Policymaking is always an art of finding a balance between continuity and change: Governments want to maintain what is perceived as good or beneficial for their respective countries and at the same time make progress in the right direction. Circumstances change and force people, organizations and governments to adapt to the new circumstances.
The US itself is built on the precept of change. The nation was born out of the belief that Americans have the vision, ingenuity and perseverance to make the world a better place. Thus, our policies have always supported change … in the right direction. That is why it is peculiar that in one specific area we cling to the “status quo” — our policy toward Taiwan.
In the 1970s, the US ceased recognizing the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government and established relations with Beijing, but it did not recognize Chinese claims to Taiwan. It said Taiwan’s future needed to be determined peacefully and with the express consent of its people.
This move was designed to buy time. Subsequently the Taiwanese were able to transform their political system into a vibrant democracy, and in the 1990s this new democracy started to aspire to membership in the international family of nations as an equal member. However, the US response was to continue to relegate Taiwan to an unofficial, second-class status.
This international isolation was aggravated in 1998, when then US president Bill Clinton pronounced the “three noes,” one of which was that the US “does not support Taiwan’s membership in international organizations that require statehood.”
While the US had not actively worked in support of Taiwan’s membership in international organizations between 1979 and 1998, it had also not opposed it, and it had certainly not attached the condition “that require statehood.” This new phrase certainly offered an interpretation that a policy change had occurred, since it seemed to alter the US position that Taiwan was “a state with which we do not have diplomatic ties” to “we do not consider Taiwan a state.” The Clinton administration maintained that it had not changed its policy. But it weakened Taiwan’s international position.
Clinton also limited the US position on Taiwan’s future status when he stated that the US “does not support Taiwan independence.” The Chinese spun this to mean that the US “opposed” independence. In fact, the US had been agnostic on the issue, neither supporting nor opposing either independence or unification as long as the process was peaceful and democratic. So Clinton also reduced Taiwan’s options on this point.
All of this is important in view of the references in the US-China Joint Statement issued at the end of US President Barack Obama’s visit to China, in which the two countries “reiterated that the fundamental principle of respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is at the core of the three US-China joint communiques.” The US said this paragraph only referred to Tibet and East Turkestan, but China’s foreign ministry emphatically stated it also referred to Taiwan.
These episodes illustrate how little attention and import the US has given to Taiwan. By clinging to an imaginary “status quo” we have allowed China to whittle away Taiwan’s room for maneuver and consequently our own ability to maneuver. What has been gained by limiting options?
By pretending to maintain stability and the status quo, we have undermined the possibilities for change in the right direction: a furtherance of democratic principles. The US should be pointing to Taiwan as a model for peaceful transition to a system that is designed to endure peaceful transitions of power.
Nat Bellocchi is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan and a special adviser to the Liberty Times Group. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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