The U.S. “One China” Policy: Time for a Change?

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This is the text of the 16th Annual Charles Neuhauser Memorial Lecture at the John K. Fairbank Center of Harvard University on October 24, 2007.  


When I told my friend and colleague, Professor Steven Goldstein, Director of the Fairbank Center’s Taiwan Studies Workshop, that I had chosen the topic The U.S. “One China” Policy: Time for a Change?”, he asked if I had gone over to the “dark side.” Though he knew the answer, his rhetorical question reflected the fact that, at least in some of the circles he and I travel in there is a nascent, and perhaps more than nascent, debate about the relevance of the “one China” policy today. Calls for change come from both sides- on the one hand, from those who say the United States should “face reality,” as well as live up to its ideals, and support the independence of democratic Taiwan; and, on the other hand, from those who favor open U.S. support, not just for peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues, but for peaceful reunification as the only way to avoid an eventual crisis, indeed an eventual war.

That Americans coming at this issue from such polar opposite positions should see such fundamental problems with the policy suggests to me that the policy’s essential nuance, its “art,” if you will, and its value, are being lost and that for this reason alone it merits attention.

But even more important, at least to me, I thought it worth addressing this topic because of its rising sensitivity both in Taiwan and on the Mainland.

Many of you are familiar with the current debate in Taiwan over whether-and how far-to press for change in the formal status of the island and, in the meantime, how to shape-and describe-Taiwan’s relationship with the Mainland. I will address later on a proposed referendum to join the United Nations “in the name of ‘Taiwan'”, but here I would simply point out that some people in Taiwan are increasingly angry with U.S. opposition to that referendum, and argue with substantial fervor that it is necessary to break out of what they term the “birdcage” democracy that Washington, together with Beijing, is imposing on the people of Taiwan.

In the Mainland there is an almost mirror-image debate about whether the United States not only prefers to maintain the status quo-a concept that I will also discuss in greater detail in a moment-but whether the long-term American intention is not, in fact, to promote permanent separation of Taiwan from the Mainland and how China should respond to that.

In light of all these factors, I thought it was worth examining the “one China” policy, and to ask whether the policy is truly understood, and whether it retains the relevance and sustainability in the world of 2007 that it had twenty or thirty years ago.
What is the “one China” policy?

Acknowledging the “one China” principle. An obvious place to start is to explore what the “one China” policy is-and what it is not. Indeed, to be frank, it is somewhat easier to explain what it is not than what it is. When I was still in government working on these questions, I startled a colleague when I said that we-and when I say “we” I mean the United States-don’t really have a “one China” policy; we have a “no two Chinas,” “no one China/one Taiwan” policy. Of course we call our policy a “one China” policy, and it is grounded in important measure in the proposition that we “acknowledge” the PRC claim that there is “one China” of which Taiwan is a part and that, in line with the various communiqués we have signed with Beijing, we will not challenge it or adopt policies and actions that we view as inconsistent with the notion of “one China.” But we do not, ourselves, accept or embrace the PRC claim.

Now before someone familiar with the Chinese-language text of the December 15, 1978, “Normalization” communiqué starts arguing that, maybe in English we don’t accept “one China,” but in Chinese we do, I will simply state that this is not a correct understanding of the issue and that I deeply regret the confusion caused by the Chinese terminology used in that communiqué. How that came about is a complex story-and a somewhat controversial one-and I’ll be happy to go into it later, if you want; for now I will just say again that the United States did not then, and does not now, accept the PRC’s principle of “one China.”

Recognizing the Sole Legal Government of China. One of the elements of U.S. policy confusing to some people is the fact that the United States, like most other countries in the world, recognizes the government of the People’s Republic of China as the “sole legal government of China.” Of course, Beijing takes that to mean that, since it considers Taiwan to be part of China, we should also recognize that it is the legal representative of Taiwan in the international community.

But, to be blunt, we don’t. In fact, I do not know of a single major nation that accepts the assertion that Beijing speaks for Taiwan. At the same time, the United States and other nations do not consider the Republic of China, or Taiwan, to be a sovereign, independent state. Thus, we do not consider Taiwan eligible for membership in organizations made up only of states and do not support applications for such membership. The net result, of course, is that, if no other arrangement has been made to allow Taipei to have a say on the issues of relevance to a given organization, the people of Taiwan have no direct voice in matters addressed by that organization.

