By DAI QINGLI,
Chinese ambassador to The Bahamas
NO other issue has such a central position or fundamental impact on the direction of China-US relations as the Taiwan question. Over the past seven decades and more, the U.S. has found in Taiwan a convenient card to play in a larger geopolitical game with China, aimed at maintaining and perpetuating its global strategic supremacy. Till this day, the shifting US approach to Taiwan and China’s reaction to it has profoundly shaped China-US relations and the strategic environment of the Asia-Pacific region.
Who lost China?
After Britain became the first Western imperialist power to force open China’s doors in 1840, the United States quickly followed suit and imposed an unequal Treaty on China in 1844, whereby it obtained extraterritorial as well as commercial rights in China.
Concerned about its late-comer disadvantage, the US proclaimed a so-called “Open Door” policy, which allowed it to free-ride on all the privileges other colonial powers had exacted from China. With the European powers embroiled in world wars and Japan defeated in World War II, the United States emerged as the predominant power in China.
In the initial years of the Cold War, the US sought to make China a bastion against the Soviet Union by propping up the Kuomintang regime (the Nationalists). It provided the Kuomintang with huge economic and military assistance in fighting a civil war with the much poorer and weaker Communists. Yet the US could not save the corrupt regime from its fate. The Kuomintang was defeated and fled to Taiwan. The Communists proclaimed the People’s Republic in October 1949.
This prompted a raging debate in Washington on “Who Lost China”, which ended up blaming a few China-hands for cautioning against the US’ one-sided support for the Kuomintang. This debate and the full-blown Cold War led to a US policy of isolation and containment of New China and its continued support for the Kuomintang regime on Taiwan.
When the Korean War broke out, seeing the value of Taiwan as an unsinkable aircraft carrier, President Truman ordered the Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait in June 1950 and the US 13th Air Force set up base in Taiwan. In December 1954, the US concluded with Taiwan a mutual defense treaty placing the island under US “protection”.
All this sealed Taiwan’s position as an outpost of US hegemony and the ultimate flashpoint in China-US relations.
With the support of the US, the Kuomintang regime continued to occupy China’s seat in the United Nations for decades even after they were overthrown by the Chinese people. With growing support for China among the newly independent countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, Resolution 2758 adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in October 1971 finally restored all the lawful rights of the People’s Republic in the UN and established the one-China principle in the international arena.
One step forward
In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon made major adjustments to the US global strategy by seeking to leverage China against Soviet expansionism. An armed conflict between China and the Soviet Union on the border in 1969 and the subsequent deterioration of their relations gave Nixon the opportunity he needed. China on the other hand was also seeking to improve relations with the US to avoid a face-off with both superpowers at the same time.
The Chinese broke the ice by inviting the American table tennis team to visit China in April 1971, which resumed friendly exchanges between the two peoples for the first time since the founding of New China.
Shortly after this act of “ping-pong diplomacy”, or a little ball (table tennis ball) moving the big ball (the global balance of power), National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger paid a secret visit to China in July 1971 to negotiate on Taiwan and prepare the way for President Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972.
The moment Nixon got off the plane, he stretched out his hand to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai to correct US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ slight of Zhou during the 1954 Geneva Conference by not allowing the US delegation to shake hands with Zhou. And Nixon’s very first words were, “This hand stretches out across the Pacific Ocean in friendship”.
Nixon’s visit led to the issuing of the first of a series of three joint communiques between the two countries. The Shanghai Communique of Feb 1972 stated: “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 United States Government does not challenge that position.”
This Communique was a major triumph for both the US and China for different reasons. Yet the formal establishment of diplomatic relations had to wait until Jan 1979.
President Jimmy Carter, confronted by an ever more assertive Soviet Union finally accepted the three conditions laid out by Deng Xiaoping for the establishment of diplomatic relations, namely, the US severs “diplomatic relations”, abrogates the “mutual defense treaty”, and withdraws military forces from Taiwan.
On 1 January, 1979, China and the United States formally established diplomatic relations. The Communique on the same stated: “The United States recognizes the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China. Within this context, the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.”
Two steps back
Yet, a stab in the back for China came barely three months after the establishment of diplomatic relations. The US Congress passed a so-called Taiwan Relations Act, which contravened the US’ international obligations under the China-US communiques, and provided the excuse for the US to maintain official relations and continue arms sales to Taiwan.
In order to resolve the issue of US arms sales to Taiwan, China and the US issued the third joint communique. The August 17th communique of 1982 stated, “The United States does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China and that it intends gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan, leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution.”
Yet, shortly afterwards, the Reagan administration privately made the so-called “Six Assurances” to Taiwan that the US has not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales and has not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan.
Not surprisingly, the August 17th Communique was never honoured in earnest. Over the ensuing decades, the US has only increased arms sales to Taiwan in both qualitative and quantitative terms, with the cumulative volume of sales exceeding US$70 billion.
The end of the Cold War, which undercut the basis for strategic cooperation between China and the US, US policy towards China started to oscillate between containment and engagement, and the temptation to use the Taiwan card further increased. Tensions came to a head in June 1995 when the US allowed Taiwan’s separatist leader to make a “private” visit to the US.
China responded with diplomatic representations, test firing of missiles and military exercises. China’s actions drove home the message that “Taiwan independence” means war and the one-China principle must be upheld.
China’s firm response to this crisis brought President Bill Clinton to explicitly undertake a “three no’s” commitment during his visit to China in 1998, namely, the US will not support “Taiwan independence”, not support “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan”, and not support Taiwan’s accession to international organisations whose membership is restricted to sovereign states.
New shifts, rising tension
In recent years, working hand in glove with the pro-independence Taiwan authorities, the US has kept sliding down the slippery slope of hollowing out and distorting its one-China policy, plunging China-US and cross-Strait relations to new lows and endangering peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the Asia-Pacific at large.
Even before he took office, President-elect Trump talked with Taiwan’s leader on the phone, foreshadowing what was to come. Labeling China as a strategic competitor, President Trump launched a trade war against China by imposing exorbitant tariffs on 360 billion dollars’ worth of Chinese exports to the US and pushed for economic and technological decoupling with China. Trump further approved 11 arms sales to Taiwan, with a record value of US$18.3 billion.
The US also sought to water down its one-China policy. On the basis of placing the Taiwan Relations Act before the three China-US Joint Communiques in 2001, President Trump declassified and inserted the “Six Assurances” into the US’ one-China policy, both of which were firmly opposed by China.
The US has continued to increase official exchanges with Taiwan, with visits to Taiwan by the US Health Secretary and Deputy Secretary of State in 2020.
Not to be outdone by his predecessor in getting tough with China, President Joseph Biden described China as the “most serious competitor” and went further in economic and technological decoupling with China. And five arms sales to Taiwan were approved in just over a year.
The recent visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was just the latest example and a culmination of blatant provocation over China’s core national interests.
The US’ consistent attempt to use Taiwan to prevent China’s rise and preserve its global hegemony is as pathetic as its ploy of perpetuating division between the mainland and Taiwan futile. Defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity is paramount for China who had suffered so much since modern times. Time and tide are on China’s side. The US should know better than to resist the gravity of history.