Washington’s ambiguous Taiwan policies are edging towards conflict, but Beijing wants to exhaust peaceful options first
Through years of unclear statements and committed actions, the US has shaped relations with China over Taiwan. Now this rhetoric is breaking down and armed conflict seems closer than ever – but is Washington ready to fight over Taiwan, or capable of winning?
Commitments and assurances
Officially, US policy toward Taiwan is guided by three US-China Joint Communiques issued between 1972 and 1982, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, and the so-called “Six Assurances” issued in 1982. China claimed in 1972’s Shanghai Communique, that “the Taiwan question is the crucial question obstructing the normalization of relations between China and the United States,”Declaring “the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government of China,”Taiwan is part of China’s provinces. “the liberation of Taiwan is China’s internal affair in which no other country has the right to interfere.”
US replied by acknowledging “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China,”The US government has not challenged this assertion. US also reiterated its interest “in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.”
Before that, on January 1, 1979, the US and China had issued a “Joint Communique of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations” in which the US undertook to recognize “the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China,”It is worth noting, however, that the commitment was made in context. “the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.”
In announcing his communique, President Jimmy Carter went above and beyond to make sure the Taiwanese people were safe. “that normalization of relations between our country and the People’s Republic will not jeopardize the well-being of the people of Taiwan,”This is an additional feature “the people of our country will maintain our current commercial, cultural, trade, other relations with Taiwan through nongovernmental means.”
Carter’s move to establish diplomatic relations with China did not sit well with many members of Congress, who responded by passing the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, in which it was declared that it is US policy “to preserve and promote extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan, as well as the people on the China mainland,” and “to make clear that the United States 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.”
Taiwan Relations Act emphasized that the US will continue to support Taiwan. “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States,” and “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character.”Final, the Act stated that the US would retain the capability “to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”
The emphasis on arms sales contained in the Taiwan Relations Act led to the third joint communiqué between the US and China, released on August 17, 1982, which sought to settle differences between the two nations regarding US arms sales to Taiwan. This communique consisted primarily of a quid-pro quo agreement, where China highlighted its desire to maintain the status quo. “a fundamental policy of striving for a peaceful reunification”Taiwanese sovereignty. The US, for its part declared it “understands and appreciates the Chinese policy of striving for a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question,”With that in mind the US stated that it didn’t seek to continue a long-term arms sale policy to Taiwan and would reduce its sales of arms to Taiwan as it worked for a resolution to the conflict.
To mollify Taiwanese concerns about the third communique, the US agreed to what have become known as “the Six Assurances” between the US and Taiwan. The six assurances are: 1) that the US will not end arms sales to Taiwan by a certain date; 2) that it has not offered to consult with China before Taiwan arms sales to Taiwan is stopped; 3) that the US won’t revise Taiwan Relations Act and 5) and that Taiwan would not be subject to US pressure to reach an agreement with China.
There was an unwritten corollary to the third communique—an internal memorandum signed by President Ronald Reagan in which he declared that “the US willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of the Taiwan-PRC [People’s Republic of China] differences,”This is an additional feature “it is essential that the quantity and quality of the arms provided Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC.”
An American policy of war against itself
What emerges from this amalgam of policy statements and positions is a US policy that is inherently at war with itself, unable to fully commit either to the finality of a “one China” policy or walk away from the sale of weapons to Taiwan. The US disguises this inherent inconsistency by referring to it as “strategic ambiguity.” The problem is this policy stew is neither strategic in vision, nor ambiguous.
From the moment President Reagan issued the “Six Assurances,” US-China policy was strained over the issue of weapons sales, with China making the case that the US was not serious about either the peaceful reunification of Taiwan with China, or the elimination of arms sales to Taiwan. Between the Reagan Administration and the Clinton administrations, Arms Sales increased dramatically. In addition to providing Taipei F-16 fighters, Patriot air-to-air missiles and other advanced weaponry, the US also provided Patriot surface–to-air missiles and other weapons. House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan in 1997 as part of his Pacific tour, which also included China. Gingrich claims he told his Chinese hosts that, if China were to attack Taiwan, the US “will defend Taiwan. Period.”
