August 17th marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the “Joint Communiqué” issued by the Governments of the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America, popularly known as “the August 17 Communiqué”. Together with the other two communiqués, namely the “Joint Communiqué of the People’s republic of China and the United States of America” (the Shanghai Communiqué) in 1972 and the “Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America” in 1979, the three communiqués constitute the three pillars of the Sino-American relationship. However, the 1982 communiqué deals specifically with U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, underlining the extraordinary importance of the issue.
Confucius says: “At thirty, I was already well established.” Unfortunately, the August 17th communiqué is far from being “established”. The sale of U.S. arms, until now, remains the most sensitive and the most destructive element in the bilateral relationship. The essential part of the communiqué is the U.S. commitment 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 solution. In so stating, the United States acknowledges China’s consistent position regarding the thorough settlement of this issue. ” It demonstrated “that China remained open to matching firmness on principle with flexibility in practice,” as one American observer put it. Despite the concessions, the U.S., from the very beginning, manifested no intention to fully honor its commitment. On July 14th of 1982, a month before concluding the talks over the communiqué, President Reagan secretly gave Taiwan the so-called “six assurances”. The first two assurances were that the U.S. “has not set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan, and has not agreed to consult with the PRC on arms sales to Taiwan.” Besides, President Reagan wrote a “codicil” to the communiqué that read in part: “The quantity and quality of the arms provided (to Taiwan) will be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC. Taiwan’s defense capability relative to that of the PRC will be maintained.” This in fact writes off his commitment in the communiqué that the arms sales would not exceed the level during the Carter Administration.
Well-informed U.S. commentaries at the time interpreted the U.S. approach towards the communiqué as practical rather than imperative. Some pointed out that the U.S. wanted only to set aside a dispute that threatened the entire U.S.-PRC relationship. It did not aim at solving the issue in long term. Others saw the communiqué as a way, “without harming Taiwan’s equities”, to solve a practical issue that had originated largely out of Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign (during which he made a spate of pro-Taiwan remarks violating the Shanghai and normalization communiqués) and thus to save the relationship with Beijing for the sake of Washington’s bilateral, regional and global interests. As the U.S. stance had an apparent expedient nature, it is no wonder that she would not hesitate to violate the spirit and letter of the communiqué whenever she deems necessary. According to U.S. press reports, the Reagan administration formally notified the Congress within days of the release of the communiqué the extension of the co-production line of F-5E fighter planes with Taiwan. And in the following months, a substantive arms sales package amounting to $500 million was approved. Since 1982, the United States has announced four major arms sales packages to Taiwan and all of them seriously undermined Sino-American relations, particularly the mil-to-mil relationship.
Until today, the U.S. has not modified its stance on the arms sales issue. In his recently published book “Obama and China’s Rise”, Jeffrey Bader, a former White House security aide for Asian affairs, wrote candidly about the “three rather different purposes” the arms sales to Taiwan served: “One was to provide Taiwan with the wherewithal to withstand a Chinese attack long enough for U.S. assistance to turn the tide. Second, such sales would signal that the United States remained committed to Taiwan’s security. Third, they would demonstrate U.S. credibility to other friends and allies in the region who would be alarmed at the use of force in the Taiwan Strait.” Since 2008, the cross-Strait relationship has opened up a new chapter of peaceful development. The current peaceful developments in cross-Strait relations are possible because the two sides abide by the “1992 Consensus” which constitutes the “One China” framework. China’s “incentives” to settle the Taiwan issue peacefully have nothing to do with U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. They come only from the adherence to the one China principle and the overall interests of the nation.
To sum up, when we are commemorating the 30th anniversary of the August 17th communiqué, we regrettably see that a permanent solution to the issue has yet to be reached. Continued U.S. arms sales to Taiwan remain the most negative factor in the Sino-U.S. relationship and continue to hamper mutual trust between the two countries. But for the sake of mutual interests, as well as peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and indeed in the entire Asia-Pacific area, the two countries should work to come to a permanent agreement. The two countries must genuinely respect the letter and spirit of the August 17th communiqué, and restart face-to-face discussions on the issue. The discussions should be based on broad strategic interests of the two countries and the world at large. As the China-U.S. Joint Statement released during President Obama’s visit to China in November 2009 correctly stated, “China and the United States have an increasingly broad base of cooperation and share increasing important common responsibilities on many major issues concerning global stability and prosperity.” Yet the base of bilateral cooperation could only be increasingly broad when mutual trust is increasingly enhanced. The key points for enhancing mutual trust have been clearly spelled out in the Joint Statement. China “welcomes the United States as an Asia-Pacific nation that contributes to peace, stability and prosperity in the region.” The United States reiterates “the fundamental principle of respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is at the core of the three U.S.-China joint communiqués which guide U.S.-China relations.” If China and the United States are to come to a permanent agreement on Taiwan, it is important that the August 17th communiqué become “established”, even if it happens after its thirtieth birthday.
Xu Shiquan, vice chairman of the National Society of Taiwan Studies and honorary director of the Institute of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau Studies of SIIS