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
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
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."
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."
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 "state.gov,"
Australians at "defat.gov.au," Canadians at "defait.gov.ca," and
Singaporeans at "mfa.gov.sg," 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
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
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
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
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, in the interest of peace in the Taiwan Strait area,
needs to correct the record immediately. The State Department
- Explain that
Secretary Powell did not mean that the United States favored
"reunification" but rather intended to say "resolution" of the
Taiwan Strait differences;
- Reassure Taiwan
and the rest of Asia that the Bush Administration stands behind
President Reagan's "Six Assurances"; and
- 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
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
John J. Tkacik,
Jr., is Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center
at the Heritage Foundation.