Why the Administration Should Reaffirm the "Six Assurances" toTaiwan

Report Asia

Why the Administration Should Reaffirm the "Six Assurances" toTaiwan

March 16, 2000 11 min read
Larry Wortzel
Larry Wortzel
Adjunct Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College

Dr. Larry M. Wortzel no longer works for the Heritage Foundation.

The People's Republic of China (PRC) caught the Clinton Administration by surprise and generated great concern in Congress when it issued a strongly worded White Paper on relations with Taiwan.1 That paper, released on February 21, just days after U.S. officials visited Beijing, not only adopts a more openly belligerent attitude toward Taiwan and establishes new criteria for taking military action against it, but also chastises the United States for selling defensive arms to Taiwan2 and cites a statement made by President Bill Clinton as further justification of its claims of sovereignty.

Clearly, the White Paper demonstrates that the escalation of the threat of military action against Taiwan is a direct consequence of Administration efforts to appease Beijing. The President's unexpected statement in Shanghai in June 1998, known as the "three no's," laid out the three principles behind the Administration's policy toward Taiwan--no to its independence, no to a "two-China" policy, and no to its membership in any state-based international organizations.

Only the Administration can defuse the increasingly tense situation in the Taiwan Strait by reaffirming America's long-standing commitment to the democratic Republic of China on Taiwan. It should do so by publicly clarifying America's support for peaceful resolution of the reunification question as spelled out in the 1982 "Six Assurances" to Taiwan.


On July 14, 1982, while engaged in negotiating the text of a communiqué with the PRC on the sale of arms to Taiwan, the Reagan Administration sought to clarify the policy embodied in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. President Ronald Reagan, taking into consideration the PRC's statement that its "fundamental policy" was peaceful reunification, made it clear that America's own policy would be determined "with this peaceful policy fully in mind." He conveyed to Taipei a six-point explanation of U.S. policy called the "Six Assurances."

Specifically, the "Six Assurances" made clear that the United States:

  • Had not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to the Republic of China on Taiwan;

  • Had not agreed to hold prior consultations with the Chinese government on arms sales to the Republic of China on Taiwan;

  • Would not play any mediation role between Taiwan and China;

  • Had not agreed to revise the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act;

  • Had not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan; and

  • Would not exert pressure on the Republic of China on Taiwan to enter negotiations with the People's Republic of China.

Reagan's "Six Assurances" proved very effective and allowed the United States to balance its interests in ensuring Taiwan's security while moving forward in pursuing harmonious relations with the PRC. Regrettably, President Clinton's about-face on the last two assurances in his June 1998 "three no's" statement in Shanghai has upset this equilibrium.


President Bill Clinton surprised the U.S. foreign policy community, as well as U.S. friends in Taiwan, by asserting his "three no's" policy on a state visit to Shanghai in 1998. The President clarified this policy to the press:

I had a chance to reiterate our Taiwan policy, which is 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.3

Since 1972, there has been a well-calibrated agnosticism in official U.S. statements regarding Taiwan's status. In the Shanghai Communiqué of February 1972, the United States said it "acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China. The United States does not challenge that position." The United States did not state any position of its own.

Even the January 1, 1979, communiqué transferring U.S. diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing did not deny the possibility that the democratic Republic of China on Taiwan was a state. All communications with Taiwan or Beijing since that communiqué, and until the "three no's" statement, intentionally used ambiguity to satisfy the strong differences in positions among all three parties.

President Clinton effectively ended that ambiguity with his "three no's" statement. As far as the Clinton Administration is concerned, Taiwan has no identity distinct from the mainland.

By removing the necessary and calculated ambiguity about Taiwan's status and sovereignty in U.S. policy and asserting a new policy on what the Administration would not support, President Clinton created the perception that the United States' view of cross-Strait relations had changed. Unfortunately, the potential consequences of this are grave:

  • The growing perception in Beijing, Taipei, and the rest of Asia that U.S. policy has moved closer to Beijing's definition of the relationship;

  • An increased confidence in Beijing that it can openly assert its coercive claims of sovereignty over Taiwan (demonstrated by the new criteria for military action spelled out in the White Paper); and

  • Further uncertainty in Taipei about America's commitment to Taiwan's security (reflected to some extent in Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's "state-to-state" comment earlier this year).

Thus, the President's statement has seriously affected the cross-Strait relationship and the
policies adopted by Beijing and Taipei, and has resulted in heightened tension. Beijing's White Paper, for example, is a power play designed to influence Taiwan's upcoming presidential elections and force Taipei to participate in reunification talks on Beijing's terms alone.

Pressure on Taiwan.
In March 1996, after the PRC's test-firing of missiles in the immediate vicinity of Taiwan's ports, the United States sent two aircraft carrier battlegroups to the Strait. This was the correct response to Beijing's provocation, affirming the policy spelled out in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and stated in the "Six Assurances," but one that caused extreme tension between Washington and Beijing. Since then, the Administration's actions indicate that it is focused on getting the two sides to talk to damp down tensions. After President Jiang Zemin's state visit to Washington in October 1997, which both countries considered a success, a steady stream of senior officials of the Clinton Administration began visiting Beijing and Taiwan, primarily urging Taiwan to show flexibility and resume dialogue with the mainland.

