The Reagan Administration spent the first half of 1982 in
increasingly tough negotiations with the People's Republic of China
(PRC) over America's continuing arms sales to Taiwan following the
1979 shift of U.S. diplomatic relations to Beijing. The Carter
Administration had insisted that, given congressional opinion,
continuing limited arms sales to Taiwan was a political necessity,
but this was a bone in the throat as far as Beijing was concerned.
American supporters of the new relationship with China also saw the
arms sales as an obstacle to good relations with Beijing and were
vocal on that point.
In the spring of 1982, the PRC began threatening to severely
downgrade its relationship with the U.S. unless something was done
about the arms sales, and some in Beijing were discussing "playing
the Soviet card." Then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig was
convinced that, "in the last quarter of the twentieth century,
China may well be the most important country in the world" in terms
of American interests. He pressed hard and successfully for some
form of accommodation with Beijing, although his ultimate
recommendation that the U.S. agree to cease arms sales to Taiwan
was not accepted.
The result was the communiqué signed on August 17,
1982--almost two months after Haig had left office. In it, the U.S.
government stated "that it does not seek to carry out a long-term
policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales to Taiwan will
not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the
level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of
diplomatic relations between the United States and China, and that
it intends to reduce gradually its sales of arms to Taiwan, leading
over a period of time to a final resolution."
Though he agreed to sign the communiqué, President Reagan
was disturbed by its possible effect on Taiwan and put little trust
in Chinese promises to adhere to a peaceful solution. Therefore,
while allowing the August 17 communiqué to go forward,
President Reagan also placed a secret memorandum in the National
Security Council files, which read:
The U.S. willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is
conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to
the peaceful solution of Taiwan-PRC differences. It should be
clearly understood that the linkage between these two matters is a
permanent imperative of U.S. foreign policy. In addition, it is
essential that the quantity and quality of the arms provided Taiwan
be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC. Both in
quantitative and qualitative terms, Taiwan's defense capability
relative to that of the PRC will be maintained.
This was not the only step President Reagan took. He decided
that Taiwan needed to be reassured that the U.S. would not abandon
the island republic. Therefore, on July 14, 1982, James Lilley,
then the head of the American Institute in Taiwan, America's
nominally unofficial representative body in Taiwan, called on
Republic of China President Chiang Ching-kuo. His visit came as
negotiations with the PRC were close to reaching a conclusion and
as Taiwan's anxiety was at its height. In President Reagan's name,
Lilley delivered orally, not in writing, six assurances regarding
America's policy toward Taiwan. The United States, he
- Had not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to the
Republic of China;
- Had not agreed to hold prior consultations with the PRC
regarding arms sales to the Republic of China;
- Would not play a mediation role between the PRC and the
Republic of China;
- Would not revise the Taiwan Relations Act;
- Had not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan;
- Would not exert pressure on the Republic of China to enter into
negotiations with the PRC.
With American approval, the statement was made public in Taiwan
three weeks later, and soon after that, "The Six Assurances" were
the subject of a Senate hearing.
But this was not President Reagan's only message of reassurance.
Twice more, James Lilley delivered additional messages to Chiang.
Together with the assurances, they form a startling package, one
that has not received the attention it deserves.
On July 26, 1982, 12 days after their first meeting, Lilley
called again on President Chiang. This time he delivered a
"non-paper" again stating that the "U.S. side has no
intention of setting a date for termination of arms sales. The U.S.
does not agree to the PRC's demand to have prior consultations with
them on arms sales to Taiwan." It went on to outline the U.S.
proposal to the PRC about arms sales reduction over time--language
which in fact was included in the communiqué--and twice made
the point that this and any other concession to Beijing would be
"predicated on one thing: that is, that the PRC will continue to
advocate only to use peaceful means to settle the Taiwan issue."
Unwilling to trust Beijing, the non-paper said, "The U.S. will
not only pay attention to what the PRC says, but also will use all
methods to achieve surveillance of PRC military production and
military deployment." And then, quite dramatically, it added, "The
intelligence attained would be brought to your attention." The
"non-paper" concluded, "If the PRC agrees to the U.S. suggestion
and issues the joint communiqué, the U.S. would continue in
accordance with the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act to sell
such military items as Taiwan really needs."
On August 16, 1982, the day before the issuance of the joint
communiqué with the PRC (though word of its contents had
already leaked to the press), Lilley delivered a third "non-paper"
to Chiang Ching-kuo. In it, President Reagan reaffirmed the Six
Assurances, repeated the statement that Beijing's intentions toward
Taiwan would be monitored continuously (but did not again promise
to share intelligence), and said any change in circumstances "will
of course change our judgment of Taiwan's defense needs." It
concluded with these words: "Our only interest in this matter is
that any resolution of these issues be accomplished peacefully. We
will do nothing to jeopardize the ability of the people of Taiwan
to deal with this matter in their own way."
