The Taiwan Issue in Us-China Relations

By Yang, Jian | New Zealand International Review, May 2000 | Go to article overview

The Taiwan Issue in Us-China Relations


Yang, Jian, New Zealand International Review


Jian Yang discusses the implications for Sine-American relations of Chen Shui-bian's victory in Taiwan's presidential election.

On 18 March 2000, amid stern warnings from Beijing, Taiwan's voters elected Chen Shui-bian, the candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has favoured Taiwan independence, as Taiwan's next president. In a sharp contrast to its pre-election military threats, Beijing's reactions in the days after the election were `mild' and `polite'. It expressed its willingness to talk to Taiwan's new leader under the `one-China' principle. In Washington, while claiming that the election demonstrated clearly `the strength and vitality of Taiwan's democracy', President Clinton reaffirmed US support for `one China' policy. Encouraged by Chen's post-election conciliatory statements about cross-Strait relations, some US officials said the election of Chen might eventually defuse an explosive point in US relations with China.

Although the pre-election concern that Chen's victory might result in a crisis or disaster across the Taiwan Strait has not materialised, the situation is still extremely delicate, and the Taiwan issue remains one of the most sensitive issues in US-China relations. To understand the sensitivity and possible future development of the issue, we need to look back at the history.

In 1949 the Kuomintang (or the Nationalist Party) which had ruled the Republic of China was routed in China's civil war and retreated to Taiwan. The Chinese Communist Party established the People's Republic of China in October 1949 and has since claimed that it is the sole legal government of China and that Taiwan is a part of China. In June 1950, the Korean War broke out. The United States then sent forces to cover the Taiwan Strait in an attempt to contain the expansion of communism. It subsequently entered a security alliance with Taiwan and the alliance remained unchanged until the 1970s. In the early part of that decade, as a result of its dramatic strategic adjustments, the Nixon administration decided to improve US relations with the People's Republic and President Richard Nixon visited China in February 1972.

Ever since then the Taiwan issue has been consistently testing the political skills and will of leaders of both China and the United States. For Beijing, the issue should be dealt with according to the `three communiques' -- the Shanghai communique of 27 February 1972, the normalisation communique of 15 December 1978, and the joint communique of 17 August 1982. For Washington, however, another document is perhaps more important -- the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which was largely shaped by the US Congress.

The first two communiques defined the status of Taiwan vis-a-vis mainland China. In that of 27 February 1972, the United States `acknowledges' and `does not challenge' the position maintained by `all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait' that `there is but one China and Taiwan is a part of China'. The 1978 normalisation communique not only reaffirmed the principle but also stated that the United States `recognizes' the government of the People's Republic `as the sole legal Government of China'. Washington and Beijing, however, have different interpretations of the communiques.

Unilateral statements

On the same day that the normalisation communique was signed, Washington and Beijing each issued a unilateral statement. The Chinese statement made clear that `As for the way of bringing Taiwan back to the embrace of the motherland and reunifying the country, it is entirely China's internal affair'; whereas the US statement emphasised that the United States continues to have an interest in the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue and expects that the issue will be settled peacefully by the Chinese themselves. The US government indicated that it would continue sales of defensive arms to Taiwan despite the objection of the Chinese government. …

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