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Taiwan and the One China Policy

I started to read a recent article that mentioned Westphalia, but I stopped at the first sentence when the author began, “In the first quarter of every century, systems feel the need to renew themselves.” What kind of numerologist nonsense is this? Does this person really believe that social forces follow the outlines of our entirely arbitrary calendar? (Obviously, the calendar is based on real things — a religious event and astronomical realities — but it is not organized around social forces, nor would such a thing make sense.)

At least she did conclude by saying that Francis Fukuyama’s thesis about the end of history is wrong. That makes her article better than the next one that came up in my feed, which argued that the U.S. should let China have its way in Taiwan. Although the article is terrible, however, it gives me an occasion to discuss the “one China” policy, which I did not fully appreciate before.

The story of this policy is a study of how statesmen are constantly called to compromise what is just for what is expedient. It is also a fascinating example of the kinds of compromises that are possible in diplomacy, and how important individual words can be. After studying the Congress of Wespthalia and seeing the amazing compromises that were proposed and sometimes adopted, I am convinced that skilled diplomats can come up with a way to split any issue, no matter how intractable. (Whether that is a good idea in any particular case is another matter.) (Most of this comes from this article, by the way.)

Nixon was the first to establish informal relations with China, but it was not until 1979 that a joint communiqué established the parameters for the first formal relations. As part of that agreement, the U.S. recognized the Communist government as the “sole legal government of China” and acknowledged the Chinese position that Taiwan was a part of China. The wording on this last statement was the subject of contention, as China tried to change “acknowledged” to “recognized” — in other words, to say that the U.S. recognized (agreed to) the Chinese position that Taiwan was a part of China. The Deputy Secretary of State told the Senate that “[W]e regard the English text as being the binding text. We regard the word ‘acknowledge’ as being the word that is determinative for the U.S.” (The fact that there are two different versions of the agreement, in each country’s native language, shows that some things have not changed since the Congress of Westphalia.)

The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), passed in the same year (1979), established the framework for continued U.S. relations with Taiwan. We could not maintain a formal embassy in Taipei as part of the agreement with China, but established the American Institute in Taiwan as the organization for carrying out relations. The TRA requires the U.S. to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles…as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability,” states that the U.S. will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United Statesm,” and requires that the U.S. “shall maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” However, it doesn’t say that the U.S. will resist any force applied against Taiwan, hence the concept of “strategic ambiguity” that underlies our policy.

This seems muddled enough, but it is further complicated by the third U.S.-China joint communiqué of 1982 which appears to be a response to China’s objections to the TRA. The third communiqué declares “that it [the U.S.] does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan” and “that it intends to reduce gradually its sales of arms to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to a final resolution.” Naturally, this sounded ominous to the Taiwanese government. To allay their fears, President Reagan sent an envoy to offer them “Six Assurances,” including that it would not revise the TRA and had not altered its position regarding Taiwanese sovereignty.

So there you have the mess that makes up relations between the U.S., China, and Taiwan. As far as I can tell, none of this has legal status (you can check out this conference for more information), so none of it is a matter of formal obligations. China has basically agreed to accept ambiguous statements made by the U.S. in the broadest possible terms and to pretend that the U.S. agrees with it on Taiwan. The U.S. has agreed to withdraw formal recognition of an ally and to make some statements that could be seen as bowing to Chinese pressure. It has left itself a large back door route to continue to support Taiwan but refuses to say anything definitive on the subject because that would mean the end of formal relations with China. (Probably: it is not clear who needs whom more, and although the U.S. would suffer an economic shock if China broke off trade relations, it seems likely that China would suffer more. In any case, it would make the U.S. political position noticeably weaker in the world and especially in Asia.)

The question of U.S. “recognition” versus “acknowledgment” of China’s sovereignty over Taiwan is particularly interesting. “Recognition” would imply acceptance — not in the ordinary sense of the word “recognize,” but in diplomatic parlance, where to recognize something is to agree with its existence. Merely “acknolwedging” it means that the U.S. accepts that China has such a claim, but not that we agree with it. And sometimes whole treaties depend on whether sides can find a word that one can say that is good enough for the other to hear.

In practical terms, the U.S. has continued to honour the TRA and sell arms to Taiwan, but it is easy to see how a slight change in the American position could change things. Even if the U.S. does not intend a change, the way statements are worded matters. This makes seesawing statements by Joe Biden so disconcerting: In September of 2022, he stated unequivocally that the U.S. would defend Taiwan in the case of attack, but just last month (January 2024) he said, “We do not support independence” of Taiwan. Probably China does not feel confident of an attack on Taiwan at this time, but one has to wonder how Beijing interprets such statements.

Beijing has always claimed that this is an internal matter not subject to interference by foreign powers. In 2005, it passed an “Anti-secession Law” stating its intention to reclaim Taiwan by force if peaceful means become impossible. Do not be surprised if they act on this in my lifetime.

The article I cited in the second paragraph phrases the issue in these terms: since the Peace of Westphalia; states are sovereign; China is sovereign over Taiwan; therefore, no state has a right to interfere in China’s relations with Taiwan. The author made a good point about the U.N. Charter. The charter states in Article 2, section 1 that it is based on the sovereign equality of its members, but in section 7 it gives a more explicit meaning to sovereignty: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter.” That is a very emphatic statement which seems to contradict some of the things I see emanating from the U.N.

So, does China have sovereignty over Taiwan? Clearly not in the practice, but in principle it does have a claim. When does that claim become no longer actionable? If Catalonia declared independence from Spain, Spain could claim that it is an internal matter and no state should give aid to Catalonia. If there is a war that drags on for 20 years (highly unlikely, I realize), they still have a strong claim. If they agree to a truce for another 20 years, Catalonia begins to look like an independent state that Spain happens to have a claim to. In the case of Taiwan, I don’t think any reasonable person could argue that China has sovereignty over it, but it is a matter of degree.

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