The purpose of this paper is to discuss U.S. policy toward the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. The paper will describe the conflict between the “One China” policy officially supported by the United States government and the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. The paper will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of supporting “One China” and the domestic factors that contributed to the shaping of the current policy. Finally, the paper will conclude with an assessment of the likelihood of policy change in the near future.
In 1949, Mao Zedong’s communists defeated the government of Chiang Kai-shek and gained control of the Chinese mainland, forcing the Nationalist Party to flee to the island of Taiwan. The United States government did not officially recognize the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC), but maintained a close alliance with the government on Taiwan, known as the Republic of China. On January 1, 1979, the United States officially recognized the Communist Party leadership in Beijing as the legitimate government of China. The shift in U.S. diplomatic recognition, however, began several years earlier in 1972.
In the Shanghai Communiqué of 1972, the United States first acknowledged that there was only one China, one to which Taiwan belonged (3, p. 4). Then, in the U.S. – PRC Joint Communiqué on Establishment of Diplomatic Relations, 1979, the United States officially recognized the communist government of the PRC as “…the sole legal government of China” (3, p. 4).
The United States also stated that it would maintain unofficial ties with Taiwan, but reiterated that there was only one China, of which Taiwan was a part. The United States Congress, in a demonstration of support for the people of Taiwan, passed into law the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. This legislation stated that the United States would “…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” (2, p. 1). This act enabled the United States to sell military hardware to Taiwan and to provide advice and assistance in repelling an attempt by the PRC to reunite the island with the mainland by force. Finally, in an effort to ease Chinese fears about U.S. relations with Taiwan, the 1982 Sino-American Communiqué stated that the United States “…does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, [and] that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or 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” (www.fas.org).
The People’s Republic of China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province that must, at some point, be reunited with the Chinese mainland. Therefore, the PRC interprets U.S. arms sales to the island as an attempt to undermine its legitimate authority over Taiwan. The Chinese government continually asserts its intention to reclaim Taiwan, and in an October 16, 2000 white paper entitled “China’s National Defense 2000,” the communist leadership reiterated its plan to use force against the island if reunification negotiations failed (3, p. 14).
The Taiwan issue is an important one for the government of the United States. In East Asia, China is increasingly becoming a regional power with which the U.S. will have to contend. The PRC’s economic and military strengths present a serious challenge to the power of the United States.
CURRENT U.S. POLICY
U.S. policy toward the PRC and Taiwan has been characterized as one of “strategic ambiguity.” This means that while the United States officially recognizes that there is only one China, to which Taiwan belongs, the U.S. government provides military and political support to the government in Taipei. In its attempt to appeal to both the PRC and Taiwan, the United States is performing a delicate balancing act that involves economic engagement with both China and Taiwan, and military containment (in the form of a security system comprising the United States, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan) of the communist government in Beijing.
This balancing act is evident in statements made by former President Clinton and current President George W. Bush. On June 30, 1998, former President Clinton stated the following: “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, p. 5). This statement supported the three Sino-American Communiqués that assert China’s authority over Taiwan. In contrast, on April 25, 2001, President George W. Bush was asked if the United States had an obligation to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack from the Chinese mainland. His response: “Yes, we do, and the Chinese must understand that” (3, p. 5).
U.S. policy, primarily its arms sales to and political support for Taiwan, has led the Chinese government to believe that the United States wants “…to force Beijing into accepting an eventual ‘two China’ reality” (5, p. 29). Taiwan, on the other hand, believes that the United States, through the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, has made a commitment to defend the island in the event of hostilities with the mainland.
The policy of “strategic ambiguity” has its advantages and disadvantages. In attempting to balance the interests of both the PRC and Taiwan, U.S. policy has provided a fruitful status quo for nearly three decades, given the United States the stability it wanted in the region, presented an opportunity to develop a constructive relationship with China, allowed China to progress both economically and politically, and allowed Taiwan to move peacefully toward democracy (6, pp. 145-146).
On the negative side, the current situation cannot last forever. The Chinese government continually asserts that Taiwan is a part of China and will be reunified with the mainland. The current Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, has been particularly vocal on this issue. Taiwan, on the other hand, regularly provokes the ire of the government in Beijing by holding democratic elections featuring candidates who run on independence-minded platforms.
Despite the arms sales reduction claims contained in the 1982 Sino-American Communiqué, U.S. arms transfers to Taiwan have increased in both quality and quantity, from $209 million in 1980 to $5.7 billion in 1997 (www.fas.org). These arms transfers have, in part, been driven by a fear that the PRC will use force to regain control of Taiwan. Continued arms sales to Taiwan strain the relationship between the United States and the PRC, and only increase the likelihood of a violent resolution of the problem.
Several domestic policy issues contribute to U.S. foreign policy toward China and Taiwan. First, many veteran members of the United States Congress are hard-line anti-communists. Cold War fears are dominant in many minds, leading to a belief among several members of the Senate and House of Representatives, such as Senator Jesse Helms, that Taiwan must be protected from a communist takeover by the People’s Republic of China. Second, Taiwan is part of the United States’ East Asia security system mentioned previously. The United States, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan make up a security alliance that helps to protect valuable shipping and trade routes in East Asia. These trade routes are critical to the economic security of the United States. Finally, and arguably the most influential domestic consideration, Taiwan presents a significant business opportunity for U.S. defense contractors. Taiwan’s defense budget has increased significantly since the mid-1980s, to its current level of about $7.4 billion per year (www.fas.org).
THE FUTURE OF “STRATEGIC AMBIGUITY”
The future of current U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan is very much in doubt. The PRC and Taiwan continue to cooperate with each other, and Taiwan is the biggest investor in China (www.fas.org). Despite this cooperation, the antagonism between the two countries, which is exacerbated by the U.S. balancing act, also continues. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are ongoing. In 2000, the United States government approved the sale of more advanced technology weapons systems to Taiwan, including missile systems and a long-range radar system. In a compromise designed to continue the policy of “strategic ambiguity,” the United States government declined to sell Taiwan advanced destroyers that could have provided an offensive capability. This compromise package is indicative of the U.S. effort to continue its commitment to “one China” while meeting the mandates contained in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.
Taiwan continues to move away from reunification with the PRC. The majority of the Taiwanese legislature belongs to the Democratic Progressive Party, which is known for advocating the independence of the island. Meanwhile, the government in Beijing continues to assert that Taiwan belongs to China, and that the Chinese government has the right to use force in support of reunification. Ultimately, the positions of the Chinese and Taiwanese governments are diametrically opposed. It is improbable that Taiwan could repel a Chinese invasion of the island. However, China is probably aware that the international community, in particular the United States, will not allow a violent resolution to the Taiwan question.
The United States has pursued a policy of “strategic ambiguity” in which it has attempted to balance its relations with the PRC and Taiwan. The U.S. government has hoped to indefinitely delay the implementation of the “one China” policy by publicly supporting the PRC’s claim to Taiwan while simultaneously providing military and political support to the government in Taipei. Two options are available to the United States: maintain the current policy of “strategic ambiguity” or attempt to renegotiate a new agreement between Beijing and Taipei. The U.S. government will most likely continue its current course and hope to indefinitely put off resolution of the Taiwan issue. Whether they are able to accomplish this will depend upon the actions of the PRC and Taiwan. Beijing may seek concessions on the Taiwan issue in exchange for its support and cooperation in the global war on terror. Taiwan may continue to antagonize China, thus disrupting U.S. plans to maintain the status quo. If the United States can maintain its delicate balancing act, it may be possible to continue the policy of “strategic ambiguity.”
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