The Heritage Foundation

Executive Summary #1541 on Asia

April 26, 2002

April 26, 2002 | Executive Summary on Asia

Executive Summary: Stating America's Case to China's Hu Jintao: A Primer on U.S.-China-Taiwan Policy

As Washington prepares for the April 29 arrival of China's heir apparent, Vice President Hu Jintao, the misinformation that beclouds U.S.-China relations should encourage U.S. policymakers to refresh their understandings of the principles that guide U.S. policy toward Taiwan so that their statements will not be taken out of context or assigned a broader meaning than intended.

The friction between Washington and Beijing over U.S. relations with Taiwan has been widely discussed since mid-March after Beijing cancelled some naval exchanges with the United States. By mid-April, however, new U.S.-China military exchanges had started, U.S. naval ship calls at Hong Kong had resumed, and concerns that Beijing would cancel Vice President Hu's visit had dissipated. China's denunciation of the Taiwan defense minister's attendance at a recent business conference in Florida, where he conferred with top U.S. officials, may reflect political imperatives in the run-up to the Chinese Communist Party's Sixteenth Party Congress in six months.

In his diplomatic debut as a key player in Beijing-U.S. policy, Hu is under pressure to keep U.S. relationship with Taiwan from getting firmer. One of his talking points is said to be a demand that Washington at a minimum not bring Taiwan into any security alliance, and he hopes it is an issue on which Washington can reassure him. But the success of his visit will be measured in Beijing by reactions in the Western media. If Hu impresses American audiences as an intelligent, articulate, forward-thinking leader, his political stock will rise at home. If his trip founders on controversy, especially over the Taiwan issue, some in Beijing will argue to keep the putatively more experienced President Jiang Zemin on the scene to handle foreign affairs.

To prepare properly for Hu's visit, Administration and congressional leaders must be fully cognizant of key elements of U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan. Among the most important: the "one-China" policy, which in fact does not recognize Beijing's claims to Taiwan, and the "Three Communiqués," general statements of U.S. positions that are bounded by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, which treats Taiwan as a "country" for the purposes of domestic law. China's military buildup across the Strait has obliged the Bush Administration to abandon a stance of "strategic ambiguity" toward China and Taiwan and has underscored America's determination to protect its important political and economic interests in Taiwan.

During the visit, Washington should encourage China to improve relations with Taiwan and secure peaceful resolution of the sovereignty issue. Specifically, Washington should:

  • Stress that the commitments in the U.S.-China communiqués are two-way streets. U.S. reduction of arms sales to Taiwan has always been conditioned on China's peaceful approach to Taiwan. China's threat to the island, especially its missile and submarine activities, has grown over the past decade, and America's response thus far has been appropriate.
  • Make clear that defense sales to Taiwan are based on an accepted condition of normalization in U.S.-China relations. Despite China's differences with the United States on this matter, Deng Xiaoping agreed to go forward with normalization because of China's strategic interests vis-à-vis Vietnam and the former Soviet Union. Both normalization and U.S. defense sales to Taiwan are facts of life in the U.S.-China relationship.
  • Stress that increasing China's military threat to Taiwan will require the United States to supply Taiwan with the most advanced defense systems available. The TRA mandates that the United States "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." These may include systems interconnected with U.S. undersea and missile defense networks, such as DDG-51 cruisers equipped with AEGIS combat systems.
  • Explain that the U.S. understanding of the "one China" statement in the communiqués is not the same as China's "one China" principle. Beijing well understands this difference. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter formally recognized the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC) as the "sole legal government of China" and withdrew recognition of the "Republic of China" on Taiwan. Although Washington has "acknowledged" China's position that Taiwan is part of China, it has not accepted that position. In 1982, Washington assured Taiwan that "the position of the United States on the matter of sovereignty over Taiwan has not changed." It is still that the "United States takes no position on the question of Taiwan's sovereignty."
  • Encourage China's leaders to engage Taiwan's elected leaders in dialogue to resolve the differences without preconditions. China has refused to open a dialogue with Taiwan's elected leaders because Taiwan refuses to acknowledge--as a precondition to such talks--that Taiwan is under the sovereignty of the PRC. The time has come for China's leaders to explore Taiwan's proposals of "political integration," "confederation," "a common market," and "a future one China" in a precondition-free context.

The Bush Administration's clarity in the U.S.-China strategic dialogue is a positive development. It informs Beijing that its actions have consequences. If China continues its threatening military buildup across the Strait, U.S. support for the island will strengthen. China can be part of a cooperative effort to secure peace in that important region or, alternatively, can pursue destabilizing military activities that increase Washington's determination to defend its interests in Taiwan and the western Pacific.

Faced with economic and social crises, Beijing should readily acknowledge that the United States is China's most important export market and that solid trade relations with America are vital to economic growth. But for all relations between China and the United States to improve, China must step away from its hostility toward Taiwan and look for peaceful ways to improve relations.

John Tkacik, Jr., is Research Fellow for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

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