2013-01-27 by Richard Weitz
The Taiwan situation will remain an insuperable obstacle to better Sino-American ties if the past is prologue.
What are those conflicting objectives?
- Beijing insists on exercising control over Taiwan.
- The Taiwanese people insist on their right to exercise their political autonomy.
- And Washington insists on providing Taiwan with weapons to reassure Taipei and deter a PRC attack.
Taiwan became the home of the exiled Republic of China (ROC) in 1949, when the Kuomintang Party (KMT), also known as the Nationalist Party, lost the Chinese civil war to the Chinese Communist Party, and fled to Taiwan (then called Formosa).
Although KMT leader Chiang Kai-Shek died in 1975, his son served as ROC Premier from 1972-1978. He then became President after 1978. Shortly before his death in 1988, he introduced political reforms by ending Marshall Law, allowing new political parties, appointing native Taiwanese to prominent political positions, and granting greater media freedoms. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), founded in 1986 as an underground political movement, became the major opposition party and advocated Taiwan’s independence from Beijing. Lee Teng-Hui, president and KMT leader from 1988 to 2000, introduced more political and economic reforms and also abandoned the original ROC goal of reunifying China under the KMT rule. Many Taiwanese had been shifting their focus from reclaiming the mainland to developing their island.
In 1991, the Beijing-based Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) and the Taipei-situated Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) were founded. These quasi-governmental entities have allowed both the PRC and the ROC to engage in discussions and reach agreements on a semi-official basis since they do not recognize each other’s government.
Both organizations entered into a series of talks, which culminated in the so-called “1992 Consensus,” in which both governments agreed that there is only one China even if they disagree over how to apply the principle. PRC policy makers believe that Beijing is the sole legitimate government of all of China, including Taiwan, and that, as a province of the PRC, Taiwan cannot participate as a full-fledged political entity in international organizations such as the United Nations.
For many Taiwanese, “one China” refers to the Republic of China” or, in the case of ardent DPP supporters, simply recognizes the cultural and historical ties between their island and the mainland while not mandating Taiwan’s political subordination to the physically and politically distant regime in Beijing.
The United States and other Asian countries continued to recognize the ROC government for years afterwards, but during the 1970s, the United States and other countries sought to improve relations with the PRC to counter what was seen as the greater threat of Soviet expansionism. By 1971, Beijing had secured enough support that the UN General Assembly voted to transfer the China seat in the United Nations from the ROC to the PRC. In January 1979, following the signing of several bilateral communiques to govern their future relationship, the U.S. government severed official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, ended its bilateral defense agreement with Taipei, and formally recognized the PRC. Nevertheless, in April 1979, the U.S. Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) which reinstated unofficial economic and security ties with Taiwan, including the sale of arms.
Among other provisions, the TRA commits the United States to supply Taiwan the arms it needs to maintain a “sufficient self-defense capability.” Denying any attempt to contain China, U.S. officials have justified these weapons sales on the grounds that they help sustain the peaceful status quo in the Straits by balancing the PLA’s growing capabilities and thereby discouraging any PLA attempt to conquer Taiwan by force.
Washington has worried that declining to assist the Taiwanese military could encourage Beijing to adopt more aggressive policies toward Taipei, increasing the risks of a Sino-American confrontation through miscalculation and inflicting a major economic shock on the PRC, Taiwan, the United States, and other countries.
Less publicly, U.S. officials have also feared, particularly during the 1980s, that stopping arms sales or breaking additional security ties with Taiwan could have the unwelcoming effect of prompting a panicky Taipei to pursue nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, or other destabilizing strategic weapons.
In contrast, PRC officials believe that the U.S. arms sales to Taiwan encourage the growth of pro-independence sentiment on the island and thereby increase international tensions and the risks of war. Chinese government white papers warn that U.S.-Taiwan relations remain a continuing obstacle to better Sino-American defense ties. They accuse the United States of stoking cross-Strait tensions by continuing “to sell arms to Taiwan in violation of the principles established in the three Sino-US joint communiqués, causing serious harm to Sino-US relations as well as peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits.”
The island has since the 1970s become an even more attractive partner for Americans since its government instituted political and economic reforms, including the holding of free and competitive elections.
Taiwan has joined the East Asian economic “tigers” with high economic growth rates based on continually moving toward the leading edge of advanced technologies, relatively low income inequalities due to the use of small and medium businesses to distribute the benefits of growth widely, and important commercial ties to U.S. companies.
In parallel with its signing of various communiqués with China, the United States offered reassurances to Taiwan related to the TRA. The most important were the “Six Assurances,” made to the ROC government on July 14, 1982, prior to the U.S. government’s signing of the August 17, 1982 communiqué with the PRC, according to which the United States:
- Will not set a date for ending arms sales to the ROC
- Will not hold prior consultations with the PRC on arms sales to the ROC
- Will not play any mediation role between Taipei and Beijing,
- Will not unilaterally revise the Taiwan Relations Act
- Has not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan, and
- Will not exert pressure on the ROC to enter into negotiations with the Chinese Communists.
Another important assurance was added in the 1990s, following Taiwan’s democratization. The United States now insisted that Taiwan’s reunification into the PRC would require the support of the Taiwanese people, which is currently lacking.
Although PRC leaders have tenaciously adhered to the goal of cross-Strait reunification under Beijing’s authority, China has employed changing policies to achieve this goal. PRC leaders have been making fewer military threats in recent years and instead have offered more positive inducements to influence Taiwan’s policies.
In April 1993, ARATS President Wang Daohan and SEF President Koo Chen-Fu held the first non-governmental talks in Singapore. The Koo-Wang meeting resulted in the signing of four agreements designed to facilitate trade and economic cooperation between the ROC and the PRC. In regards to the sovereignty issue, both sides agreed “each regards itself as the legitimate Government of the entirety.”
