The Heritage Foundation

Executive Summary #1230es

October 28, 1998

October 28, 1998 | Executive Summary on

Executive Summary: America's Reponse to China-Taiwan Talks: Encourage But Don't Intefere

America's interest in preserving peace on the Taiwan Strait can be advanced by the recently resumed senior-level negotiations between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC). From October 14 to 19, after a five-year hiatus, Koo Chen-fu, Chairman of Taiwan's Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF), and Wang Daohan of China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) resumed talks aimed at easing tensions in the Taiwan Strait area. Although the two remain far apart on issues of supreme importance--the sovereignty question, renunciation of force, and Taiwan's hopes for an expanded international profile--they nevertheless agreed that the talks must continue.

With questions as complex as these, negotiations will be long and far from easy. Each party very likely will try to pull the U.S. to its side of the table. Critical U.S. interests are also affected by these negotiations. Washington wants a useful relationship with Beijing but must do nothing that would compromise Taiwan's multi-party democracy and free economy. Therefore, while encouraging continuation of the dialogue, the U.S. should not insert itself into the process. Washington should make clear that it can accept any solution the two parties construct as long as that solution is arrived at peacefully, without coercion, and is acceptable to the people of Taiwan.


Although the talks between Koo Chen-fu and Wang Daohan began in 1993, they were suspended by China in 1995 to protest Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's visit to Cornell University. China began a campaign of military intimidation, including missile tests, coinciding with legislative and presidential elections in Taiwan. The United States deployed naval forces in March 1996 to deter threatening Chinese military activity. Since then, the Clinton Administration has sought to improve relations with China, culminating in President Bill Clinton's nine-day visit to China this past June. This improved atmosphere between Washington and Beijing provided some impetus for Beijing and Taipei to resume negotiations.

Koo, a senior advisor to President Lee, was treated with elaborate courtesy while in China. He held discussions with PRC President Jiang Zemin, PRC Vice Premier Qian Qichen, and former Shanghai mayor Wang Daohan, in many ways a mentor to President Jiang. As a result of the Koo visit, the two sides agreed to resume the high-level talks. The two counterpart organizations will meet at regular intervals to discuss political and economic issues, as Beijing had insisted, as well as practical matters affecting trade, exchanges, and the protection of ROC citizens while in China, as Taipei had wanted. Wang agreed to pay a return visit to Taiwan at some time in the near future.


But the PRC and Taiwan remain far apart on basic issues, most especially Taiwan's status. Despite earlier hints of flexibility, Chinese leaders insisted "there is only one China in the world and it is represented by the PRC." When Koo countered that China and Taiwan could be reunified only after the mainland had become a democracy in which the rule of law was respected, his Chinese interlocutors emphasized that reunification could not be conditioned on democracy. Other outstanding issues include China's refusal to renounce the use of force against Taiwan and its continuing campaign to ban the island republic from participating even in non-political international organizations.

Under these circumstances, the United States should:

  • Encourage dialogue, but refuse to get involved. During his June visit to China, President Clinton unnecessarily complicated the cross-Strait dialogue by stating China's preferred "Three No's": no support for an independent Taiwan; no support for its membership in international organizations that require statehood as a condition of membership; no intention to follow a "two Chinas, or one China, one Taiwan" policy. Such a tilt weakens Taipei's position, strengthening its belief that it cannot afford to make concessions and lowering the chance that negotiations can succeed. Therefore, the U.S. should return to its former position that the future status of Taiwan is something that the two sides will have to work out for themselves by peaceful means.

  • Suggest confidence-building measures. While avoiding the temptation to become involved as a mediator, or to propose "solutions," the U.S. can tell Beijing that its campaign to squeeze Taiwan completely out of international life, such as its refusal to allow Taipei's participation in international humanitarian organizations like the World Health Assembly, only strengthens sentiment on Taiwan for a declaration of de jure independence. The U.S. should point out that a relaxation of this stand, perhaps even agreement to sponsor Taiwan's participation in organizations like the World Health Assembly, would have a very positive effect on cross-Strait relations.

  • Urge China to renounce the use of force against Taiwan. This is another important confidence-building measure Washington can promote. Beijing has argued that such a renunciation would be a limitation on the sovereignty it claims over Taiwan, and in fact might encourage independence sentiment on the island. But PRC acceptance of the principle that unification cannot be imposed by force, and can come about only on terms agreed by the people of Taiwan, would have a positive effect on relations between the two sides. Moreover, as stated in the Taiwan Relations Act, America's decision to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC "rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means"; and "any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, [would be considered] a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States."

--Harvey J. Feldman, a retired U.S. Ambassador, is Senior Fellow for China Policy in The Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Harvey Feldman Distinguished Fellow in China Policy
Asian Studies Center