It is hard to believe that retired ambassador Saito Masaki, head of the Japan Interchange Association (JIA), Tokyo’s de facto embassy in Taipei, would deliver himself of so profound a “personal” observation as “Taiwan’s status is unsettled” without instructions from his government. With the Taipei government increasingly inclined to define Taiwan as China’s sovereign territory, it’s no wonder Japan is alarmed. Taiwanese themselves should be alarmed. Taiwan’s post-World War II “undetermined” international status, an explicit artifact of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, is after all the metaphysical nucleus of Japan’s relationship with Taiwan.
It is the core precept in the US’ relationship with Taiwan as well. Other countries that signed the treaty, like the UK, Australia and Canada, also share a philosophical appreciation of Taiwan’s "undetermined-ness,” although 58 years later, they don’t necessarily lie abed every night fretting about it. Taiwan’s “undetermined” status does, however, keep Japanese diplomats awake at night — at least the ones dealing with China and Taiwan. It is possible that in his talk at Sun Yat-sen University’s international affairs symposium in Chiayi on May 1, Saito may have slipped from his intended talking point: ie, that Japan “takes no position” on the matter of Taiwan’s international status. This was the alternative position that JIA Chairman Atsushi Hatakenaka proffered in response to the partisan firestorm of indignation that swept the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) last week.
In the eyes of the KMT, it is evidently permissible for the Japanese government to say it “takes no position,” but Japan must not be allowed to explain why. And the “why,” as Saito so impolitely put it, is because Japan’s government believes “Taiwan’s status is undetermined.” A better question is why the KMT cares if the Japanese representative’s statements reflect his government’s views. Surely the KMT remembers that Japan broke relations with the KMT’s “Republic of China” (ROC) in 1972 and instead recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the “sole legal government” of “one China.” But while Japan “respected” China’s claims to Taiwan in 1972, deep down inside, the Japanese government really does consider Taiwan to be a separate entity from the PRC — and calling Taiwan’s status “undetermined” is the only workable way around the issue.
Americans make similar “misstatements,” but not so elegantly or so well thought-out. In August 2007, Dennis Wilder, then US president George W. Bush’s senior Asia adviser, allowed his tongue to slip in a direction just the opposite of Saito’s — but botched it completely: “Taiwan, or the Republic of China,” he stammered, “is not at this point a state in the international community.” He then confused the issue by adding: “The position of the United States government is that the ROC — Republic of China — is an issue undecided, and it has been left undecided, as you know, for many, many years.” Wrong, wrong, and (oh my!) wrong again.
The “Republic of China” does not exist in US eyes. The PRC succeeded the ROC as “China.” As far as the US government is concerned, there is only one China and the PRC is China’s sole legal government. Period. There is nothing “undecided” about the US position on the “ROC” at all, I’m afraid. That’s the essence of the Dec. 16, 1978, Normalization Communique. Wilder, unlike Saito, apparently did not take the time to distinguish mentally between “Taiwan” and the “Republic of China,” otherwise he would have noted that Taiwan — not the “ROC” — was the “undecided issue.”
Moreover, if Wilder had thought about it just a few moments more, he would not have confused Taiwan’s objective status as a “state in the international community” (which it has) with the official US government position-to-take-no-position on Taiwan’s status in the international community. We didn’t hear the KMT complain about Wilder’s gaffe, probably because Chinese nationalists all insist that Taiwan is part of China — regardless of whether that China is the PRC or Wilder’s indeterminate ROC.
Ironically, shortly before Wilder’s infelicitous utterance, Taiwan’s “undetermined” status was restated strongly and authoritatively by US diplomats to UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe, who presumably needed no reminding since he had once served as director of the American Institute in Taiwan.
The US diplomats affirmed several points: that “we take no position on the status of Taiwan. We neither accept nor reject the claim that Taiwan is a part of China”; that, unlike Wilder, “we do not define Taiwan in political terms”; furthermore, that the position that Taiwan is “for all purposes ... an integral part of the PRC ... is not universally held by UN member states, including the United States”; and finally, that the UN Secretariat must “avoid taking sides in a sensitive matter on which UN members have agreed to disagree for over 35 years.” On this last point, the US diplomats threatened that if the UN persisted in “describing Taiwan as a part of the PRC, or on using nomenclature for Taiwan that implies such status, the United States will be obliged to disassociate itself on a national basis from such position.”
Pretty tough stuff — for US diplomats, I mean.
Taiwanese should be comforted. The US government is (still) willing to stick its neck out and remind the UN of Taiwan’s “undetermined” status; and Japan’s ambassador Saito is willing to draw fire to remind the Taiwanese people of their “undetermined” status. They do not engage in this behavior merely for the fun of belaboring the minutiae of international law left over from the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951.
They do it to remind the Taiwanese people that the Chinese civil war is over, and that the communists won. There is no rational excuse for Taiwan’s government to continue the fiction that it is the government of all China, or to pronounce that Taiwan’s interpretation of “one China” is — as President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has postulated — the ROC. To say that the ROC is still the government of all China is nonsense. No one under the age of 70 believes it. Not even Ma himself. He is, nonetheless, the constitutional president of the ROC and he must at least maintain that constitutional fiction for purposes of legitimacy. But he need not overdo it. After all, no one over or under the age of 70 believes that the PRC is the legitimate government of Taiwan.
In the end, a doctrine of Taiwan’s “undetermined” status is the only formulation under international law that might permit Taiwan to exist separately from the PRC. It is the only formula that permits the major democracies of the world — the US, Japan, the UK, Canada and Australia, to name a few — to maintain their support of Taiwan’s democracy in the face of Chinese accusations of “gross interference in China’s domestic affairs.” Saito’s gentle reminder that Japan — at least — still does not recognize China’s sovereign claims to Taiwan was indeed his “personal opinion” — but it is also that of the Japanese government — and the US government as well. Taiwan’s government and ruling party must not make it more difficult for the world’s democracies to support Taiwan than it already is.
John Tkacik is a retired US foreign service officer who had postings in Taipei, Beijing, Hong Kong and Guangzhou. He was chief of China intelligence at the US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the first Clinton administration.
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