One Policy for China: Avoiding Conflict with the Mainland

By Harley, Jeffrey | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

One Policy for China: Avoiding Conflict with the Mainland


Harley, Jeffrey, Harvard International Review


The United States' adherence to the "one China" principle has effectively maintained a stalemate between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China (PRC). Specifically, the United States has been able to deter a conflict between the PRC and Taiwan by accepting the "one China" principle. In essence, the United States has been opposing Taiwanese independence and dissuading Taiwan from making unilateral declarations while also deterring China from the use of force against Taiwan. Although our policy of dual restraint has, arguably, been fairly consistent from one presidential administration to another, numerous ambiguities remain that allow for multiple interpretations and that embolden the current Taiwanese leadership to push for formal independence. These ambiguities, coupled with other emerging trends, increasingly dilute the effectiveness of our policy toward the PRC and Taiwan.

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In view of changing dynamics between Beijing and Taipei, the United States must revisit its policy now in order to alleviate the growing risk of conflict. To establish a more effective policy toward China, the United States must resolve its existing policy ambiguities and develop an integrated policy toward China while at the same time driving a timeline or process for the reintegration of Taiwan and the PRC.

Addressing Ambiguities

Although US acknowledgement of the PRC's "one China" principle has served our national interests, ambiguities over the definition of sovereignty, the perceived requirement to defend other democracies, and the extent of our military obligations to defend Taiwan may increasingly threaten the stability of cross-strait relations. Domestic politics in Taiwan have also created tensions for the cross-straits situation as the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has asserted de facto independence and has pushed various referenda--most recently to join the United Nations under the name of Taiwan--that skirt the edge of de jure constitutional or sovereignty changes.

Statements by the US administration and congressional interpretations of elements of the Taiwan Relations Act add to the ambiguity of what exactly constitutes independence and sovereignty. The most accepted interpretation is that the United States was in the past mainly concerned with the process of cross-strait resolution, not necessarily the outcome. There seems to be a general but evolving consensus among US policymakers, however, that the PRC is the sole government of the "one China" and that the US "opposes" independence for Taiwan.

The idea of "opposing" Taiwanese independence is at the heart of the evolution of US policy toward Taiwan. This idea emphasizes a strive toward peaceful settlement but with a more narrowly defined outcome. Amid this debate, there is divergence on such issues as whether the US policy has shifted too far in support of the PRC, whether Taiwan may join international organizations that require sovereignty, whether Taiwanese leadership may make political visits to the United States, and, finally, whether the United States is obligated to defend Taiwan in a conflict provoked by Taiwanese actions. Each of these points should be clearly and unambiguously addressed to create an integrated policy that would better serve the interests of the United States.

It is fair to suggest that ambiguity has served a valuable role in opening the door to China and in executing the US policy of dual restraint. In the past, a certain amount of "constructive ambiguity" has been helpful in assuaging the various factions that exist in the US Congress as well as in Beijing and Taipei. Additionally, the ambiguities have allowed room for interpretations that have enabled diplomatic flexibility while fledgling relations strengthened over time. However, emerging and continuing trends necessitate the reexamination of the policy, and the time is ripe for the United States to update its policy with China. …

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