In 1995 President Jiang Zemin delivered an eight-point speech on PRC-ROC relations. The first point reiterated the “One China” principle as the basis for peaceful reunification. The second allowed Taiwan to have non-governmental economic and cultural ties with foreign countries. The third supported continuing China-Taiwan negotiations. The fourth point stated that force, if used, would be employed only against those who impede China’s unification and who strive for an independent Taiwan. The fifth point affirmed cross-strait economic ties, while the sixth reaffirmed the existence of a common Chinese culture. The seventh point expressed support for a healthy and stable Taiwan. The eighth point affirmed the importance of cross-straits relations.
That same year, however, congressional pressure forced the Clinton administration to renege on its assurances to Beijing and let President Lee Teng-hui make a private visit in June 1995 to speak at Cornell University, his alma mater. PRC authorities reacted with anger, seeing it as implying a kind of official U.S. recognition of Lee’s government, and recalled their ambassador the United States, Li Daoyu, from Washington.
More seriously, from July 1995 to March 1996, the PLA staged six massive military exercises in the Straits, including firing ballistic missiles close to Taiwan’s major seaports in an effort to intimidate the Taiwanese people from supporting moves towards independence.
Whatever its reservations about Lee, the Clinton administration by March 1996 felt compelled to react vigorously after the PLA conducted a series of missile launches, amphibious operations, and live-fire demonstrations near Taiwan.
Washington deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups near the island to affirm U.S. support for Taiwan as well as to demonstrate Washington’s readiness to use limited military force when necessary to uphold American interests. While PRC authorities denounced the U.S. actions, the PLA soon ceased their threatening activities toward Taiwan.
Shortly thereafter, Lee decisively won reelection, continuing strained PRC-ROC ties. On July 9, 1999, in an interview with Deutsche Well, Lee stated that Taiwan would conduct only “special state-to-state” relations with the PRC regime instead of negotiations under the one-China principle. In an article published later that year in Foreign Affairs, Lee argued that Taiwan had a distinct national identity and referred to ROC citizens as the “new Taiwanese.” He then set three preconditions for unification with mainland China: PRC goodwill towards the people of Taiwan, renunciation of the use of force towards Taiwan, and democratic reforms in the PRC. The following year, Beijing issued a white paper that rejected these conditions.
In 2000, the DPP candidate, Chen Shui-Bian, won the presidency despite several PRC statements before the elections warning the Taiwanese against supporting him. In 2002, Chen delivered an address to the 29th Annual Meeting of the World Federation of Taiwanese Associations in Japan, in which he said that there is “one country on each side of the straits.” This statement infuriated the PRC, whose state-run media warned: “If we want to strive for peace, we have to be fully prepared for military action.”
During the second half of 2003, Chen undertook a series of provocative initiatives such as resurrecting his controversial “one country on each side” statement and proposing referendums to enhance Taiwan’s autonomous status in international organizations. Having learned from its counterproductive response in 1995-96, PRC leaders adopted a lower-key response on this occasion and instead the PRC leadership sought to work quietly with Washington to curb Chen’s provocative actions.
U.S. policy makers were by then frustrated that Chen’s attempts to assert greater autonomy from the mainland risked escalating into another Sino-American clash over Taiwan. In December 2003, PRC Premier Wen Jiabao visited Washington and secured a statement by the Bush administration that it opposed unilateral action that aimed to change the status quo regarding Taiwan.
After Taiwanese voters reelected Chen in 2004 but defeated his referenda, the PRC enacted an Anti-Secession Law in 2005 that sanctioned “non-peaceful means and other necessary measures” should “possibilities for a peaceful reunification be completely exhausted.”
In 2005, President Hu issued four guidelines that would govern his policies towards the island, including “never sway in adhering to the one-China principle,” “never give up efforts to seek peaceful reunification,” “never change the principle of placing hope on the Taiwan people,” and “never compromise in opposing the ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist activities.” He repeated these “Four Nevers,” which actually was a more positive message than that of previous Chinese presidents, at the 17th Party Congress in October 2007.
In his Chinese New Year address on January 29, 2006, President Chen proposed abolishing the National Unification Guidelines and the National Unification Council, a step he took the following month. The Guidelines for National Unification, adopted by the Executive Yuan Council on February 23, 1991, outlined a three-step process for China’s gradual reunification. Beijing attacked the decision.
In 2007 Chen and the DPP announced that they would hold a referendum on whether to use the name “Taiwan” in applying to join the United Nations at the time of the 2008 presidential elections.
Although the referendum was widely seen as an election strategy appealing to DPP’s supporters since Taiwan lacked the votes in the United Nations to enter the organization, a measure Beijing would veto in any case, the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office Spokesman Yang Yi warned that, “The mainland is deeply concerned about the situation, and will not allow Taiwan secessionist forces to separate the island from China by any means, or in any form.” U.S. State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack joined with Beijing in opposing the UN referendum and “any initiative that appears designed to change Taiwan’s status unilaterally.”
Taiwanese voters eventually rejected the referendum as well as Frank Hsieh Chang-ting, a former prime minister who ran as the DPP presidential candidate.
Nationalist Party candidate Ma Ying-Jeou won the May 2008 elections with a resounding 58 percent share of the votes, the largest margin thus far in four Taiwanese presidential elections. Unlike Chen, whose DPP often lacked a majority in the national legislature during his presidency, Ma’s KMT held a solid majority in the Legislative Yuan thanks to its victory in the January 2008 in parliamentary elections.