Issue Brief

Taiwan and U.S. Policy: The Diplomatic Dimension

in Program


We are asked to address the key political and diplomatic factors in political and security relations among the U.S., Taiwan and the PRC and why those factors are important; what diplomatic trends and developments will influence those relations, how they will do so and with what implications for the cross-Strait dynamic and stability; and what policy prescriptions arise from this analysis for the United States to promote beneficial outcomes.

What follows does not aim to be comprehensive.  I focus primarily on Taiwan and U.S. policy, though I will necessarily touch on factors and views of the other two main partiesÔ£aiwan, itself, and the PRC.  In that connection, use of the term “we” is meant to refer to what I believe are U.S. positions, as distinct from those of either Taipei or Beijing.

To begin with, I think it is important to understand what U.S. Taiwan policy aims to do in the political/security area.  I would put it this way: the United States seeks to ensure that peace and stability are maintained in East Asia, that cross-Strait relations, specifically, are not resolved by coercion or resort to force, and that the U.S. is able to maintain positive, constructive and productive relations with both Taiwan and the PRC.   American interests in Taiwan are obviously affected by the remarkable political and economic transformation on the island, especially over the past decade and a half.  But it is my contention that, while that transformation makes peaceful resolution even more salient for Americans, the reason we would even consider going to war over Taiwan is essentially because we have a strategic national interest in preventing the use of force to resolve disputes in this crucial area of the world.  Some people disagree with this view, but I would point out that the United States has almost continuously since the mid-1940s taken a strong stand against use of force to resolve cross-Strait issues, long predating the recent positive evolution.

In any event, I see the U.S. addressing relations with Taiwan on three levels: in terms of Taiwan itself, in the context of overall China policy and relations, and in the even larger context of U.S. regional and global interests.  While I will not try to cover all of that, I do want to lay down that, in assessing the situation and seeking to formulate policy prescriptions, we need to have all of those dimensions in mind.

The fate of Taiwan has, of course, been a profoundly political issue in the United States for well over half a century.  And although the specific facts have changed in major ways over that lengthy period of time both domestically in the U.S. and in the region, and indeed in the worldÈÛne “constant,” with a brief exception in the first part of 1950, has been the unwillingness of the United States to stand by and simply watch “nature take its course.”

This has presented a particular diplomatic challenge to the United States as our position on Taiwan’s sovereignty evolved.  Between at least 1950 and 1971, the U.S. position was that the status of Taiwan was “undetermined” and could only be resolved by some action in the international community.  The Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China, of course, never accepted that, but it was the U.S. and allied position coming out of World War II and reinforced by the Korean War. 

The important change that came with the beginning of normalization of U.S.-PRC relations was that the United States, in essence, set aside that underlying question and focused instead on the view that the relationship between Taiwan and the Mainland was one to be determined by the two sides.  With the establishment of diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1979, and the breaking of relations with the ROC, that change allowed Beijing to assert that the “international” dimension of the Taiwan question had now been resolved and to treat cross-Strait relations as an “internal” matter.  One specific corollary was, for example, that the hawkish slogan “we shall certainly liberate Taiwan” was replaced with commitment to “peaceful reunification.” And that, in turn, not only contributed to the rapid development of Sino-American relations, but to extraordinary changes, over time, in cross-Strait relations, as well. 

With some notable exceptions with which we are all familiar, especially in 1995/96, there has been a significant lowering of tension in the Taiwan Strait that has facilitated a burgeoning of cross-Strait trade and investment, and the creation of a climate which fostered the democratic evolution in Taiwan which we admire so much.

All the while, it bears repeating, we have maintained our concern for, and our actual and potential involvement in, ensuring only peaceful means to address the ultimate question of cross-Strait relations.

Let’s take a look at the “one China” policy, what it isîAnd what it is not.

