In the excitement over last week’s Biden-Suga Summit in Washington, it was easy to forget — if you ever knew — that April 28th is the fiftieth anniversary of a momentous but long-forgotten episode in the history of the United States’ public policy toward Taiwan. On that day in 1971, US State Department Spokesman, Charles W. Bray III, approached the lectern in the Department’s press gallery late in the afternoon, to resume where he had broken off earlier in the day to seek clarity on a Taiwan question.
What Taiwan question?
In April, 1971, America was in the thrall of the US Table Tennis Team’s week-long ground-breaking tour of “Red China” and the advent of “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” Newspapers across America were overloaded with speculation that President Nixon might end economic sanctions on Peking. United States ambassador to the United Nations George H.W. Bush was, at the same time, inventing a “two Chinas policy” he hoped would preserve Taiwan’s seat in the General Assembly against a tsunami of Third-World demand for Peking to replace Taiwan in the UN’s “China Seat.” The New York Times published “China” stories every day in April. Across America local newspapers reprinted all the wire-service China copy they could get their hands on. At the State Department on April 28, the question rang: “is Taiwan an obstacle to Washington-Peking detente?”
Diplomatic correspondents who had crammed into the State Department’s press studio that Wednesday noon pestered Mr. Bray particularly about Taiwan’s sovereignty. If President Nixon were to recognize Peking as the “sole legal government of China,” would America perforce be obliged to recognize Peking’s sovereignty over Taiwan?
That morning, Bray, who had spent the bulk of foreign service career as an Africa specialist, did not have specific Taiwan “sovereignty” talking points in his hefty black briefing binder. But he knew one thing: the United States considered Taiwan’s sovereignty to be an “unsettled question.” “Unsettled” is how the State Department had characterized Taiwan’s status to the US Senate a year earlier, he was uncertain of the specifics. At Wednesday’s “Noon Briefing” an obstreperous gaggle of reporters each wanting an angle on the Taiwan issue, each hoping to snag a byline in the next day’s edition with a sexy China story, heckled him for a definitive statement. Bray adjourned the session, promising to return with press guidance.
At 4:15pm Wednesday, he reappeared at the lectern with his talking points, not in final form, but scribbled down in a series of notes he had taken over the preceding several hours.
He spoke crisply: “Let me pick up where I left my considered statement this morning. There were some questions about sovereignty.” Mr. Bray was a courtly professional officer with a rich Princetonian radio-voice that daily chimed with the collective policy authority of the entire US Department of State.
Now armed with a new file of talking points cribbed from both the Legal Advisor’s and China affairs offices, Mr. Bray prefaced his speech: “I was asked specifically why we considered the question of sovereignty to be unsettled when the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China both assert a common position.” His answer: “We consider it unsettled because in the Cairo and Potsdam declarations,” he stopped, reviewed his notes and gathered his thoughts, “let me back up and start all over again.” The Department Spokesman must be absolutely reliable.
He cleared his throat and continued: “I thought I would start with the question of why we thought that sovereignty was an unsettled issue. We consider it unsettled because while in the Cairo and Potsdam declarations the allied powers stated it as their purpose that Taiwan would be part of China, this statement of purpose was never formally implemented, executed — I find it difficult to draw on the proper word.” Alas, Mr. Bray did what he strained not to do, he began to “wing it.” Indeed, the World War II-era “Cairo Declaration” vowed the return of “Formosa” to the “Republic of China.” The return, however, must be ratified by a formal Japan peace treaty. Yet, when it came time to finalize a treaty in 1951 the United States refused to admit Korean War belligerent Red China as party; and Great Britain refused to seat the Nationalist regime in Taipei. Bray neglected to explain the matter of “Formosa’s Sovereignty” was thus postponed — permanently — to some future conference. In fact, when the Soviet Union delegation questioned why the Peace Treaty had not returned “Formosa” to “China” as mandated by the aforementioned “Cairo Declaration”, the State Department “inquired of the Government of the Soviet Union whether it in fact now desires that … Formosa … should be restored to ‘The Republic of China’” as specified in the Cairo document. The USSR did not so desire.
