June 16, 2004

June 16, 2004 | Commentary on Asia

Taiwan's Election Changes the Context of U.S.-Taiwan Relations

Most observers in Washington believe that President Chen Shui-bian's victory in the March 20 election will be sustained through the recounts and the independent investigation into the assassination attempt and official Washington is now coming to the realization that his victory marks a dramatic turning-point in Taiwan's history. It also presents American policy makers with a new context for the United States' relationship with Taiwan.

As one State Department official explained to me on background, America's so-called "one China policy" is now undergoing a re-appraisal. "We see 'one China' as a means, not an end," he said, "it is a tool, not a condition, not an existing state."

President Chen's victory establishes that Taiwan's "separate identity" is now a majority mainstream principle among Taiwan's voters. Mr. Chen's victory is also emblematic of a new reality that many in official Washington have not yet grasped completely. This realization was the primary factor in the White House's congratulations statement on Mr. Chen's re-election. In it, the U.S. government reiterated that "the maintenance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the welfare of the people of Taiwan remain of profound importance to the United States," and promised that "to advance these goals, the United States will fulfill its obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act."

Already, the U.S. officials are reviewing the White House and State Department negotiating histories if the Three Communiques and legislative history of the Taiwan Relations Act. But they are also poring over the dozens of telegrams that resulted in President Ronald Reagan's "Six Assurances" to Taiwan on July 14, 1982. In the "Six Assurances" President Reagan pledged that the United States would not act as a "mediator" between Taiwan and China, nor would it pressure Taiwan into negotiations with its communist neighbor. Most importantly, President Reagan reassured President Chiang Ching-kuo that "the United States had not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan." Although the U.S. government has said repeatedly that it hopes to see talks between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, a renewed appreciation for the wisdom of the "Six Assurances" no doubt was a key factor in the White House statement that "it falls to Taiwan and Beijing" -- not the United States -- "to build the essential foundations for peace and stability by pursuing dialogue through all available means and refraining from unilateral steps that would alter Taiwan's status."

China's dark warning on Friday, March 26, that "we will not sit back and look on unconcerned should the post-election situation in Taiwan get out of control, leading to social turmoil" was also a factor in changing the Bush Administration's attitude toward China's role in creating instability in the region. As one administration official said, "we are telling China that they have got to engage" President Chen instead of ignoring him. The U.S. is now facing a changing situation in the Taiwan Strait. "A rising sense of Taiwan nationalism, and a rising Chinese military power," if left untended, will likely lead to a clash. One American official told me that there are no circumstances under which the United States would view China's use of force against Taiwan as justified. Even a Taiwan "declaration of independence are only words on paper" and as such would be an "insufficient reason" for military action, he said. "Words on paper" do not threaten China, and do not in themselves mean that Taiwan's international status quo changes vis a vis the rest of the international community.

America's view, then, is that Taiwan and China must "talk among themselves, and the U.S. role is that we guarantee the process is peaceful and has the common assent of both sides." He pointed to President Chen's observation to the Washington Post on March 29, that "we should all be able to sit together and deal with the future one China issue together." The official said the U.S. government sees President Chen's statement as a "glimmer of hope" for "one China" and said that on December 9, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao promised President Bush that "so long as there is a glimmer of hope, we would not give up our efforts for peaceful reunification."

Top Bush Administration officials were also dismayed, if not disillusioned, by the intemperate demonstrations, the sporadic violence against government buildings, the vitriolic verbal attacks on President Chen and the seeming disinterest in the rule of law that marked the reaction of the losing parties in the election. According to a well-informed Washingon insiders' newsletter, U.S. officials "frankly warned" in background briefings to the Taiwan press, "that events could spiral out of control, and openly questioned the intent of the KMT." These misgivings impelled the White House statement to include some tough words for the Blue camp. "We recognize that there are pending legal challenges to the results of the March 20 election," the statement read. The Bush Administration "applaud the people of Taiwan for embracing established legal mechanisms and rejecting extra-legal options to resolve their differences," and explicitly rejected "calls for violence, which threaten the very democratic principles to which we and the people of Taiwan are committed." Those calls to violence were prominent among the public speeches of leading KMT and PFP politicians. One senior Bush Administration aide told me that despite some initial sympathy among American officials in Taipei for the KMT-PFP's dismay that their loss was by so thin a margin, "threats of violence against AIT [the American Institute in Taiwan]" obliged U.S. representatives to take a "more muscular" stance against the Blue camp's protests.

Another Bush Administration official asserted that both Taiwan's new leaders, as well as America's, must now "take a realistic look" at their bilateral relations. "There is no sense in dwelling on emotional responses such as who 'diss-ed' [dis-respected] whom," he said. Certainly President Bush feels that his views have not been given due consideration in Taipei, and certainly President Chen believes that Washington has not understood the fundamental threat to the existence of the Republic of China government that is posed by China's insistence on a 'one China principle." But both Washington and Taipei must get over this and focus on their common interests.

In the long term, the March 20 election will prove to be a watershed in the United States' relationship with Taiwan. As the most recent issue of the influential newspaper The Economist points out: "What Mr Chen understands, but China does not, is that democracy and Taiwan's identity are intimately linked." Washington has now begun to understand this as well.


The "Six Assurances" to Taiwan

On July 14, 1982, a month before the August 17, 1982 communiqué on arms sales to Taiwan was issued, President Ronald Reagan conveyed six White House commitments to Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo. In these "Six Assurances," the President made clear that in the U.S. negotiations with China,

· The United States had not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan;

· The United States had not agreed to hold prior consultations with the Chinese on arms sales to Taiwan;

· The United States would not play any mediation role between Taiwan and Beijing;

· The United States had not agreed to revise the Taiwan Relations Act;

· The United States had not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan; and

· The United States would not exert pressure on Taiwan to enter into negotiations with the Chinese.


- John J. Tkacik Jr. is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared on Taipei, Apple Daily