First of all, the U.S. “one China” policy is not the same as the PRC’s “one China” principle or Taiwan’s “one China” concept, but is defined, instead, by the American position in the three U.S.-PRC joint communiqu¨¦s as well as the Taiwan Relations Act.  It is in part, of course, an affirmative policy, a statement of what we stand for.  But it is also importantly a policy made up of things we will not do.  Affirmatively, we “acknowledge” the “Chinese position” that there is but “one China” and that Taiwan is part of it.  But when we amplify that, we do so by enumerating a number of positions we would not support such as “one China, one Taiwan” or “two Chinas.”  As an obvious corollary of those positions, we do not support “Taiwan independence.”  Of course, we don’t actively support reunification, either.  We could live with either outcome, but those are decisions that the two sides directly involved must make, not the United States.  Our only insistence, to repeat like a broken record, is that any resolution be peacefully arrived at. 

What, then, is the significance of the U.S. affirmative recognition of the PRC as the “sole legal government of China” as of January 1, 1979?  If one “acknowledges” and (as in the Shanghai Communiqu¨¦) “does not challenge” the Chinese view that there is only “one China” and Taiwan is part of it, does recognition of the PRC as the “sole legal government of China” mean that the U.S. recognizes the PRC government as the legal government of Taiwan?  Do we accept the PRC contention that it speaks in the international community for Taiwan?

In my view, clearly not, on either score, which illustrates a key reason the United States stays away from any pronouncements about the character of the relationship between the two sides of the Strait, but rather operates on the basis of the statements in the three communiqu¨¦s and does notÈÛr, anyway, should notÒ«tray beyond them.  To do otherwise would cause a political furor somewhere (where, of course, depending on what it was we said by way of amplification) that in virtually all cases would cause far more harm than any presumed good.

Although there have been many changes in the PRC, the most dramatic political developments in recent years have been in Taiwan.  What is interesting for diplomacy is that, while one can debate about the pros and cons of some sort of “one China” position for Taiwan, it is hard to make a credible case that, even with full autonomy, the people of Taiwan want to come under Beijing’s sovereign controlÈÝither at all and certainly not under current circumstances or anytime soon.  But the pragmatism of the people of Taiwan is strongly reflected in polls that show the overwhelming weight of public opinion is squarely behind the proposition of maintaining the “status quo.”  That is to say, though one could argue that people in Taiwan would snap up independence in a flash if it were offered to them cost-free, they do not want to risk disruption or war to pursue that ambition. 

On the Mainland, we are told by our PRC colleagues, there is strong support behind the principle of “one China” manifest in adamant and widely-held opposition to “Taiwan independence” and insistence on ultimate reunification.  We don’t have access to meaningful public opinion polls to substantiate that proposition, but I personally wouldn’t doubt that this would indeed be the result of an objective poll.   Even if that is correct, we can’t know the intensity of these views or what people think pursuit of these goals is worth in terms of national treasure and personal sacrifice.  But frankly, I don’t think that is so relevant. 

In terms of policy, what I believe we can be sure about is that Taiwan’s movement toward “independence” would lead the PRC, ready or not, to adopt coercion and, if need be, ultimately active military means to oppose and defeat that move.  Moreover, my own sense is that, while “war” is not a realistic option to counter moves short of independence, Beijing would likely take serious, consequential steps in response to other steps that it felt were leading ineluctably toward permanent political separationîAnd to U.S. actions perceived as support for such moves.

As to trends or developments that will influence relations among the United States, the PRC and Taiwan, let me just make a couple of general comments.  First, the better the state of overall U.S.-PRC relations, the more relaxed their dealings on Taiwan issues.  This does not mean that Beijing would not react strongly to certain American steps with Taiwan or that Washington would not react strongly to certain PRC steps across the Strait.  But when relations are good, the history seems clear that the two sides are more respectful of each other’s position and less inclined to make an issue where they don’t need to.

A second, and perhaps corollary point, is that when the U.S. and PRC want to foster better bilateral relations, they are more willing to overlook small “transgressions” over Taiwan than when they are not so concerned about the impact on bilateral ties.  That doesn’t mean the “aggrieved” party doesn’t care, or that the “sin” is not somehow added to a list of grievances that can be trotted out if seen as appropriate or necessary at some future time.  Still, there is a greater sense of patience and flexibility when larger stakes are front and center and no challenge exists regarding Taiwan, itself, that is so great it cannot be ignored.  I believe we are in such a period right now.

