US policy is not perfect. The US' "one China" policy is frequently criticized. Some say it lacks sufficient clarity, credibility and coherence. Others argue that it lacks consistency. Still others call it dangerous. Sometimes, the policy seems secretive and contradictory.
US policy could be more supportive of the Taiwanese and their quest for international recognition.
However, since last month, President Chen Shui-bian (
In a commentary in the Washington Post on May 11, Chen noted that he had written a letter to the WHO a month before to apply for membership for his country under the name "Taiwan."
The World Health Assembly voted against placing the issue of Taiwan's membership application on their agenda. Then, on May 25, member countries of the World Organization for Animal Health, an international organization older than the UN, voted in favor of full participation for China and downgraded Taiwan's status to a non-sovereign member called "Chinese Taipei." Speaking through video conferencing at the National Press Club in Washington on May 29, Chen desperately warned that China was trying to "erase all trace of Taiwan in the global society" and pleaded with the US and other countries not to ignore China's strategy.
Then Chen adopted a new tactic, accusing the US of violating its own law governing policy toward Taiwan: the TRA.
The TRA, Public Law 96-8, was passed to provide a legal framework to continue a relationship with Taiwan's people after the US switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979.
Meeting with a congressional delegation on May 30, Chen's news release reported that he called for a review of aspects of the TRA that are "inappropriate" and asserted that China's actions against Taiwan at international organizations were inconsistent with the TRA. Chen claimed that the TRA treats Taiwan as a sovereign country.
Later, at a meeting on June 14 with the chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), an organization set up by the TRA in 1979 to handle the relationship with Taiwan in the absence of an embassy, Chen made another assertion about US policy. He said that China's claim that Taiwan is a province of China is inconsistent with the TRA and the Six Assurances (late US president Ronald Reagan's assurances to Taiwan in 1982).
Chen urged the US to reaffirm the Six Assurances, to reiterate that there is no change in the US stance on Taiwan's sovereignty and to counter China's efforts to downgrade Taiwan as a non-sovereign entity at international organizations.
US acquiescence to Taiwan's non-sovereign status at international bodies "violates" the Six Assurances, Chen reportedly stated. He said that the TRA and Six Assurances did not recognize Taiwan as a part of China.
It is true that the US has not recognized Taiwan as a part of China.
It is also true that the US has not recognized Taiwan as a sovereign country. The US did recognize Taiwan as a country (the Republic of China, or ROC) until the end of 1978. However, even while recognizing the ROC and its "jurisdiction" over Taiwan, the State Department testified to Congress in 1969 and 1970 that the juridical matter of Taiwan's status remained undetermined. The US considered sovereignty over Taiwan as unsettled.
In its position on Taiwan, Washington is at odds with Beijing, Taipei and some international bodies.
The TRA was enacted on April 10, 1979, with the stated purpose of preserving and promoting a relationship with the people of Taiwan in the absence of diplomatic relations. The TRA did not address the "one China" concept. The TRA stated the US expectation that the future of Taiwan "will be determined" by peaceful means. It set up the AIT to replace the US embassy in Taipei. It specifically defined "Taiwan" as the islands of Taiwan and the Pescadores, the people on those islands, their corporations or other entities, and the governing authorities previously recognized as the ROC. It stated that domestic US laws that refer to foreign countries or governments shall apply to Taiwan.
Concerning the legislation for the TRA, Senator Frank Church, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1979, stated that the TRA was necessary precisely to continue commercial, cultural and other "nondiplomatic relations" with Taiwan upon the premise that the US terminated governmental relations.
He pointed out that the legislation for the TRA "did not address the issue of Taiwan's international legal identity."
Representative Clement Zablocki, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House, stated that a congressional intent was to maintain the legal, "as distinguished from diplomatic," framework for operations of the private sector.
Reagan's Six Assurances also did not recognize the sovereignty of Taiwan. The "Six Assurances" refer to six assurances to Taiwan, passed on July 14, 1982, concerning US negotiations with China over the Joint Communique of August 17, 1982.
While there are slightly different versions, the points are generally that the US would not set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan; would not hold prior consultations with China on arms sales to Taiwan; would not play a mediation role between Taipei and Beijing; would not revise the TRA; has not changed its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan; and would not exert pressure on Taiwan to negotiate with China.
Testifying to Congress on Aug. 18, 1982, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs stated that "there has been no change in our long-standing position on the issue of sovereignty over Taiwan."
He cited the first paragraph of the Joint Communique of Aug. 17, 1982, in which the US reiterated that it had "acknowledged the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China."
In short, the US has never recognized China's claim over Taiwan. Nor has US policy ever recognized Taiwan as a sovereign country.
US policy has considered Taiwan's status as not yet determined. US policy leaves these questions to be resolved by the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait: peacefully, with the assent of Taiwan's people, and without unilateral changes.
In other words, US policy focuses on the process of resolution of the Taiwan question, not its outcome.
It is not very satisfactory or fair. But if Taipei pushes for a clearer US position on the status of Taiwan, it might be even less satisfied.
Shirley Kan is a policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in Washington. This is a personal commentary.
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