The Bush Administration has just faced its first
foreign policy crisis. China announced on April 11 that the crew of
a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft, held since April 1, would be
released. The U.S. plane and a Chinese jet fighter collided in
mid-air over international waters. The damaged American airplane
made an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island, where it and
its 24 crewmembers were detained.
incident came on the heels of another diplomatic crisis involving
China: A U.S.-based Chinese scholar is being held on charges of
spying. Her husband and young son, both American citizens, also
were held for a time--the five-year-old boy separate from either
parent. China apparently breached a bilateral consular agreement in
failing to inform the U.S. embassy in Beijing about their
detention. The same is true of an American-citizen scholar who
teaches in Hong Kong.
China appears to be testing the new U.S.
President. After enjoying eight years of foreign policy weakness
under the Clinton Administration, China's leaders are likely
concerned that the White House will at last stand up to their
provocations. And no issue concerns them more than the possibility
that the United States will sell defensive arms to Taiwan.
President George W. Bush is scheduled to decide this month whether
to agree to a request from Taiwan to purchase ships equipped with
air defense systems that can repel missiles.
China considers that Taiwan is part of its
sovereign territory which the U.S. conspires with Taiwan
independence supporters to keep separate. The United States, on the
other hand, believes that the ultimate decision on the status of
Taiwan must be worked out peaceably by the governments on both
sides of the Taiwan Strait. To this end, and in accordance with the
Taiwan Relations Act (Public Law 96-8), it sells defensive weapons
so that the island republic can "maintain a sufficient self-defense
policy toward Taiwan and China is built upon carefully chosen
nuances and discreet silences. Given that this set of
statements--and omissions--so obviously departs from what is seen
in the real world, it is not surprising that even White House
spokesmen and senior officials over the past two decades have
misspoken and added to the confusion.
questions and answers that follow are an attempt to demystify the
unique diplomatic rhetoric surrounding U.S. policy toward
Q: When the United States recognized
the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1979, didn't it also
recognize or accept the proposition that Taiwan is a part of
A: No. In extending diplomatic recognition
to the PRC, in a Joint Communiqué dated January 1, 1979, the
United States said it "acknowledges the Chinese position that there
is but one China and Taiwan is a part of China." The word
"acknowledges" is polite, diplomatic speech for we understand
that this is the position you take. In fact, neither then nor
since has the United States formally stated that Taiwan is a part
of the People's Republic of China or officially agreed to this
claim of the PRC.
Q: What then is the U.S. view of
A: In formal statements, such as
communiqués, the U.S. has remained completely agnostic,
taking no position at all on Taiwan's status. But this unique
situation has been complicated by less than formal or truly
official statements by past administrations. For example, answering
a question at a public meeting in Shanghai in June 1998, President
Bill Clinton said that "we don't support independence for Taiwan,
or two Chinas, or one Taiwan, one China. And we don't believe that
Taiwan should be a member in any organization for which statehood
is a requirement." This echoed the Chinese position, sometimes
called the "three nos."
But to say that "we," meaning the Clinton
Administration, will not support independence for Taiwan, or a
solution that results in a Taiwan separate from the PRC, is not the
same thing as saying, formally or informally, that Taiwan lacks the
qualities necessary for independence or existence separate from
In fact, American law, in the form of the
1979 Taiwan Relations Act, Public Law 96-8, directly contradicts
Mr. Clinton's statement that Taiwan should not be a member of any
organization that requires statehood for membership:
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.
Whenever authorized by or pursuant to the
laws of the United States to conduct or carry out programs,
transactions, or other relations with respect to foreign countries,
nations, states, governments and similar entities, the President or
any agency of the United States Government is authorized to conduct
and carry out...such transactions and other relations with respect
Specifically on the subject of membership
in international organizations of all types, the Act says, "Nothing
in this Act may be construed as a basis for supporting the
exclusion or expulsion of Taiwan from continued membership in any
financial institution or any other international organization" The Legislative
History of the Taiwan Relations Act makes plain that Congress
intended the United States to support Taiwan's membership in
Q: So is Taiwan a state or not?
What is its status in international law?
A: Taiwan meets all the qualifications
laid down in international law for statehood: defined territory,
defined population, and the capability of entering into
international agreements with other states. Taiwan is recognized
diplomatically by 29 other countries, all of which are members of
the United Nations. It is important to bear in mind that the
absence of U.S. diplomatic recognition does not alter status in
One can look at it this way: At one minute
before midnight on December 31, 1978, the United States recognized
the Republic of China on Taiwan as a state, and as the sole legal
government of China. At one minute after midnight on January 1,
1979, the United States no longer recognized Taiwan diplomatically.
But nothing happened on Taiwan itself to change its status from
one thing to another.
Q: Does the government on Taiwan still
claim to be the sole legal government of China?
A: No, it does not. It claims to be the
legitimate government of Taiwan and associated islands, chosen and
elected by its people, and goes on to say that within the broad
historic and cultural entity of China, there are now two separately
governed jurisdictions, with each qualified for international
recognition and membership in international organizations.
Taiwan is a multiparty, free-market
democracy that ranks 13th in the world in trade. Its population of
22.4 million is larger than two-thirds of the members of the United
Nations. On a per capita basis, Taiwan buys more American products
than any country except Canada.
Q: Didn't the U.S. sign a
communiqué with the PRC in August 1982 saying it would end
arms sales to Taiwan? How come the U.S. is still selling
A: The communiqué of August 17,
1982, said that the U.S. "intends to reduce gradually its sales of
arms to Taiwan, leading over time to a final resolution." In
signing this communiqué, President Ronald Reagan said this
policy was based on China's statements that peaceful resolution of
the Taiwan question was its "fundamental policy," and that
America's "future actions will be conducted with this peaceful
policy fully in mind."
Meanwhile, the Taiwan Relations Act
specifies: "The United States will make available to Taiwan such
defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be
necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense
capability." The law goes on to
state that "The President and the Congress shall determine the
nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based
solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan...."
As the PRC increased its verbal threats to
use military force against Taiwan, emplaced ground attack missiles
opposite the island republic, and began a program of acquiring
advanced arms from Russia, successive U.S. administrations have
concluded it was necessary to continue to provide the military
articles and services necessary to Taiwan's defense--just as
American law provides.
Q: Does this mean the United States has
some kind of military alliance with Taiwan?
A: No, it does not. But the Taiwan
Relations Act does state that our diplomatic relationship with the
PRC "rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be
determined by peaceful means."
It goes on to say the U.S. would "consider
any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful
means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace
and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to
the United States." That section of the
law concludes by saying that the United States will "maintain the
capacity ... to resist any resort to force or other forms of
coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or
economic system of the people on Taiwan."
Q: Does the United States have any
other commitments to Taiwan?
A: Yes. At the same time as he agreed to
the August 17, 1982, communiqué, President Reagan gave six
specific assurances to the government of Taiwan. These were:
United States has not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to
United States has not agreed to hold consultations with the PRC
prior to agreeing on arms sales to Taiwan.
United States will not act as a mediator between Taiwan and the
United States has not agreed to revise the Taiwan Relations
United States has not altered its position on the question of
sovereignty over Taiwan.
United States will not pressure Taiwan to enter into negotiations
with the PRC.
The issue of Taiwan is certain to play a major role in U.S.-China
relations for some time to come. If all of those who try to explain
American policy on this thorny subject can stick to the basic
texts--the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint
Communiqués, and the Six
Assurances given Taiwan by President Reagan--U.S. policy will
appear less confusing and less contradictory.
Harvey Feldman is Senior Fellow for China Policy in the
Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.
Taiwan Relations Act, Section 4(b)(1).