In 2005, in response to US backsliding when it came to arms sales and Taiwan, China adopted legislation known as the “Anti-Secession Law” which stated firmly that Taiwan “is part of China.” In the law, China declared that it “shall never allow the ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist forces to make Taiwan secede from China under any name or by any means.” China reiterated its official stance that reunification through “peaceful means” best serves the fundamental interests of China. The law stated that China will not be silent in face of any attempt to unify its forces. “cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China.”China could use this if it were to happen. “non-peaceful means and other necessary measures” to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
We are now in 2021. In policy guidance, the Biden administration stated that it would deter Chinese aggression. “collective security, prosperity and democratic way of life”The US and its allies publicly committed to Taiwan policies, but they did not mention Taiwan. “in line with long-standing American commitments,”The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 was included, which restricted US military support to Taiwan to weapons of a defense character.
War on the brink
As it turned out, this was a fabrication. In his October 2021 confirmation hearing before the US Senate, the current US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns declared that, from the perspective of the Biden administration, the policy of “strategic ambiguity” provided the US with “enormous latitude” under the Taiwan Relations Act to deepen US security assistance to Taiwan. “Our responsibility,” Burns said, “is to make Taiwan a tough nut to crack.”It was an abrupt departure from the past and it served to justify Biden’s two-time declaration of policy that the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese attack.
This radical departure from stated US policy by the Biden administration helped launch a Congressional trifecta of hubris-laced ignorance, which saw the dispatch of three consecutive delegations that threaten to propel China down the path toward a war with Taiwan it doesn’t want to wage, and which the world (including the US) is not prepared to suffer the consequences of. Tammy Duckworth, a Democratic-Illinois, led the first delegation in May. Prior to her departure from the US, Duckworth helped push through the “Strengthen Taiwan’s Security Act” which, among other things, sought to improve US-Taiwan intelligence sharing, develop plans to continue the provision of military aid in the case of a Chinese attack, and explore the possibility of deploying pre-positioned stocks of weapons for US troops that would be dispatched to Taiwan in the event of a war with China.
Let that last point sink in for a moment —Duckworth was proposing to implement measures that would guarantee US troops would confront Chinese troops in the case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
The visit of Nancy Pelosi (D-Massachusetts) to Taiwan was part two in the Congressional trifecta. Last but not least, the tragicomedy was completed by Senator Ed Markey (D.Massachusetts), who visited earlier in the week. According to a press release issued by Markey’s office prior to his visit, his delegation would “meet with elected leaders and members of the private sector to discuss shared interests including reducing tensions in the Taiwan Strait and expanding economic cooperation, including investments in semiconductors.”
The environment where all three visits occurred is not mentioned. Even before Duckworth’s initial visit, Chinese authorities had taken the unprecedented step of issuing a stark warning regarding Taiwan. On May 18, China’s senior diplomat Yang Jiechi warned Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan that “if the US continues to play the Taiwan card and head further on the wrong path, this will certainly lead to dangerous situations.”
Today China, the US, Taiwan, and the rest of the world are left to face such a “dangerous situation.”
No doubt, any Taiwanese attempt to declare independence from China is going to result in an invasion of the island by China. It is also unlikely that Taiwan will ever take such an action without US military support. This, coupled with actions to make reality seem real, makes it very unlikely. The trio of Congressional delegations is here to help. To officially end its policy of ignoring Taiwan and China in the past, it would require legislation like that suggested by Duckworth. It is supported apparently by Pelosi, Markey and other Democrats. China needs to be wary of the US Congress continuing its interaction with Taiwan. It would force the US Congress to take legal action that could lead them both toward war.
The US has not yet decided whether it is ready to wage war against China and take Taiwan. The US military would be unable to respond to China’s verbal promises to defend Taipei if it invaded Taiwan. China has, through large-scale military maneuvers undertaken following Pelosi’s precipitous visit, demonstrated its ability to invade Taiwan at any moment. Such an invasion, if it occurs, would be overwhelming in scope and destructive on a scale like that being experienced by Ukraine today in the face of Russia’s ongoing military operations.
China is still hesitant to go to war. Some armchair generals assess the reluctance to go to war on China’s part as a sign of weakness, proof that Beijing is all bark and no bite. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. China is committed to following its policy. It seeks to be as consistent with the United States’s stated policy of seeking every peaceful solution to unify China and Taiwan. China persists in believing that there can be a peaceful solution to the One China Problem, even though it has clearly shown that its previous policy on Taiwan and weapons sales was changed.
Only America could give peace a chance.
These opinions, statements and thoughts are the sole opinion of the author. They do not necessarily reflect those made by RT.