Wed, Dec 20, 2006 - Page 8 News List

The fictional 'status quo,' Part 1

By June Teufel Dreyer

To put the matter bluntly, there is no status quo on the issue of China and Taiwan, nor has one ever existed.

Moreover, no status quo, even where one can be said to exist, is ever static, either in biological terms or in international relations.

Organisms and countries change, as does the environment in which they exist.

With regard to the first point, "status quo" is a largely meaningless phrase and a dangerous ambiguity that has evolved to extend the existence of another dangerous ambiguity: the "one China" policy.

When diplomats cannot agree on something they feel they must reach a consensus on, they have a tendency to resort to circumlocution, and this is a case in point.

The "one China" policy was set out in the Shanghai Communique of 1972, in which the US found that Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait agreed that there was but one China, and that the US acknowledged the People's Republic of China's (PRC's) position that it was that China.

But the "one China" policy set out in the Shanghai Communique was meant to be temporary.

As stated at the time by several senators who were friendly toward Taiwan, what former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger had in mind was not the maintenance of any existing situation, but what they called "a decent interval," after which the nation would be absorbed into the PRC through some unspecified mechanism.

What Kissinger thought privately is known only to himself, but declassified records indicate that he gave his Chinese interlocutors the impression that in due course, support for Taiwan in the US would erode and the PRC would be able to gain control.

Various factors conspired to prevent this.

First came the US' decision to abandon South Vietnam in 1975.

After the Vietnam debacle, Washington thought that it would profoundly upset its system of alliances if it abandoned Taiwan as well.

As one policymaker somewhat crudely put it: "We can only afford to kiss off one small ally at a time."

Also, Taiwan proved to have strong support in Congress, which, among other things, passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).

This document stipulated, among other safeguards, that the US would provide Taiwan with defensive arms and that the US would oppose any coercion to achieve unification.

Soon after, president Ronald Reagan, who was very favorably disposed to Taiwan and very popular with US voters, was elected president of the US.

At the same time, Taiwan was evolving into a democracy.

The "decent interval" looked like it might extend indefinitely, and Taiwan was proving rather difficult for the US to let go of, much to Beijing's annoyance.

Hence, the term "status quo" began to be used.

From Washington's point of view, this meant maintaining a balance between the two sides because the US had important interests in both.

In April 1999, at a conference held at the Fletcher School to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the TRA, Richard Bush, then the head of the American Institute in Taiwan, mentioned the US commitment to the status quo.

When I asked him for a definition of the term, Bush replied with a self-deprecating smile: "We haven't yet figured out how to operationalize the status quo."

In addition to US' inability to operationalize the status quo, even for itself, another fundamental problem is that at least three different opinions exist on the meaning of the status quo, one for each of the three main parties involved in the "Taiwan issue," which, as Taiwan sources frequently point out, really ought to be called the China issue.

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