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Avoiding a Taiwan Collision

Dec 20, 2021
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

There are fundamental differences on issues related to Taiwan between the People’s Republic of China and the United States, the most profound of which is that the U.S. does not want to see China reunified, peacefully or otherwise. To this end, the U.S. has long employed two-faced tactics.

Yet, notably, over the last 70 years or more, there has been no war or large-scale military conflict over Taiwan. No such action can be thought near today. Then why is the possibility of Chinese reunification by force such a hot topic?

First, in the past seven decades since the founding of the PRC, there has been no large-scale military confrontation between the two countries. Two extraordinary historical events might help explain the logic. The first happened during the Cold War, as the Chinese civil war continued after the Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan.

On Aug. 23, 1958, front-line artillery troops of the People’s Liberation Army were ordered to bombard Jinmen to answer the provocations of Kuomintang troops. But it was significant that the PLA didn’t fire at U.S. naval ships in the carrier fleet that were escorting Kuomintang ships under the so-called mutual defense treaty. The U.S. naval ships left when they saw that the Kuomintang vessels had been hit and sunk. No military action occurred between the PLA and the U.S. Navy. This is hard evidence that China was honoring its pledge not to go to war against the U.S..

Another event took place in 1996 after the two countries had already established full diplomatic relations. To deter the growing illegal activities conducted by the separatist forces in Chinese territory, and in response to a serious violation of the “one China” principle by the U.S. — which had allowed a visit to Cornell University by Lee Teng-hui, the regional leader of Taiwan — the PLA carried out a missile training exercise in which a few missiles landed in waters off Kaohsiung and Keelung. The U.S. responded with a show of force by sending two aircraft carriers, the Independence and the Nimitz, into waters near the island. Yet no military conflict occurred.

Later, the Clinton administration announced its “three noes” policy, under which the U.S. would oppose efforts by Taiwan to gain independence, would not support the creation of two Chinas (mainland and Taiwan) and would not back Taiwan’s admission to the United Nations.

Second, the U.S. made historic progress when dealing with issues related to Taiwan through unilateral steps. The Nixon administration, working closely with China, made historic progress by opening the door of exchanges between the two countries. In the China-U.S. Shanghai Communique issued on Feb. 28, 1972, the U.S. side declared: The Unites States 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 government does not challenge that position.”

This was the initial expression by the U.S. acknowledging that there is just one China. As the two countries had not resolved all differences on issues related to Taiwan by the end of the Ford administration, normalization of relations was realized during the Carter administration.

In the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations, “the United States of America recognizes the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China. Within this context, the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.”

These two points formed the basis for bilateral relations. However, the U.S. has repeatedly violated these key principles. On Jan. 1, 1979, a U.S. domestic law, the Taiwan Relations Act, came into force. In view of the fact that the act seriously violated the “one China” principle, the two countries conducted several rounds of negotiations. As a result, they issued the Joint Communique on Aug. 17, 1982, in which the U.S. stated that “it intends gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan, leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution.”

Over the past 39 years, the U.S. has intentionally gone back on its word. Soon after the communique was issued, the Reagan administration made assurances to Taiwan — without consulting Beijing — about the kinds of arms it would sell to the island. It also said it would not mediate any cross-strait dispute.

Since then, the U.S. has continued to interfere in China’s internal affairs by steadily increasing arms sales to Taiwan and recently upgrading official and military relations with separatists.

Third, the U.S. has set itself on a collision course with Beijing by vigorously supporting Taiwan separatists since the Trump administration. Although political leaders and top diplomats have time and again expressed their intention to prevent the two countries from veering into conflict, what they are doing on issues related to Taiwan is raising the danger.

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, as well as official and military exchanges with Taiwan separatists, have been proceeding at an alarming, unprecedented pace. Moreover, the U.S. could harm itself by fabricating rumors that Beijing wants to take Taiwan by force soon and the U.S. would fulfill its commitment to defend the island. China’s general policy of peaceful development in cross-strait relations is intentionally neglected. The use of military force for reunification is the last resort.

The U.S. has forgotten the commitments it made in the three China-U.S. joint communiques. The government of the United States has long since acknowledged the Chinese position that there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of it. This makes it crystal clear that the status of Taiwan is strictly an internal matter for China, and the U.S. should respect the country’s sovereignty. This is the minimum international norm the U.S. should observe.

It would be shortsighted of the U.S. to create tension in the Taiwan Strait region just to make big money through arms sales, or even for containing China by taking advantage of the Taiwan issue. The U.S. would pay too high a price if it were to suddenly change course at the brink of a disastrous military showdown. The wise strategy for the U.S. is to work with China for the peace and prosperity of the region and the world.

Fourth, speculation about China’s imagined expansionist ambitions originates from a U.S. strategic misjudgment or deliberate demonization. Some people in the U.S. even say that taking over Taiwan by force would only be China’s first step. Its second would be taking over the territories of neighboring countries.

Those people are totally wrong about China’s defense strategy. Military force would be directed at a small number of separatists in Taiwan. And China will never occupy an inch of the territory of any other country or allow the loss of an inch of its own territory. China committed to a philosophy of never seeking hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region in the Shanghai Communique in 1972, and it has lived up to its word ever since. It will continue to do so in the future.

Sino-U.S. relations have great vitality, as the Chinese and American peoples have friendly feelings toward each other and want to work together for the bright future of both themselves and mankind. No force in the world can prevent the wheels of history from moving forward, and U.S. insistence on interfering in China’s internal affairs can only reap bitter fruit in the end. 

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