This is not an ideal situation, to say the least, and not a “fair” one. And it has long been U.S. policy to support having Taiwan’s voice heard through what we have termed “meaningful participation” in such organizations. Frankly, that is harder to achieve than one might think. But in any event, in those cases where we do not succeed, one has to presume that the people of Taiwan would agree it is better not to have a voice at all than to have the world accept the PRC as their spokesman.

Maintaining the Status Quo. I will return shortly to this issue of “international space” and its central role in driving the current UN campaign. But first, I would like to discuss a concept relevant to understanding and dealing with all of this: the status quo.

All three major players I am talking about here-the United States, the PRC, and Taiwan, say they want to maintain it. But they all have different definitions of what “it” is, and indeed, in Taiwan itself, there are debates over the definition.

For the Mainland, the status quo is that there is “one China” of which Taiwan is an integral and indivisible part. For Taiwan, the status quo is that the ROC, or Taiwan, is a sovereign, independent state, and for the current government that means that Taiwan has no political links to the Mainland, even in principle. So, when each side speaks of maintaining the status quo, it is speaking of maintaining its own version. And while they use the same words, their meanings are completely different and, in the most basic respects, contradictory.

What about the United States? One of the important tenets of American policy, first expressed by the Clinton Administration but taken up again by the George W. Bush Administration, is that neither side should seek to unilaterally change the status quo. By that we mean that neither side should upset peace and stability in the region, including by threat or provocation or by seeking to impose its version of the status quo on the other side or on the international community.

You may be familiar with a statement made during congressional testimony in April 2004 by then-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, James Kelly. He said that the United States supports the status quo “as we define it.” Many in Taiwan complained that the United States had no right to define the status quo that was all about their present and future situation or to impose an American definition that prevented Taiwan from asserting its sovereign status. Besides, Taipei argued, it is Beijing, not Taipei, that seeks to change the status quo by pressuring Taiwan to abandon its sovereign, independent status and to unify with the Mainland.

Mr. Kelly was, of course, articulating American policy-what the United States would support, or oppose-and, as the critics rightly sensed, he was trying to convey an important message especially to Taiwan. His statement came, you will recall, in the wake of a presidential election campaign in Taiwan that was characterized by proposals for Taiwan to “walk on its own path” and to write a “new constitution.” In such circumstances, it should not have been surprising that Washington would voice its concerns. President Bush had done so the previous December by publicly chastising President Chen Shui-bian during an Oval Office visit by PRC Premier Wen Jiabao. And now Mr. Kelly did. And, in fact, President Chen seemed to take this into account now that the campaign was over, and he subsequently abandoned his most radical proposals when he delivered his inaugural address in May, although as time went on, he revisited some of them.

Promoting Peaceful Resolution. Fundamental to the U.S. approach is insistence that ultimate resolution of Taiwan’s relationship with the Mainland should be worked out by the two sides, themselves. This represents an evolution from President Truman’s announcement in June 1950, at the outset of the Korean War that

The determination of the future status of Formosa must await the restoration of security in the Pacific, a peace settlement with Japan, or consideration by the United Nations.

Over time, even before Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing in July 1971, the insistence on some international involvement waned, and it became established American policy, as I said, that the United States could live with any resolution of cross-Strait relations worked out peacefully between the two sides. This position was enshrined in the various U.S.-PRC Normalization documents that were crafted over the Nixon, Carter and Reagan years, and it has been endorsed by every American President since.

Why does the United States not take a position on what the ultimate relationship between Taiwan and the Mainland should be? For one thing, what position would we take? To favor unification, even peaceful unification? Are Americans to tell the people of Taiwan that they are consigned by our decision to a future as part of a country they have not chosen to be part of? Moreover, unlikely as it may seem today, why would we preemptively oppose Taiwan independence if the two sides could agree on it? Indeed, I believe that, while most Americans support the current policy because they understand how dangerous it would be to advocate or support or even tolerate independence, they would be very happy if independence were the eventual outcome.

On the other hand, are we to tell the people of Taiwan-or of the Mainland, for that matter-that some form of reunification is unacceptable? How could we oppose unification if the two sides agreed on it? We might have views about such an outcome; we might even have strong concerns about aspects of it.