Taken together, Reagan's three messages to Chiang Ching-kuo,
together with the Taiwan Relations Act, laid a basis for U.S.
policy toward Taiwan which, with one significant and one partial
exception, has continued to this day. The partial exception is
Washington's tendency to decide which weapons will be sold Taiwan
on the basis of what Beijing will, in the end, tolerate. The more
significant exception is the sovereignty question.
From the time of the Shanghai Communiqué of February 1972
to the present, the U.S. position on Taiwan's sovereignty has been
a well-calibrated agnosticism, a refusal to say anything at all. In
the Shanghai Communiqué, the U.S. said it "acknowledges that
all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is
but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States
does not challenge that position." Nor did the U.S. state any
position of its own.
This agnosticism continued in the communiqué of January
1, 1979, that recognized the PRC as the sole legal government of
China. Dropping the part about "all Chinese on either side of the
Taiwan Strait," the United States said that it "acknowledges the
Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is a part
of China"--that is, in effect, "We hear you; we understand this is
what you claim." Again, the U.S. stated no position of its own.
In the communiqué that Reagan signed on August 17, 1982,
the U.S. took an additional, but modest step. Immediately following
a paragraph in which Beijing reiterated its position that "the
question of Taiwan is China's internal affair" and that its
"fundamental policy is to strive for a peaceful solution to the
Taiwan question," the American side pledged not to pursue either a
"two Chinas" or a "one China, one Taiwan" policy. But in a public
statement immediately following the communiqué, Reagan said,
"We will not interfere in this matter or prejudice the free choice
of or put pressure on the people of Taiwan in this matter. At the
same time, we have an abiding interest and concern that any
resolution be peaceful."
President Reagan's last sentence set out what became the U.S.
position. The U.S. will take no position on the ultimate goal,
whether independence, unification with China, or some other status.
That will be up to the parties themselves to determine. But the
U.S. will maintain a keen interest in the process: It must be
peaceful; it must not involve coercion of any kind, economic,
political or military; and it must have the consent of the parties
on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
President Clinton modified this position in a statement known as
the "Three No's": "We don't support independence for Taiwan, or two
Chinas, or one Taiwan, one China. And we don't believe Taiwan
should be a member in any organization for which statehood is a
requirement." Under the current Bush Administration, a
kind of corollary was added: The United States will oppose any
unilateral attempt to change the status quo. Most recently,
a senior member of the National Security Council staff added a
further fillip, stating that neither Taiwan nor the Republic of
China (which remains Taiwan's formal name) has the status of a
These statements move the U.S. from the position of refusing to
state Taiwan's status to one of saying that, whatever Taiwan is or
may be, it is not now a state. Knowingly or not, this tack put both
the current and the last administration in apparent contradiction
with the Taiwan Relations Act. Section 4(d) of the Act reads,
"Nothing in this Act may be construed as a basis for supporting the
exclusion or expulsion of Taiwan from continued membership in any
international financial institution or any other international
organization." For Congress to have made this part of American law
must mean that Taiwan is qualified to join international
organizations which make statehood a requirement for
An administration could argue that, whatever the law says about
Taiwan being a state--and it is definitely treated as a state in
American domestic law--the President, exercising his authority
in foreign affairs, has decided that it is not in the overall U.S.
interest to support Taiwan's membership in international
organizations that make statehood a requirement for joining. But
even this is different from the current policy of actually opposing
Except for the sovereignty issue, then, the rest of the Six
Assurances appear to be alive and essentially unchanged. The U.S.
continues to sell arms to Taiwan; does not formally consult with
Beijing on arms sales though it necessarily must be aware of PRC
reactions; has not adopted the position of mediator between the two
but instead urges China to talk directly to Taiwan's government;
has not forced Taiwan into negotiations with China; and has not
altered the Taiwan Relations Act.
Recently, Taiwan government officials have suggested, and in
some cases urged, that the U.S. formally repeat President Reagan's
Six Assurances and declare that they remain U.S. policy. In
considering this suggestion, it is important to understand what has
changed since 1982. Taiwan has gone from a one-party, authoritarian
state under martial law to a freewheeling, sometimes messy
multi-party democracy of 23 million people with per capita GDP that
will reach around $15,000 this year.
China meanwhile has experienced enormous economic advancement,
with unprecedented speed. But it remains a one-party, authoritarian
state where basic human and civic rights are guaranteed in the
constitution but ignored in practice. The PRC has long since
abandoned the pretense that its "fundamental policy" is peaceful
reunification and instead threatens military action if Taiwan
should attempt formally to change its de facto separation
into de jure independence. Every day, China is closer to
having the might to take Taiwan, with 900 missiles emplaced
opposite it, fourth generation fighter aircraft, growing bomber and
naval fleets, and regular military exercises which simulate
invasion across the Taiwan Strait. Its military publications
discuss "decapitation strikes" and ways to overcome Taiwan before
the United States can intervene.
