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At Loggerheads Over Taiwan

Nov 25, 2021
  • Sun Zhe

    Co-director, China Initiative, Columbia University; Senior Research Fellow, Institute of State Governance Studies, Beijing University

At the first virtual summit between the leaders of China and the United States, the Taiwan question reflected the dispute and crossfire between the two sides.

President Xi Jinping emphasized three points. First, the situation in the Taiwan Strait is facing a new round of tensions because the Taiwan authorities have repeatedly attempted to “rely on the United States” in pursuit of independence, while some on the U.S. side are intent on using Taiwan to contain China. Xi used a strong tone when he said the United States and Taiwan should be warned that “those who play with fire will burn themselves.”

Second, he said that the one-China principle and the three China-U.S. Joint Communiques are the political foundation of the China-U.S. relationship. Successive U.S. administrations have made clear commitments on this.

Third, he made this extraordinary statement, which sparked widespread media commentary and debate: “Achieving China’s complete reunification is an aspiration shared by all sons and daughters of the Chinese nation. We will strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and effort. That said, should the separatist forces for Taiwan independence make provocations, force our hand or even cross the red line, we will be compelled to take resolute measures.”

Xi told the U.S. side that the Chinese people have always loved and valued peace. Aggression or hegemony is not in the blood of the Chinese nation. Since the founding of the People ’s Republic, China has never started a war or conflict, and it has never taken one inch of land from another country. In light of this statement, we can sense how strong his statement was on the Taiwan question.

Biden’s statement is also noteworthy on two points. First, he said that the United States adheres to the one-China policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three U.S.-China communiques and the six U.S. assurances to Taiwan. Second, he said the United States “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” The White House news release on the meeting did not include the statement “does not support Taiwan independence,” while keeping the phrase “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo.” This leaves a lot of room for imagination. 

Many people do not understand why the Americans always refer to the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances to Taiwan in addition to the three U.S.-China communiques when it comes to the Taiwan question.

The Taiwan Relations Act was passed by the U.S. Congress on April 10, 1979, and then signed into law by President Jimmy Carter. The act boils down to two points:

First, the U.S. government will continue commercial, cultural and other relations between the people of the United States and the residents of Taiwan. To maintain these relations, the U.S. authorized the establishment of an American Institute in Taiwan to manage what has been called de facto diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Taiwan, with Taiwan being considered a sub-sovereign state.

Second, the act asserts that the U.S. decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China “rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.” Also, it is U.S. policy to “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means,” including by boycotts or embargoes or “threats to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area,” as a matter of “grave concern” for the United States.

As for the Six Assurances, they are private commitments made by the U.S. to Taiwan, the main elements of which are as follows:

• The United States has not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan.

• The U.S. will not play mediation role between Beijing and Taipei.

• The U.S. will not exert pressure on Taiwan to enter into negotiations with the PRC.

• The United States has not altered its long-term position regarding sovereignty.

• The United States has not agreed to revise the Taiwan Relations Act.

• The United States has not agreed to consult with Beijing on arms sales to Taiwan.

The Six Assurances were originally private commitments, but in July 2016, both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate passed House concurrent resolutions 88 and 38, reaffirming in writing that the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances were cornerstones of U.S.-Taiwan relations, and asked the president and the State Department to publicly acknowledge them.

So this time, the U.S. side, through Biden, has publicly described the Six Assurances as the basis of the U.S. one-China policy, which effectively means that the U.S. side has unilaterally changed its position on Taiwan and created a new discourse.

In the words of our Chinese spokesman, the U.S. statements on Taiwan have lost their shape, turned sour and retrogressed.

That’s why, since the Trump era, the U.S. has stopped mentioning the one-China policy and has emphasized “our one-China policy.”

China, of course, considers the essence of the Taiwan Relations Act as using a U.S. domestic law to override international obligations, which is illegal and invalid. Since the U.S. has deliberately maintained strategic ambiguity in the Taiwan Relations Act, saying it will take “appropriate action” as it chooses, this time we have taken a tit-for-tat approach and directly told the U.S. that we will have to take “decisive measures” against secessionist forces seeking Taiwan independence.

In fact, China can tell the U.S. that it, too, has enacted the Anti-Secession Law and that if the U.S. believes its domestic laws can override its international obligations, China will not hesitate to take “appropriate action” thereunder.

I don't think the U.S. yet realizes the seriousness of the Taiwan question. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said after the Xi-Biden meeting that Biden himself told the Chinese leader that he was involved in drafting and voting on the Taiwan Relations Act, so he hopes the Chinese side will take the U.S. position seriously. Sullivan also said the two leaders’ exchange on Taiwan was largely within the original framework and did not establish any new narrative. Nor did they mention whether to establish what Biden called a “guardrail” on this, the most important question, which could lead to conflict.

The U.S. side has continued to say that the previous perspective of U.S.-China relations is outdated and that the U.S. today has reached a new level and is regulating U.S.-China relations as a whole from a grand perspective. This means that the U.S. side, on one hand, expects to dynamically manage differences, including the Taiwan Strait dispute, and will strive not to slide into conflict and confrontation. On the other hand, it will continue to maintain stable cooperation and contact with China on such issues as climate change and economic development.

Maybe the U.S. has underestimated China’s national sentiment and will on the Taiwan question, and so China should not underestimate the negative impact of further engagement between the United States and Taiwan on peaceful unification. 

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