But whatever those views and concerns, fundamentally the United States has taken the position that it does not have the right to determine this issue at the end of the day. At the end of the day, this is “their” issue, not ours, and it should be decided by the people on both sides of the Strait, not by the United States.

At the same time, it is important to underscore that, because confrontation would directly affect vital American strategic interests, the United States would, and does, oppose-actively and with considerable determination-any step by either side that could upset peace and stability and risk war.

So, the “one China” policy consists of:

  • Not an active embracing of the proposition that there is “one China” of which Taiwan is a part, but a commitment not to challenge that position and to act consistent with it to the extent possible. That means no support for “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan.” It means maintaining only unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan, but in a way that promotes robust interaction across the entire spectrum of human activity, including even the sale of carefully selected defensive weapons and equipment and other exchanges relating to Taiwan’s security. And of course, we have professional but unofficial representation in Taiwan and in the United States that carries out a broad range of activities.
  • Recognition of the government of the People’s Republic of China as the “sole legal government of China,” but not acceptance that that government represents or speaks for the people of Taiwan in the international community.
  • A more or less agnostic stand on the shape of the ultimate relationship between Taiwan and the Mainland, but a firm view that reaching that final state, and managing cross-Strait relations in the meantime, should be carried out in a non-provocative, uncoerced, and peaceful way.
  • A requirement that neither side seek to change the status quo of peace and stability in the Strait or impose its own definition of the status quo on the other side or on the international community.
  • And, assuming peace and stability are maintained and that provocations and coercion are avoided, the recognition that it is up to the two sides to determine their relationship, both for the time being and in the course of reaching any ultimate settlement.

Coping with the “one China” policy

As viewed from the PRC. I believe that this policy accords not only with American interests but with the fundamental interests of both sides of the Strait. Looking at it from the PRC perspective, I think the policy contributes importantly to maintaining the peaceful and stable environment that the PRC needs to achieve its priority goal of economic development. Consistent with this priority, the PRC has changed its approach, moving decisively away from a policy of near-term unification and focusing, instead, on blocking independence as it strives to win hearts and minds in Taiwan. As a result, the pressures leading to possible conflict have abated. The People’s Liberation Army-the PLA, continues to modernize and expand its capabilities, and would not, in my judgment, hesitate to use them if deemed necessary. But I see no basis for believing that the PRC would find it in its interest to initiate conflict if Taiwan does not move toward what has come to be called de jure independence through constitutional change.

That said, the United States and others continue to be concerned about the expanding PLA forces opposite Taiwan, and we continue to prepare to confront them if necessary.

As viewed from Taiwan. In fact, however, the greater concerns in recent years have been what are seen as independence-oriented steps in Taiwan that could potentially cross the line of PRC tolerance.

To many people in Taiwan, U.S. rejection under the “one China” policy of steps supported by a majority in Taiwan is unfair in principle and unwise in practice. In principle, they say, it represents a betrayal of America’s own values and its commitment to democracy; in practice, they say, Washington’s realpolitik approach to relations with the PRC gives Beijing the whip hand not only on Taiwan matters but on other pressing international issues, as well.

They argue further that U.S. policy will not preserve the status quo, even as the U.S. defines it, i.e., the maintenance of peace and stability. If Taiwan does not take steps now, perhaps not to immediately change the constitution but at least to gain international acceptance as a “state” separate from the PRC, and to deepen the sense of “Taiwanese identity” on the island, then over time-perhaps not such a long time-Taiwan will lack the strength to resist the PRC’s intimidation and inducement, if not the outright use of force. Growing PRC military, economic and political strength will alter what the Soviets used to call the “correlation of forces,” tilting the table toward an inevitability of unification.

The United States is hardly unaware of PLA modernization and has for several years been pressing Taiwan to take urgently needed measures to bolster its self-defense capability. At long last we may have seen some meaningful progress with the passage of a defense budget this summer. Still, Americans would generally argue, together with President Chen Shui-bian, that Taiwan’s greatest strength against unwanted takeover is not its military strength, but its political and economic vibrance and viability. Where we part company from President Chen, and even more from some others in his party who go to the extreme of wanting to declare independence today, is that we believe pressing on the issue of Taiwan’s “status” is not the path to more meaningful democracy and security, but rather a provocative path that increases the possibility the PRC will opt for non-peaceful means while at the same time it erodes the sympathy of the international community and its potential willingness to help resist.