I’m not going to try to spell out elaborate scenarios, but I suggest that the relatively mild PRC reaction to more accommodating U.S. treatment of senior Taiwan officials as they have “transited” the United States is a case in point.  Similarly, although the level of expressed unhappiness was considerably higher when Taiwan’s defense minister, Tang Yao-ming, “visited” the United States this spring to attend a privately-sponsored conference in Florida, and when he met there with two senior U.S. national security officials, the direct “cost” imposed on U.S-PRC relations was modest.  In the event, the most visible reactions to that visit were a stinging lecture from the PRC Vice Foreign Minister to our Ambassador, which got prominent but very brief play in the PRC press, and the cancellation of a U.S. Navy ship visit to Hong Kong and a PRC ship visit to the United States.  But a month later, a U.S. aircraft carrier and its escorting vessels went to Hong Kong for liberty.

The point I want to make here is that, in my view, these seemingly soft reactions reflected not a lack of concern about these steps, but rather a PRC determination to try to work toward better relations with the United States.  My sense is that the PRC judged it would have better luck demonstrating to Washington the benefits of sound U.S.-PRC relationsîAnd of not tweaking Beijing on such a sensitive issue as TaiwanÈ~han in engaging in tit-for-tat gestures that would risk sending bilateral relations into a downward spiral.

I think it is also worth noting that, while many American China-watchers were concerned about where the Bush Administration was going on Taiwan policy, while transiting the U.S., Chen Shui-bian met with no U.S. official.  And at the Florida conference where he met with the defense minister, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz made clear that the U.S. did not support Taiwan independence.  So, as much as many of us have been concerned by these developments and how far the U.S. would accommodate Taiwan in pushing the envelope, there was not a wholesale reversal of policy.  Indeed, as those of you who followed the presidential campaign of 2000 closely will recall, while candidate Bush stated his concerns for Taiwan’s security, he also cited the benefits of the “one China” policy for Taiwan, and he reaffirmed the “one China” policy when he signed the Foreign Relations Authorization Act in late September 2002.

The issue of a Chen Shui-bian visit to Washington has been much discussed in recent months.  When Taiwan’s first lady, Wu Shu-chen, was here recently, she evoked great personal respect from all who met her, and that doubtless contributed to some level of sympathy for her expressed wish that, on her next visit to Washington, she would come with her husband.  That said, I think there is general agreement that such a visit would cross some PRC “red line” that, while not precipitating war, would be very harmful to U.S. and, indeed, Taiwan interests.  Despite occasional high-level references in Taiwan to such a visit, it seems to me that Taipei is not insensitive to this reality.

What should the U.S. do to try to contribute to “beneficial outcomes,” as our organizers have labeled them?  First, in my view, we should ensure that, while we make no formal commitments one way or the other about specific U.S. actions in the case of a Taiwan contingencyÖ|hich is the essence of so-called “strategic ambiguity”Ö|e should leave no doubt that the oft-expressed U.S. “abiding interest” in peaceful resolution of issues between Taiwan and the Mainland is not “interest” in the sense of “curiosity” or mere attention, but a statement of a strategic national interest.  At the same time, we should ensure that there is no doubt that we would not support�Eiacute;ndeed, that we would actively opposeÒ«teps on the other side that had as a principal effect provoking Beijing and threatening peace and stability in the Strait.  After all, not only are enormous U.S. political, economic and security interests dependent on the maintenance of peace and stability, but, with the possibility that we would send our young people to fight and die in any war in that area, it is not a trivial or even second-order issue for the United States whether the principal protagonists are behaving responsibly.

Thus, the Clinton Administration was right to distance itself fromîAnd make clear, if somewhat indirectly, its disapproval ofÈ~he so-called “two states theory” in 1999, and the Bush Administration was right to take a similar stance with regard to “yi bian, yi guo” (one country on each side of the Strait) recently. 

