The Taiwan Conundrum : Taiwan's Emphasis on Gradualism, Moving toward Peaceful Coexistence and Coprosperity with China, Is More Realistic Than the PRC's Insistence on "One China."

By Kau, Michael Y. M. | The World and I, April 2000 | Go to article overview

The Taiwan Conundrum : Taiwan's Emphasis on Gradualism, Moving toward Peaceful Coexistence and Coprosperity with China, Is More Realistic Than the PRC's Insistence on "One China."


Kau, Michael Y. M., The World and I


During the Cold War era, the trilateral relationship among the United States, the People's Republic of China (PRC), and the Republic of China (ROC) was clear cut and predictable. The United States recognized the ROC government on Taiwan as the "sole legal government of all China," maintained a formal Mutual Defense Treaty with the island, and treated the ROC as a close and faithful ally in the Asia Pacific. Moreover, the West supported the ROC as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and helped Taipei occupy memberships in all important intergovernmental organizations in the world.

In contrast, the United States perceived the PRC as a major political adversary and security threat. The PRC was denied diplomatic recognition and access to practically all major international organizations. Moreover, a strict policy of strategic containment and international isolation was imposed on China by the West. In the Taiwan Strait, rigid segregation and intense hostility prevailed between the two sides, and cross-strait interactions were nonexistent.

In the early 1970s, however, dramatic twists and turns began to occur. In February 1972, President Richard Nixon undertook his bold, historic trip to China, attempting to open up Beijing and woo the Chinese away from the Soviet side in the global East-West struggle. In January 1979, President Jimmy Carter decided to normalize relations with the PRC by switching U.S. diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton took a series of audacious initiatives to push for "comprehensive engagement" and a "constructive strategic partnership" with the PRC.

In the late 1980s, the deep freeze between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait began to thaw. The pace and scope of "indirect" economic exchanges and social contacts advanced dramatically in the 1990s. By 1998 the volume of two-way cross-strait trade had reached the $25 billion mark, and Taiwanese firms' investment in mainland China had risen to nearly $30 billion. In the past decade, 11 million visits by Taiwanese to China were recorded.

The dramatic policy initiatives and improvements in trilateral interactions notwithstanding, Taiwan's political environment and status became increasingly confusing, uncertain, and even precarious.

The cornerstones of U.S. policy

For over two decades, Washington has consistently emphasized that U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan rests on two cornerstones: (1) the three joint communiquAs signed between Washington and Beijing in 1972, 1979, and 1982, respectively, and (2) the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), adopted by Congress and signed into law by the president in April 1979. According to administration officials, the former enabled the United States to normalize relations with the PRC and engage Beijing in constructive interactions, while the latter provided a legal basis to continue emphasizing U.S. concerns and facilitating protection for Taiwan.

The policy cornerstones are riddled with ambiguities and inconsistencies. The three communiquAs committed the United States to the principle of "one China" advanced by the PRC. As stated in the Shanghai CommuniquA of 1972 and repeated by Beijing in various policy statements: "The United 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 U.S. government does not challenge that position."

Hence, the logic of the "one China" principle dictated that, if it wished to normalize relations between Washington and Beijing, the United States would have to accept China's demand of "three conditions": It should break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan, terminate the Mutual Defense Treaty, and end its military presence on the island.

Yet, in the TRA the United States declared explicitly and deliberately that "it is the policy of the United States" to

* consider any effort to determine Taiwan's future 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 States;

* provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and

* maintain U. …

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