Joining the UN “in the name of ‘Taiwan'”

No provocation. The issue that has caught everyone’s attention lately is the proposed referendum put forth by President Chen’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party or DPP, and pressed very strongly by Mr. Chen personally, on joining the United Nations as a new member under the name “Taiwan.” Not only because it is an example of the kind of issue that could precipitate a serious problem in theory, but because it is a very real issue in the triangular relationship today, I want to take a few minutes to talk about it specifically.

The referendum reads:

In 1971, the People’s Republic of China replaced the Republic of China as a member of the United Nations, thus making Taiwan an international orphan. In order to strongly express the will of the Taiwanese people, and to elevate Taiwan’s international status and international participation, do you agree with the government to use the name “Taiwan” to enter the United Nations?  

One basic argument for the referendum is that it will deepen the sense of Taiwanese identity, strengthening democracy and reinforcing the people’s will to resist pressures and blandishments from the Mainland. Another is that it will present to the international community the formally expressed demand of the people of Taiwan that they have a right to international identity and representation separate from the PRC.

It is argued that, because the referendum does not change the formal “national moniker” and is not a “declaration of independence” through constitutional change, it neither violates promises Chen Shui-bian has made, including to President Bush, to eschew formal independence nor is it a step across a PRC “red line” triggering the use of force. As President Chen has put it, the day after the referendum passes, if it passes, “nothing will change.” Taiwan will not be able to join the United Nations and the constitution will remain intact.

On the other hand, the PRC sees this referendum as one more step in the consistent push toward “Taiwan independence” over Chen Shui-bian’s entire tenure. But different from all of the other “unacceptable” steps Chen has taken, Beijing argues, it would be the first time the people of Taiwan would be formally expressing themselves on a question related to Taiwan’s status within a constitutional and legal framework. Beijing cites the DPP’s own explanation document about the referendum, in which the results of a referendum are characterized as having greater authority than law or even the constitution. Thus, the PRC says, while the question put to the people of Taiwan seems innocent and straight-forward, the DPP’s explanation as well as various statements by Chen Shui-bian make clear that the goal is not just about joining the UN but about establishing a legal and political foundation for pressing ahead with formal independence.

That Beijing makes this argument, of course, does not mean it is right; in terms of the assessment that the referendum would create a legal basis for moving ahead to de jure independence, I believe it is wrong. But it is hard to argue with the assertion that the political intention of the sponsors is to create a mandate for pushing Taiwan’s separate identity and status further not just domestically but internationally. However right and just the specifics of the referendum may seem to its supporters in principle, we live in the real world where actions have consequences and an action of this sort could ultimately prove disastrous.

To be frank, I do not believe that Beijing intends to attack Taiwan in some sort of final showdown if the referendum passes. But I think that we would be burying our heads in the sand if we did not take seriously that there is a great deal of thinking-and planning-going on right now on the Mainland about how to impose a cost for such a development, a cost that is significant enough to deter further steps toward independence but restrained enough not to trigger U.S. intervention and an all-out war. That such thinking is going on is very disturbing, but it is a sobering reality to which we should all pay attention.

Some would argue that all of this is bluster, merely designed on the one hand to scare Taiwan into abandoning-or rejecting-the referendum, and on the other to pressure the United States into playing the role of the “heavy,” the “enforcer,” the one to bring Taiwan “to heel” and to impose “pragmatic” limits on its democracy. There is no doubt in my mind that this latter aspect is part of the PRC’s plan. But the U.S. objections to the referendum spring from Washington’s own assessment of the dangers, not from any PRC demands or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, collaboration with Beijing. And a part of that assessment is that, like it or not, if the PRC feels provoked to the extent that it decides it must act, the likelihood of things getting out of control are not insignificant.

Thus, in a crescendo of statements, Washington has made known that, while the United States does not oppose referenda in principle, it opposes-not simply “does not support,” but opposes-referenda that could upset cross-Strait peace and stability. This referendum is opposed because it could have such an effect due to the way it uses the name “Taiwan.”

It is not persuasive to argue, as the DPP and President Chen do, that this proposal is simply like many other instances in which Taiwan does not use its formal name to participate in the international community. This is not “Chinese Taipei” in the Olympics or even a “customs territory” in the WTO.

