The “six assurances” are alive and well, and have been elevated as a fundamental part of the US’ “one China” policy. Washington is sending a clear strategic signal about strong security cooperation with Taipei. The message includes new moves that reiterate the “assurances” and declassify secret cables to rebut the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) complaints about the Aug. 17, 1982, communique.
The US also clarifies confusion about textual nuances and competing versions of the “assurances,” reiterating the “one China” policy and that it does not recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty.
On the anniversary of the 1982 communique this year, the Chinese embassy in Washington complained about alleged US violations of commitments to gradually reduce arms sales to Taiwan. However, Beijing selectively picks only parts of the mutual understanding, as it has failed to honor its commitment to a peaceful resolution.
The US has not violated the 1982 communique. US President Donald Trump’s approach is consistent with former US president Ronald Reagan’s directions. US commitments have been premised on China’s commitment to peace, but the US has been compelled to adjust its “one China” policy. The changes are in response to China’s increasing threats to Taiwan, as US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell said on Monday at a Heritage Foundation event.
The US government’s fresh approach to its long-standing “one China” policy remains focused on the process of finding a peaceful resolution, Stilwell said, adding that it does not target any outcome concerning Taiwan’s future status. The message serves an underlying objective. The US is bolstering deterrence against Beijing’s belligerence toward Taiwan.
Stilwell also reiterated the “six assurances” that Reagan gave to then-president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) through then-American Institute in Taiwan director James Lilley. On the day of the Heritage Foundation event, the US government also issued two secret cables from 1982 on the “assurances” and arms sales that US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien declassified on July 16.
This is not the first step to declassify the records from 1982. On Aug. 30 last year, as one of his final actions as then-national security adviser, John Bolton declassified Reagan’s secret memo about the 1982 communique.
On Tuesday, a US Department of Defense report to the US Congress said that China’s multidecade military buildup has eroded or negated many of Taiwan’s military advantages toward Beijing. The report also reiterates the US’ “one China” policy, in reference to the US’ Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 and the three US-China communiques.
Nevertheless, this statement seems outdated. After Stilwell’s speech and O’Brien’s declassification of the cables, statements by the US government concerning the “one China” policy’s foundation should also cite the “six assurances.”
This is a an evolution of policy. The “assurances” are not new. I and others have written versions of them. Without explicitly citing them, then-US assistant secretary of State John Holdridge pointed them out in his testimony to the US Congress on the day after the 1982 communique.
For the first time since that congressional hearing, a US official, Stilwell, not only reaffirmed, but also reiterated the “assurances.” The subsequent US release of the texts by the US National Security Council clarifies further confusion.
The US government under former US president Barack Obama conveyed mixed messages. Then-assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell testified at a hearing of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs in October 2011 that the “Taiwan Relations Act plus the so-called ‘six assurances’ and three communiques form the foundation of our overall approach.” Campbell reaffirmed the “assurances” verbally during the hearing, but not all of them, and he did not mention them in his written testimony that he prepared in advance.
In April 2014, then-assistant secretary of state Daniel Russel did not reaffirm the “assurances” in response to US Senator Marco Rubio at a hearing of the US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
What are the “six assurances”? What are issues and misunderstandings about them?
The declassified cable is dated Aug. 17, 1982. Then-US secretary of state George Shultz authorized Lilley to reply to a request by then-vice minister of foreign affairs Fredrick Chien (錢復). However, Lilley had already conveyed Reagan’s “six assurances” a month before, on July 14, in the form of a blind memo with no letterhead or signature to Chien. Thus, the “assurances” predate the 1982 communique. In that context, Reagan assured Taipei that Washington would not abandon Taiwan during secret negotiations with Beijing.
In other words, the issue of Lilley’s message entails whether it is only a historical document or a commitment that bound future US policy — a reading that Taiwan prefers. This issue involves the tenses of the verbs.
The cable confirms the wording of the “assurances.” First, the US has not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan; second, it has not agreed to consult with the PRC on arms sales to Taiwan; third, it will not play any mediation role between Taipei and Beijing; fourth, it has not agreed to revise the TRA; fifth, it has not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan; and sixth, it will not exert pressure on Taiwan to enter into negotiations with the PRC.”
Another issue concerns whether the US has declared a preferred status of Taiwan that involves sovereignty. There have been different versions of the fifth “assurance.” Chien translated his version into Chinese as “the US cannot support the PRC’s position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan.” Some people have claimed another false version using the sovereignty “of” Taiwan (vs. “over”).
The US did not state its position on sovereignty as it relates to Taiwan’s status and did not state that Taiwan has sovereignty. Stilwell’s statement continues this avoidance of a stance on sovereignty.
Should any of the assurances be adjusted to address current conditions? For example, should Congress revise the intent or letter of the TRA in new legislation? This is part of a debate about strategic ambiguity or greater clarity in the US’ commitment to help Taiwan’s defense.
What could be a helpful role for the US in cross-strait dialogue? What are Taiwan’s assurances to the US today? Is Taiwan succeeding or failing to implement and fund its concept for asymmetric warfare in self-defense to improve its “declining defensive advantages,” as the Pentagon reported?
The TRA has allowed ambiguity for Washington to be as clear or flexible as needed. US policymakers are signaling clarity and continuity in the latest deterrent moves.
Shirley Kan is an independent security specialist.
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