Nonetheless, Mr. Bray caught himself, and resumed reading from his notes: “Now, we regard the Republic of China as exercising legitimate authority over Taiwan and the Pescadores by virtue of the fact” that ROC forces had accepted the surrender of Formosa on behalf of the victorious allies. Turning to one reporter in the audience, Bray added, “And, Pete, to answer your question about why we have relations with a government whose sovereignty may be in question, it is on the basis that the Republic of China exercises legitimate authority on Taiwan and the Pescadores.”
Bray continued: “I was also asked whether we had said before that we regarded the question of sovereignty over Taiwan as an ‘unsettled’ question, and the answer is yes, many times. As nearly as I can tell … the first statement of our position on this was by President Truman on June 27, 1950” with the outbreak of the Korean War: “The determination of the future status of Formosa must await the restoration of security in the Pacific, a peace settlement with Japan, or consideration by the United Nations.” As of 1971, none of those conditions had been met — nor have they in fifty years since. On November 24, 1969, US ambassador to the ROC Walter McConaughy testified to the US Senate: “As Taiwan and the Pescadores are not covered by any existing international disposition, sovereignty over the area is an unsettled question subject to future international resolution.”
Mr. Bray’s April 28 briefing sparked a firestorm in Taipei where President Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) berated a visiting US economic envoy about Bray’s “unsettled” remarks, and “went on at great length without interruption becoming increasingly agitated ... visibly shaking.” “Unsettled” was a most serious affront, a “slap in the face,” the Generalissimo protested. In July, 1971, President Nixon’s national security advisor Henry Kissinger in Peking listened to Chiang’s arch-nemesis premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) grumble, “You ... declared the status of Taiwan was still unsettled. Even up to the present day the spokesman of your State Department still says that this is your position.”
In the half-century since 1971, each successive US president has tried to finesse the issue of Taiwan’s “unsettled” international status, never agreeing to China’s “principle” that “Taiwan is part of China,” but never refuting it. In 1979, President Carter signed the Taiwan Relations Act, which explicitly treats “Taiwan” (defined as “the islands of Taiwan and the Pescadores, the people on those islands … and the governing authorities on Taiwan recognized by the United States as the Republic of China prior to January 1, 1979, and any successor governing authorities”) as it does all other “foreign countries, nations, states, governments, or similar entities.” On July 14, 1982, President Reagan assured Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) that the United States “has not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan.” On July 24, 1982, Assistant Secretary of State John Holdridge repeated, “The United States would not formally recognize China’s sovereignty over Taiwan.” All subsequent presidents held to President Reagan’s assurances. President Trump’s NSC declassified the Reagan assurances and the Biden White House numbers the Reagan “Assurances” as guidance for its China policy.
Before 1971, Taiwan’s “unsettled” international status was a footnote to US policy; the Republic of China was an American treaty ally and held a UN Security Council seat. Since 1971, Taiwan’s “unsettled” status has lurked, quiescent, at the center of America’s “unofficial” relationship. It is a peculiar ambiguity that has enabled Taiwan to cultivate an international identity completely distinct from China for a half century.
Under President Trump, Washington nudged the “unsettled” theme back into public debate as part of the legal basis to refuse “formal recognition of China’s sovereignty over Taiwan.” The Biden Administration seems well-disposed to continue this policy, as do several other major powers including Japan, as well as Britain, Canada, and Australia, also victors in the Pacific War.
But China now squelches open discussion of Taiwan’s “unsettled” status by flooding global media markets with its “One China Principle” and Taiwan, for constitutional reasons, cannot embrace its unsettledness. Yet, Taiwan cannot long survive if world opinion grows ignorant of its “unsettled” status and becomes thoroughly steeped in China’s sovereignty claims. Washington now puzzles how to educate its allies and partners about Taiwan’s “unsettled” backstory, the reasons for it and the necessity to preserve it until Taiwan grows strong enough to settle its international status the old-fashioned way, by voting on it.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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