Washington should regularly call attention to continuing PRC acts of intimidation and coercion against Taiwan and other neighbors. Washington should regularly remind the PRC of its own words to which it does not adhere, especially the following clear statement of PRC principle in the 1st Communiqué:

“The Chinese side stated: Wherever there is oppression, there is resistance. Countries want independence, nations want liberation and the people want revolution--this has become the irresistible trend of history. All nations, big or small, should be equal: big nations should not bully the small and strong nations should not bully the weak. China will never be a superpower and it opposes hegemony and power politics of any kind. The Chinese side stated that it firmly supports the struggles of all the oppressed people and nations for freedom and liberation and that the people of all countries have the right to choose their social systems according to their own wishes and the right to safeguard the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of their own countries and oppose foreign aggression, interference, control and subversion.”

If only that were the case!

William A. Stanton has served since 2017 at National Taiwan University (NTU) as a Professor at the Center for General Education and subsequently also as the Chief Advisor to NTU's International College Provisional Office. Dr. Stanton previously worked for four years as the founding Director of the Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing Hua University (NTHU). From October 2014 through January 2016, he was also NTHU's Senior Vice President for Global Affairs. Dr. Stanton previously served for 34 years as a U.S. diplomat. His final posting was as Director of the American Institute in Taiwan (2009-2012).