The Bush Administration has often said it opposes attempts by
either side-China or Taiwan-to alter the status quo in the Taiwan
Strait area. This admonition, given by White House or State
Department spokespersons, is almost always directed at statements
from, or actions taken by, the government in Taipei. Apparently,
China's yearly addition of 100 offensive missiles aimed at Taiwan,
for a total now approaching 900, does not count as an alteration of
the status quo. Although these administration spokespersons often
add the words "as we define it" after "status quo," they do not, in
fact, define it.
So perhaps we should take up the task.
At the most obvious level, the status quo is an entity called
China on one side of the Taiwan Strait and an entity called Taiwan
on the other. The claims each makes certainly are part of the
status quo and so deserve some consideration.
The Chinese government asserts something it calls "the sacred
One China Principle" which, when it speaks to the people of Taiwan,
goes like this: One China is the China that will be created by the
necessary and inevitable unification of Taiwan with the mainland.
But when China addresses an international audience, it goes like
this: There is only one China in the world, and Taiwan is a
province of that China whose only lawful representative is "the
people's government in Beijing." This is the formula used to block
Taiwan's participation in the World Health Organization and other
Back in the days of one-party authoritarian rule on Taiwan,
Taipei claimed to be the seat of the legitimate government of all
China, including not only Taiwan but Mongolia and Tibet as well.
And the United States recognized it as such, more or less, up to
January 1, 1979, when diplomatic recognition switched to Beijing.
"More or less," because after President Nixon's visit to China in
1972 and the issuance of the Shanghai Communique, diplomatic
niceties aside, America dealt with the government in Beijing as the
government of China and the government in Taipei as the government
of Taiwan. Despite the subsequent change in diplomatic relations,
it still does. And we recognized Mongolia many years ago.
In 1991, a dozen years after the U.S. switched diplomatic
recognition to Beijing, the Taipei government stopped claiming to
be the legitimate government of China and asked to be recognized
only as the government of the territory it obviously controls,
Taiwan and associated islands. But the government still calls
itself, formally, "The Republic of China" (ROC for short), its name
under a constitution written for all of China, adopted in Nanjing
in 1947, and brought to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. That
constitution has been amended many times, for example to eliminate
the seats of those who claimed to represent mainland districts not
under ROC control since 1949, but it remains in force.
The U.S. regarded neither the amendments nor dropping the claim
to be the legitimate government of all of China to be changes in
the status quo-or at least not changes that merited some statement
of displeasure. After all, it would be a bit difficult to insist
that the ROC should maintain its claim to legally govern all of
China when the U.S. recognizes another in that role. But were the
Taipei government to call the mainland-issued 1947 constitution
null and void, drop the name Republic of China, and call itself
something simple and descriptive like "Taiwan," the U.S. would
likely denounce these actions as a most grievous unilateral change
in the status quo. China would regard it as intensely
Taiwan's two most recent presidents have frequently asserted
that Taiwan is a state separate from China, sovereign and
independent. But so long as this claim is not placed within a legal
framework, Washington and Beijing have decided that, however
galling, they can live with it.
So that's not a change in the status quo either. Indeed,
statements about Taiwan being an independent, sovereign entity have
been made so often over the last 10 years that one may even say
they too form part of the status quo, along with Washington's
admonition that "you'd better not pass any legislation that says
so" and Beijing's threat that "if you do we will have to attack
you." In 2005, China enshrined that threat in a piece of
legislation known as "The Anti-Secession Law." But since everyone
knows China does not decide its policies on the basis of law, this
too was not considered a change in the status quo.
So what is the status quo? For that matter, what is Taiwan's
status? The U.S. says it follows a "One China Policy." Does that
mean it regards Taiwan as a Chinese province?
Actually, no. In fact, the U.S. makes no formal statement at all
about Taiwan's status. In the communiqué establishing
diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, the U.S.
"acknowledged" the Chinese position that there is but one
China of which Taiwan is a part. That word, "acknowledged," is
diplomatic jargon meaning "we understand that is your
claim." Washington has never said it regards Taiwan as a
PRC province. Nor, when various Taiwan spokesmen assert that the
island republic is a separate, independent sovereignty, has the
U.S. contradicted that claim. It is true that both the Clinton and
George W. Bush administrations have said they would not support
Taiwan's membership in international organizations that admit only
states. But in this, they appear not to have read American law
Is there American law on the subject? Yes, there is the Taiwan
Relations Act (TRA), and quoting it may help clarify matters.
To begin with the matter of membership in international
organizations, TRA, in Section 4(d), states that the withdrawal of
diplomatic recognition from Taiwan provides no basis for opposing
its membership in the international financial institutions (e.g.,
the World Bank and IMF) or any other international
organization. As far as American law is concerned, Taiwan's
competence for such membership is unquestioned.
So is Taiwan a state? In American law it certainly is. The TRA
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.
Moreover, the TRA authorizes the President to sell arms and
enriched uranium fuel to Taiwan, sales which, under American law,
can be made only to friendly states and governments. Taiwan is not
a part of China for purposes of American immigration law. And the
U.S. negotiates executive agreements, essentially treaties, with
So World Health Organization membership for Taiwan is completely
in keeping with the "status quo as we define it," as are agreements
currently under discussion between the U.S. and Taiwan on
investment, taxation, and government procurement. By the same
token, a U.S.-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement, when the U.S. finally
makes the political decision to move it forward, will be fully
consistent with the American one China policy.
Participation in the International Civil Aviation Organization,
International Maritime Organization, and other international
institutions for which statehood may or may not be a requirement
are also all perfectly in keeping with the U.S. policy.
So just what is the status quo?
In fact, the status quo is that, for all purposes other than the
exchange of formal embassies and ambassadors, American law treats
Taiwan as a state separate from the People's Republic of China.
And beyond the implications this holds for questions of
bilateral agreements and international organizations, the TRA says
that, should the PRC attempt to alter Taiwan's status "by other
than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes," the U.S.
would treat this as "a threat to the peace and security of the
Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United
Clearly, there is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by
needlessly provoking China by some form of words or pushing it into
a situation in which it feels obliged to strike out militarily. But
it would be useful for the U.S. government, as it seeks to maintain
the status quo "as we define it," to review just how it is defined
already in the Taiwan Relations Act.
Ambassador Harvey Feldman
is Distinguished Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center
at The Heritage Foundation.