Despite his occasional claims that use of “Taiwan” has no special importance, President Chen has also argued that using “Taiwan” in the UN context in fact is an instance of “rectification of Taiwan’s name” and that it is explicitly designed to help persuade the international community to accept “Taiwan” as a separate, sovereign state.

Having earlier said, on resuming the chairmanship of the DPP, that his “only focus” would be on passing the referendum, in only the past twenty-four hours he has asserted again that the drive for UN membership, and for the referendum, is a “symbol that manifests Taiwan’s national sovereignty” as a country that is “different” from China.

And while that is not the same as formalizing independent status by amending the constitution, it is an effort to change the status quo.

Quite different from previous efforts by Taipei’s friends at the UN since 1993 simply to place a “Taiwan” item on the General Assembly agenda, this year, in addition, Chen Shui-bian twice wrote directly to the UN Secretary General seeking admission as a “new member” on the explicit grounds that “Taiwan” is a sovereign, independent state. He signed both letters “Chen Shui-bian, President, Taiwan.” Not only that, but he sent a letter to PRC UN Representative Wang Guangya, who was in his final day as rotational Security Council president, and signed it the same way. One has to wonder about Chen’s thoughts as he signed that letter, and Wang’s as he received it.

A few days ago, President Chen said he thought that, under the influence of the referendum’s passage and the subsequent public backlash he anticipated in the United States against excluding Taiwan from the United Nations, the White House and Congress would eventually, as he put it, “feel the pinch” of public opinion and move to support Taiwan’s UN bid. More broadly, he even claimed that it would force the United States to review its “one China” policy and move toward recognizing both the PRC and Taiwan. Looking to the west, he said he thought that the PRC would have to rethink the “failure” of its Taiwan policy and drop the acceptance of the “one China” principle as a precondition for a cross-Strait peace agreement.

Setting aside the extreme unlikeliness he is right regarding the PRC, it is truly worrisome if he so misreads the United States as to believe that Americans’ natural instinct toward universal representation in international organizations will translate into acceptance of a “one China, one Taiwan” policy and that he pushes the referendum on that assumption.

As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Christensen put it recently in a speech I would urge everyone to read:

[A]s much as we oppose Beijing’s threat to use force, we also take it seriously, and Taipei cannot afford to do otherwise. It is for this reason that Taiwan’s security is inextricably linked to the avoidance of needlessly provocative behavior. This does not mean that Taipei should or can be passive in the face of PRC pressure. But it means that responsible leadership in Taipei has to anticipate potential Chinese red lines and reactions and avoid unnecessary and unproductive provocations.

And no use of force. To avoid misunderstanding, I think the other side of the coin also bears repeating, that is, regarding the possible use of force by Beijing. As Mr. Christensen put it: “The United States has repeatedly made clear that the use of force would be unacceptable.”

Challenging the “one China” policy

The U.S. dedication to peaceful management of cross-Strait relations applies, of course, to ultimate resolution of Taiwan’s relations with the Mainland. But that is something that can only come over a considerable period of time and, if it is to be successful, with great wisdom and effective leadership on the part of all parties.

The issue facing us today is what U.S. policy should be toward managing the relationship until we arrive at resolution. Do we need to adjust or even abandon the “one China” policy to account for the rising strength of the PRC, on the one hand, or the deepening of democracy and the evolution of attitudes in Taiwan, on the other?

My own answer is that there is no sound reason to alter or abandon our “one China” policy, that, as difficult as it is to implement it well, there is no better alternative. Let me devote my remaining time to examining why I believe this is so.

Taiwan, the plucky little democracy. On one side of the argument for change is the proposition that Taiwan today is not the Taiwan of the 1960s, 70s or 80s. It is no longer a tightly-run little island but a vibrant democracy in which the people not only demand the right to express themselves but have a responsibility to do so. And so the United States should support that development. And it does.

But democracy is not an excuse for irresponsibility, and the political leaders of Taiwan, of whatever political color, have a responsibility to look out for the security and well-being of the 23 million people they lead. Clearly, a frontal challenge to the PRC through a formal action to sever Taiwan’s constitutional link with the Mainland would bring tragedy down on the heads of the people of Taiwan. And virtually all political leaders in Taiwan today understand that and would avoid taking such action.

