The episode surrounding the May 18 joint press conference between US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Chen Bingde (陳炳德) laid bare a major weakness in the formulation of policies toward Taiwan and China.
There, Chen incorrectly quoted US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, saying: “She told me — she reiterated the US policy; that is, there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China.”
Also, when asked whether Taiwan’s security can be safeguarded with US sales of the F-16 fighter planes, Mullen said: “As General Chen said, Secretary Clinton repeated and I would only re-emphasize the United States policy supports a one-China policy. And I certainly share the view of the peaceful reunification of China.”
Both statements required subsequent clarifications.
This is not the first time that such misinterpretations have been made. The most famous was by former US president Bill Clinton in June 1998, when he stated in a speech at Beijing University that US policy was “no obstacle to peaceful reunification of China and Taiwan.”
Other examples are remarks by White House spokesman Mike McCurry in July 1995, who wrongly stated that the US had “accepted” the Chinese position (Taiwan is a part of China) and by then-US secretary of state Colin Powell during a visit to Beijing in October 2004, who reiterated the reunification misnomer.
Why do US policies cause so much confusion? First, perhaps because the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) is now 32 years old, and most of those who drafted this important legislation have passed on. Yet, this is no excuse: The Constitution is more than 200 years old and still gives rise to lively debates. The second reason is that US officials only listen to Beijing, as the US has artificially imposed constraints on contact with Taipei. If the US had high-level face-to-face contact with Taiwan’s elected leaders, it would gain a more balanced perspective.
A third reason is that US policy is not well defined. On April 21, 2004, former US assistant secretary of state James Kelly admitted the difficulty of defining the US’ position on the “one China” policy.
“I’m not sure I very easily could define it,” he said, adding: “I can tell you what it is not. It is not the ‘one China’ principle that Beijing suggests.”
Such confusion can only lead to long-term miscalculations and a hardening of position by authoritarian rulers China.
So, perhaps the US should define it more clearly and state that the “one China” policy means that it only recognizes one government as the real government of China. The question facing Washington in the 1970s was which regime truly represented China. That was resolved by recognizing Beijing.
As far as Taiwan is concerned, the US needs to enunciate a policy that ensures that Taiwanese can determine their own future. Present-day Taiwan is a far cry from the repressive authoritarian “Republic of China” which Washington derecognized in 1979. US policy facilitated the transition to democracy, but at the same it relegated Taiwan to international diplomatic isolation.
Taiwan is now a free and democratic nation and the people are proud of their peaceful transition to democracy and their Taiwanese identity and heritage. So if the US wants to review the TRA, it needs to strengthen it in order to be more supportive of Taiwan’s existence as a free democracy. The US and other democratic nations must be more creative in helping craft a way for Taiwan to find its rightful place in the international family of nations.
Nat Bellocchi served as US ambassador to Botswana and is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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