That said, the PRC contributes to Taipei’s frustration by laying down requirements for restoration of dialogue.  This then raises the question: What stance should the U.S. take on cross-Strait dialogue and on preconditions for it?  I think we should actively promote dialogueÈÜot “negotiations” that must yield a specific outcome, but talks entered into earnestly by both sides to try to create a more stable and reliable political framework for the foreseeable future.  I do not envisage anything like agreement on reunification in any short- to medium-term timeframe, nor do I think that is necessary for the kind of outcome I seek in terms of peace and stability.  Moreover, while as a private commentator I feel free to spew forth recommendations, I don’t think the United States Government should take stands on the substantive issues between the two sides.  Doing so is unlikely to be helpful to the discussions.

On the issue of the PRC’s “precondition” that, before Dialogue can be resumed, Taiwan must accept the “one China” principle and return to the so-called “1992 consensus,” my personal view is that whether one likes the notion of “preconditions” or not (I don’t, and I notice that even the PRC is sensitive to the term and denies its position constitutes a “precondition”), the reality is that it is highly unlikely that the PRC will change its position.  Some would argue that this reflects a lack of understanding in the Mainland of the massive political evolution in Taiwan.  I’m not sure that is really so, but it certainly reflects a lack of adaptation of the PRC position to make “reunification” an attractive alternative.

Viewed from the other side of the Strait, it is also highly unlikely in the near term that Taiwan will go along with that PRC position.  Whether that would change with a change of Administration in Taipei is an open question and will become, I suspect, an increasingly heated one as 2004 draws near.

In any event, given the stalemate, I urge that the two sides convene a lower-level, but authoritative dialogue, by-passing the question of what is required to resume Wang-Koo talks, and getting down to the business of what each side could expect when those two gentlemen get back together.  Having advocated this for some time without any discernible result, I recognize that such a pragmatic approach is unlikely to bear fruit, given political circumstances in the PRC as well as Taiwan.  But I think it is worth continuing to press for it given the stakes involved. 

What about arms sales to Taiwan?  There is a question whether any amount of arms sales to Taiwan would in the end allow the island to defeat a determined PRC attack, or whether a U.S. role would be required to do that.  Moreover, in terms of the diplomacy of cross-Strait relations, there is an open question about whether U.S. arms sales beyond a certain level reinforce Taiwan’s confidence to engage in dialogue with the Mainland or whether, as the PRC charges, they reinforce, instead, a sense that dialogue can be avoided.  In my mind, there is no easy answer.  But this question may soon be joined again, given a recent report that Aegis-equipped destroyers will soon be approved for sale to Taiwan as well as the increasingly vocal advocacy by some for joint U.S-Taiwan military planning and training.

Some people object that whatever we do with Taiwan in any of these areas should be our decision, not something either dictated by Beijing or undertaken in a spirit of preemptive capitulation to avoid Beijing’s anger.  I would contend that all of these decisions, in fact, do rest in American hands.  But I would also point out that we need to understand that normalization of relations with the PRC implicitly and explicitly included a requirement as a matter of U.S. interests to take account of PRC views, whether we ultimately agree to act as Beijing wishes or not.  The issue is not PRC anger; the issue is what impact any step has on the cross-Strait situation, on U.S.-PRC relations, and on overall American interests.  And I have no question that taking such account of PRC views has been in the American interest over the years and, given the extremely favorable developments in and around Taiwan, in Taiwan’s interest as well.  This is not to deny that circumstances have changed and that we need to take those changes into account, or that there are problems or concerns.  But it is to say that normalization has manifestly served the interests of all the parties concerned, including the United States, and that maintaining past commitments has been an integral part of that.


Originally presented on October 9, 2002 as remarks at a conference entitled “Taiwan and U.S. Policy: Toward Stability or Crisis,” hosted by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and jointly sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Asia-Pacific Research Center of Stanford University, and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.


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