The problem in recent times has been that there seems to be a growing belief in some circles that they can get away with tweaking the dragon’s tail as long as they don’t poke him in the eye. That is, it’s all right to openly seek to establish a quasi-formal independent identity for Taiwan in the international community, and an outspokenly separate identity domestically, as long as you do not change the constitutional name from “Republic of China” to “Taiwan.” As understandable as the instinct underlying that position may be, at a very minimum it is tempting fate; at worst, it could bring tragedy to the very people whose ambitions this approach aspires to articulate and advance.

International reaction. Not only will these efforts not be successful, but they will even cause those inclined to support Taiwan’s practical participation in the international community to pull in their heads, or as we have seen at the WHO and the UN, even to openly side with Beijing if forced to take sides. It’s hard to see how this helps Taiwan.

PRC reaction. Moreover, although Beijing is clearly not spoiling for a fight, no one should mistake that, if it concludes that Taiwan is in fact irrevocably closing the door to any prospect of ultimate unification, it will act. And even if it comes at a great cost, it will act. Whether it is before or after the Olympics, before or after the Shanghai World Expo, before or after it has achieved the modern economic state to which it aspires, or even before or after it is assured of military success, it will act.

Is the “One China” Policy Working?

Some people have described the U.S. “one China” policy as designed simply to “kick the can down the road,” putting off any denouement over ultimate resolution of cross-Strait relations. I certainly agree that is one element, at least as long as the alternative to kicking the can down the road could be war.

But, as I have tried to stress, the U.S. “one China” policy also contains within it the prospect that the United States will support progress toward any peaceful, non-coercive arrangements worked out by the two sides. This was not a proposition without opponents when it was first developed, and it is not a proposition without opponents now.

Still, the principles behind the policy are sound. Moreover, the policy has worked in that it has facilitated a broad and deep U.S. relationship with the PRC based on respect for the rising power and influence of China at the same time it has protected the security and well-being of the people of Taiwan.

South Korean students have sometimes berated me for the fact that the United States prevented the unification of Korea in the late 1940s. Well, yes, I have responded, our refusal to allow a Soviet takeover did prevent conquest of the South by Kim Il Sung. So did our involvement in the Korean War. But, I have added, looking at the history of the past 60 years, and looking at North Korea and South Korea today, I doubt most South Koreans would really have preferred the alternative.

Similarly with Taiwan, while we did accept terms for Normalization that put the ROC’s diplomatic status into limbo, I believe we have contributed in vital ways to shoring up the security and well-being of the people of Taiwan in a democratic and prosperous society that, for all of the frustrations, inconveniences and affronts to their dignity, functions quite well in the international community. Although Taiwan has formal diplomatic relations with only twenty-four countries today-and that number may shrink-it has substantive ties with over 140 other countries. It is not part of the UN system, but according to the latest information I could find, it is an active member of 26 intergovernmental organizations and holds observer or associate membership status with 17 others, not to mention membership by Taiwan institutions in innumerable non-governmental organizations. Per capita GDP is over $16,000 and Taiwan is a major player in global trade and investment, including in high-end services and high-tech manufacturing, and it is thoroughly connected to the rest of the world through extensive air and sea links.

Absent the “one China” policy over the past 30 plus years, where would things stand today? I daresay not in such good shape.

Does Taiwan’s current situation have problems? Sure, especially in terms of joining international organizations and regimes where only states are members or where, in recent times, the PRC has reacted to Taipei’s “envelope pushing” by squeezing harder even in non-state organizations. Moreover, we are all familiar with the heated debate in Taiwan today about the right policies for maintaining or restoring the island’s robust economic performance.

So my point is not that there cannot be improvements internally or externally; my point is that in the past three decades Taiwan has done remarkably well under the protection of the current “one China” policy of the United States. And even given all of Taiwan’s frustrations, it is hard to understand why anyone would put this at risk, especially when the prospects for success on the specific issue at hand are zero.

Change is possible

Saying that the policy works is not the same thing as saying that it can’t change. Beijing and Taipei both have it within their power to take such irresponsible steps that they could alter the entire framework in which the policy operates. Should Taiwan’s inability to rein in its own worst instincts lead to war, the U.S. reaction cannot be predicted. Similarly, should the PRC resort to force, American tolerance should not be taken for granted. This is the essence of what is called “strategic ambiguity”: Taiwan should not assume that if it provokes war, the United States will necessarily get into it; the PRC should not assume that if it attacks Taiwan, the United States will stay out of it.

