Secretary Powell Must Not Change U.S. Policy on Taiwan

Report Asia

Secretary Powell Must Not Change U.S. Policy on Taiwan

October 27, 2004 6 min read
John Tkacik
Former Senior Research Fellow
John is a former Senior Research Fellow.

In two separate interviews during his stopover in Beijing Sunday and Monday (October 24 and 25), Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made a number of misstatements of fact relating to Taiwan's international status which the State Department has been trying-so far unsuccessfully-to remedy.


The Administration must immediately move to repair the damage of Secretary Powell's comments by restating that the United States does not now, nor has it ever, taken a position on the matter of sovereignty over Taiwan.


Powell Misspeaks

Mr. Powell's carelessness is causing consternation in Taipei, confusion in Washington, and glee in Beijing where his statements are seen as justifying Chinese coercion against the island.


Just what did Secretary Powell say that was so alarming?


In an interview with CNN's Mike Chinoy, Secretary Powell said that the United States did not want either Taipei or Beijing to take any unilateral action that might "prejudice an eventual outcome" between China and Taiwan-an outcome which he apparently believed would be "a reunification that all parties are seeking."


In case anyone thought he might have misspoken, he repeated the same gaffe to a Hong Kong TV interviewer: "Both sides should show restraint, not take any unilateral actions, look for ways of improving dialogue across the Straits and move forward toward that day when we will see a peaceful unification."


Prejudging the outcome of the Taiwan-China relationship as "unification" is bad enough. But telling the world that "reunification" is something that "all parties are seeking" is plain false. Secretary Powell should certainly know it is false, because for the past two years he has been trying to persuade Taiwan's leaders not to declare in public that the self-governing island is already independent. The tacit agreement between Washington and Taipei since the Taiwan president's reelection this past March has been that Taipei will consult with Washington on its public pronouncements and that Washington will support Taipei's position on seeking a dialogue across the Taiwan Strait with Beijing. Mr. Powell's ill-considered comments threaten to damage that understanding.


Mr. Powell added insult to the injury of his putative misstatement when he told his Hong Kong interviewer that "there is only one China," that "Taiwan is not independent," and that "it does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation, and that remains our policy, our firm policy."


Here, again, Secretary Powell is simply wrong in fact and in international law. Taiwan certainly does "enjoy sovereignty as a nation" whether the U.S. recognizes it or not. When the United States signed the Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States in December 26, 1933, it signed on to the doctrine that a "state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states." There is universal acceptance-even, truth be told, in Beijing (and this is why the idea of "Taiwan Independence" drives Chinese leaders to distraction)-that Taiwan possesses all four of these attributes. Moreover, the Convention stipulates that "the political existence of the state is independent of recognition by the other states." The Convention also explains that "the recognition of a state may be express or tacit. The latter results from any act which implies the intention of recognizing the new state."


The United States and most other major nations, including the European Union, maintain quasi-official bureaus in Taipei that are manned by diplomatic personnel who are employees of their respective nations' foreign ministries. One need only to look at the e-mail addresses of their personnel to see that this is true: personnel at the American Institute in Taiwan can be reached at "," Australians at "," Canadians at "," and Singaporeans at "," just to mention a few. The American Institute issues passports and visas. For immigration purposes, Taiwan, as a matter of law, is considered entirely separate from China.


In addition, while there may well be only "one China," "one China" doesn't necessarily include Taiwan. And while the United States may not recognize the "Republic of China" (the official name of the regime in Taipei) as the government of China, the United States treats the Taipei government as an independent country for all intents and purposes.


The reason for this is Section 4(b)(1) of the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by Congress in April 1979 after President Jimmy Carter ordered a break in relations with Taipei in order to establish diplomatic ties with Beijing, which states: "Whenever the laws of the United States refer or relate to foreign countries, nations, states, governments, or similar entities, such terms shall include and such laws shall apply with respect to Taiwan."


As a matter of policy, the United States does not accept China's claims of sovereignty over Taiwan. In September 1982, the Department of State wrote Senator John East that "The United States takes no position on the question of Taiwan's sovereignty." In his "Six Assurances" to Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo of July 14, 1982, President Ronald Reagan promised that the United States "had not changed its long-standing position on the matter of sovereignty over Taiwan."


And what was that long-standing position? The U.S. State Department informed the U.S. Senate in 1970 that "as Taiwan and the Pescadores are not covered by any existing international disposition, sovereignty over the area is an unsettled question subject to future international resolution." It is an important footnote of history that even while the Republic of China's government-in-exile maintained its provisional capital in Taipei, the United States did not recognize that Chinese government's sovereignty over Taiwan. (The U.S. only recognized "the Government of the Republic of China as legitimately occupying and exercising jurisdiction over Taiwan…") And the United States does not recognize China's sovereignty over Taiwan today-unless Secretary Powell's words were intended to change that position.

Secretary of State Powell would have been well advised to study the responses of his Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, James Kelly, to the House International Relations Committee on April 21 of this year. When Mr. Kelly was asked by Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) whether America's commitment to Taiwan's democracy didn't conflict with the so-called "One China Policy," Mr. Kelly admitted that when it came to "our One China" policy, "I didn't really define it, and I'm not sure I very easily could define it." But he did say "I can tell you what it is not. It is not the One-China principle that Beijing suggests." Secretary Powell should have said the same thing.


Steps for the Administration

The Bush Administration, in the interest of peace in the Taiwan Strait area, needs to correct the record immediately. The State Department must:

  1. Explain that Secretary Powell did not mean that the United States favored "reunification" but rather intended to say "resolution" of the Taiwan Strait differences;
  2. Reassure Taiwan and the rest of Asia that the Bush Administration stands behind President Reagan's "Six Assurances"; and
  3. Acknowledge that the United States has no standing to declare whether another country is "sovereign" since this is a matter of international law codified in treaties. Moreover, the United States at its birth took the position that sovereignty resides in the people of a country.

Unless this is done, Secretary Powell will have undone in one stroke 50 years of U.S. policy on the China-Taiwan issue. In his statements, he signals to China that the United States has finally accepted China's right, under international law, to use force to reclaim territory in a civil war. That is a green light for conflict in the Taiwan Strait that the Chinese would be only too happy to observe.

John J. Tkacik, Jr., is Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.


John Tkacik

Former Senior Research Fellow