As for reiterating that the Six Assurances remain U.S. policy,
though there is nothing wrong with reiterating basic American
policy from time to time--as in the formula "U.S. China policy is
based upon the three communiqués, the Taiwan Relations Act,
and the Six Assurances" used by administration spokesmen from time
to time--a commitment given by the President of the United States,
especially on subjects as important as those covered in the Six
Assurances, must be understood to remain in effect unless and until
formally revoked. And of course such revocation can never be done
The same view applies to commitments given by the heads of state
of all other parties, including Taiwan. In particular, the
assurances as to national policy--usually referred to as the "Four
No's and One May Not"--given by President Chen Shui-bian in his
inauguration speech of May 20, 2000, are understood to remain in
In a recent article, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State
for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Randall Schriver suggested
updating the assurances in a new, expanded package. This would
include the following:
- The survival and success of democracy in Taiwan is in the
interest of the U.S. and thus the U.S. government will endorse
efforts that deepen and strengthen Taiwan's democracy.
- The U.S. will always honor the Taiwan Relations Act and will
continue to ensure that the U.S. government makes available to
Taiwan weapons needed for self-defense and that the U.S. military
maintains the capacity to resist force in the Taiwan Strait.
- The U.S. endorses cross-Strait dialogue and interactions but
will not pressure Taiwan to enter into negotiations with the PRC on
terms Taiwan may deem unfavorable.
- Issues related to the sovereignty of Taiwan are for the people
of the PRC and the people of Taiwan to decide peacefully
themselves; the U.S. will not formally recognize PRC sovereignty
over Taiwan; and the U.S. will not support any outcome achieved
through the use of force, nor any outcome that does not enjoy the
support of a majority of Taiwan's people.
- The U.S.-Taiwan relationship is valuable in its own right and
worthy of greater investment. The U.S. will not "co-manage" the
issue of Taiwan with the PRC. While the U.S. needs good relations
with China to further a broad range of security interests, under no
circumstances will the U.S. seek to curry favor with China by
making sacrifices in its relationship with Taiwan.
- Taiwan, as a successful democracy, a thriving economy, and a
global leader in health and science stands ready to contribute to
the greater good as a citizen of the world. Therefore, the U.S.
will seek opportunities for Taiwan to participate meaningfully in
international organizations and will resist pressure to isolate
Taiwan from participating and benefiting from cooperative work
among nations in international organizations.
Provided that they are taken together with the original Six
Assurances, these new six assurances form an excellent foundation
for contemporary American cross-Strait policy. Combined with an
equal commitment to partnership with America on Taiwan's part, they
should meet contemporary needs and help the parties navigate the
troubled waters of the present.
Harvey Feldman is Distinguished Fellow in China Policy in the
Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.
of the content of this WebMemo, in a greatly expanded form,
can be found in Harvey J. Feldman, "Taiwan Arms Sales and the
Reagan Assurances," The American Asian Review, Vol. XIX, No.
3, Fall 2001, pp. 75-102.
Alexander Haig, Caveat (New York:
Macmillan, 1984), p.194.
"Ronald Reagan and Taiwan" in James Mann, About Face, (New
York: Vintage, 2000).
full text of the communiqué, see Shirley A. Kan,
"China/Taiwan: Evolution of the 'One China' Policy-Key Statements
from Washington, Beijing and Taipei," Congressional Research
Service Report for Congress, September 7, 2006, p. 41.
used in American diplomacy, a "non-paper" is a document on plain
bond paper, without seal or signature, intended to convey a
position or policy in an informal but nevertheless authoritative
Harvey J. Feldman, "Taiwan Arms Sales and the
Reagan Assurances," p. 87.
For the full text of "Presidential Statement
on Issuance of U.S.-PRC Communiqué of August 17, 1982," see
Lester L. Wolff and David L. Simon, Legislative History of the
Taiwan Relations Act, (Jamaica, NY: American Association for
Chinese Studies, 1982) p. 314.
White House, Office of the Press Secretary,
"Remarks by the President and the First Lady in Discussion on
Shaping China for the 21st Century," June 30, 1998.
Section 4(B)(1) of the Taiwan Relations Act
reads: "Whenever the laws of the United States refer or relate to
foreign countries, nations, states, government, or similar
entities, such terms shall include and such laws shall apply with
such respect to Taiwan." The author claims some credit for the
presence of this statement within the TRA. Without it, the U.S.
could not sell Taiwan arms or enriched uranium fuel for its nuclear