In either of those circumstances, arguments will certainly be put forward for changing the “one China” policy one way or the other. Even if not totally predictable, the outcome will likely be scenario-driven.

On the one hand, Mr. Chen may be correct in predicting that the referendum could eventually precipitate a change in U.S. policy. But if that is the driving force my guess is that it will drive policy, not in the direction of recognizing Taiwan’s sovereign, independent status, but in the other direction.

On the other hand, a PRC resort to force could also spark a change. Recall, if you will, the Taiwan Relations Act’s pronouncement that “the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.” And the caution by President Clinton’s secretary of state, Warren Christopher, that the “one China” policy “is predicated on the PRC’s pursuit of a peaceful resolution of issues between Taipei and Beijing.”

On a more constructive note, some people have advocated, if not a substantive change in the “one China” policy, then introducing a greater degree of American activism. Behind this lies the fear that, whatever the sense of relative calm today, the current situation is inherently unstable. And so, rather than leaving things totally to fate, the argument goes, the United States should take a hand in stimulating or at least facilitating a cross-Strait negotiation that would, for the foreseeable future, involve a trade-off of a Taiwan pledge not to move toward independence for a PRC pledge not to use force.

Although forging such an agreement would, I believe, be much more complicated than it seems at first glance, nonetheless, in principle, if it could be achieved, that would be good. And it is basically the position being advocated by KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou today, and it is even being advocated by PRC President Hu Jintao, albeit with a “one China” precondition.

But the appropriate U.S. role in this is not so clear to me. If both sides wanted the United States to play a role, then we should seriously consider it. Otherwise, it seems to me that an American effort to shape the process would be fraught with danger.

At the same time, there are things we could do, consistent with our “one China” policy. We could, for example, make clear what may seem not terribly clear, that, as I have been saying, the United States will go along with any arrangements worked out peacefully and non-coercively by the two sides. That includes not only ultimate resolution of the cross-Strait relationship, be it independence or unification, but interim measures such as agreements to end the state of hostilities or to develop confidence-building measures.

If the United States thought that a government in Taiwan might simply give away the store, so to speak, then it might take a different stance, as that would have implications for our strategic interests. But I, for one, have far more faith in Taiwan’s people and democratic process than that. Just as I think the people of Taiwan will not elect a leader who will knowingly take them over the brink of the precipice of formal independence, I also do not think they will elect one who will cede control over their security and well-being to the Mainland. Certainly neither of the current candidates would represent such dangers.

The United States might have views, we might offer advice, and we certainly would insist on close consultations-meaning more than simply informing each other of what we will be doing. But I simply do not foresee a circumstance under which the United States should, or would, try to prevent Taiwan from reaching sensible accords with the Mainland, even if it meant some adjustments in our own thinking.


So I answer my own question by saying, no, it is not time for a change in the U.S. “one China” policy. It does need to be better understood-including not just by interested publics, but by those charged with carrying it out, as well as by political leaders and policy-makers in Taiwan and the Mainland. And it does need to be implemented in ways that are respectful of the fundamental interests on both sides.

Both sides also need to understand that they must respect U.S. strategic national interests. That means being frank with each other when necessary, mutually supportive when possible. I would hope that the most sensitive issues could be handled quietly, behind the scenes, but unfortunately it has not always proven the most effective way of getting either side to take our interests seriously.

So, I end with a plea-a plea to the leaders in Taiwan and on the Mainland, that, as they naturally promote what they see as their own vital interests, they do so in a way that maximizes the welfare and security of the people on both sides of the Strait and that respects U.S. interests in the maintenance of peace and stability. If they fail to do so, as Secretary Christopher said, the United States “will not hesitate to take the action necessary to protect our interests.”

Rather than focusing on that prospect, however, I would hope that both sides will, with U.S. encouragement, successfully search for ways to ease tensions and promote mutual interests. I am hopeful that after next May we may witness a decided upturn in cross-Strait relations, whoever is elected. That is not inevitable; it will take vision and strong leadership on all sides. But if those are the qualities brought to bear on the problem, I believe that the contributions of the U.S. “one China” policy will once again become self-evident and the questions raised about it will fade. In the meantime, the policy should-and I believe will-remain in place, and it will continue to contribute to the maintenance of peace and stability, to a constructive U.S.-PRC relationship, and to the well-being and security of the people of Taiwan. And I think we all should welcome that.


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