Such visitors to Taiwan have included former Defense Secretary William Perry, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvili, and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs Ashton Carter in January 1998. In March 1998, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Joseph Nye and former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake visited Taipei. In February 1999, Perry, Carter, and General Shalikashvili returned for another visit, accompanied by retired Admiral Ronald Hayes and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. All of these visitors claimed to be speaking in a private capacity, but it is highly likely that they discussed their visits in advance with Administration officials and were debriefed upon their return.

Nye has proposed "a three-part package--either negotiated or carried out by simultaneous unilateral declarations from Washington, Beijing and Taipei," in which the United States declares its policy to be "`one-China' and `no use of force'" and, if Taiwan were to declare its independence, to state that "we would not recognize or defend it. Moreover, we would work hard to discourage other countries from recognizing independence for Taiwan."4

In return, Beijing would declare that if Taiwan "would now decisively reject the idea of declaring independence," the PRC "would not oppose the idea of more international living space for Taiwan." Meanwhile, Taipei would "explicitly express its decision to forswear any steps toward independence, to intensify the cross straits dialogue and to stimulate greater flows of investment and exchanges of people across the strait." This proposed agreement is intended to create "a dynamic status quo," which, according to Nye, could "improve the context of relations between Taiwan and the mainland in the longer run."5

These visits and statements make it appear that, at least, former high-ranking U.S. officials are pressuring Taiwan into negotiating with China and implicitly suggest a role for the United States in mediation efforts. But these actions would directly call into question the commitments made to Taiwan in the "Six Assurances."


China's recent belligerence toward Taiwan has increased cross-Strait tensions significantly. Taipei is much less certain of continued U.S. support for its security should Beijing attempt further intimidation, and the United States has even found itself the target of thinly veiled threats by the PRC.6 According to news articles a few days after it released the White Paper, for example, China's official military newspaper reportedly remarked that China "has certain capabilities of launching strategic counter-attack and the capacity of launching a long-distance strike."7

President Clinton's ill-advised statement in Shanghai on June 30, 1998, was but one of his Administration's policy missteps in its efforts to develop a "strategic partnership" with Beijing. Clearly, the White Paper illustrates that the Administration's conciliatory approach to Beijing's belligerence toward Taiwan is reaping what it sows. Each attempt at appeasement is met with more threats. The heightened tensions between the United States, Taiwan, and Beijing after the White Paper's release demand an immediate response from Washington.

To correct its past missteps, the Administration must reassure Taiwan that the United States is still committed to a peaceful resolution of the sovereignty question. To do this, President Clinton should take the earliest opportunity to publicly restate U.S. policy and reaffirm the framework for relations so clearly enunciated in the "Six Assurances." Setting the record straight in this way requires no special forum. Moreover, the Administration in the future should carefully adhere to long-standing U.S. policies that safely guided relations with China and Taiwan for the past two decades.

Specifically, the Administration should:

  • Clarify that the United States asserts no view of its own as to Taiwan's future status, other than to insist that resolution of the reunification question is arrived at peacefully, without coercion, and through a process acceptable to the people of Taiwan.

  • Clarify its position on a military response from Beijing. The United States should make it clear that it will not ignore an unprovoked attack on Taiwan or any attempt to alter Taiwan's status by military means, as stipulated in the Taiwan Relations Act. This should be done as soon as possible in response both to the PRC's latest threats against the United States and to its arms buildup on the mainland opposite Taiwan.


Whether intentionally or not, the Clinton Administration has adopted policies toward Taiwan that contradict the long-standing assurances President Reagan made to the people of democratic Taiwan and even U.S. law. Taking a position on Taiwan's status, pressuring Taipei to talk with Beijing on Beijing's terms, and denying Taiwan's right to membership in state-based international organizations have only encouraged Beijing's belligerence.

Unless Washington takes steps to reverse this policy blunder and reassure America's friends in Taiwan that the United States will not tolerate such intimidation by China, more assertions like those in the White Paper will follow.

Dr. Larry M. Wortzel is Director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

1. Taiwan Affairs Office, Information Office of the State Council, People's Republic of China, "White Paper--The One China Principle and the Taiwan Issue," February 21, 2000.

2. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act requires the United States to make available "defense articles and services" to Taiwan "in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability."

3. The 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, at http://www.pub.whitehouse.gov/urires/I2R?urn:pdi://-oma.eop.gov.us/1998/7/1/5.text.1

4. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., "A Taiwan Deal," The Washington Post, March 8, 1998, p. C7.

5. Ibid.

6. Terry Atlas, "China's Military Big, Maybe Not So Mighty," The Chicago Tribune, March 12, 1996, p. 1; Maria LaGanga, "Dole Blasts Administration Over Missile Defense Needs," The Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1996, p. A1; Patrick E. Tyler, "As China Threatens Taiwan, It Makes Sure U.S. Listens," The Los Angeles Times, September 9, 1996, p. A1.

7. Bill Gertz, "China Warns U.S. of Missile Strike," The Washington Times, February 29, 2000, pp. A1, A12.


Larry Wortzel
Larry Wortzel

Adjunct Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College