Following then-US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s statement on Nov. 14 last year that “Taiwan has not been a part of China,” it was surprising to hear US National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell say on July 6 that the US does not support Taiwanese independence.
How do these views hang together?
Furthermore, what is the relationship between these views and bills to protect Taiwan — which come close to establishing Taiwan-US diplomatic relations — that the administration of US president Joe Biden is introducing in Congress?
To understand the issue, it is necessary to go back to the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty.
Specifically, the treaty did not specify who had sovereignty over Taiwan and Penghu after Japan’s renunciation following its defeat in World War II.
However, after 70 years of peace in the western Pacific, the rise of China has rapidly increased pressure to define that sovereignty.
A look at Pompeo’s and Campbell’s statements in the context of the 1951 document being a legal framework shows that rather than being antagonistic, both statements uphold the original status of the treaty.
First, as the treaty does not state to whom Taiwan and Penghu belong, saying that Taiwan is not part of China is factual.
Second, whether Taiwan should be independent, unified with China or otherwise are all options for the territorial status of Taiwan and Penghu, and a matter of what one advocates “ought” to be.
The White House, on behalf of Allied forces from the war, maintains an impartial regulatory role: It should support neither independence nor unification.
Third, the US bills that protect Taiwan reflect the US’ treaty obligations.
Faced with Beijing’s repeated declarations of its willingness to resolve the Taiwan Strait issue with the use of force, the White House has not only emphasized its position, but has also used frequent military exercises with friendly nations to make it clear to Beijing that Washington seeks to avoid war, while not being afraid to defend Taiwan without thinking twice about fulfilling its treaty obligations.
Taiwan, including Penghu, was not automatically given to the local residents when Japan signed the treaty. If Taiwan’s status is to change from being territory renounced by Japan to becoming a sovereign state, self-determination must be authorized under the treaty’s framework. The right of self-determination, although guaranteed by the UN Charter and other declarations, is not a naturally given right, but one that comes through a legal process requiring recognition in accordance with international conventions.
According to the treaty, the residents of Taiwan must petition the representative of the Allied forces — the White House — to obtain that right.
According to late Australian academic James Crawford, a former judge at the International Court of Justice, the key to the legal establishment of a sovereign state is not the declaration of independence, nor is it about changing names and writing a constitution. Rather, it is a matter of obtaining authorization.
When the US says that it does not support Taiwanese independence, that means that until its status has been determined, Taiwan and Penghu — as well as islands in the South China Sea — are autonomous territories under the jurisdiction of a democratically elected government, indefinitely protected by the US on behalf of the Allied forces.
If residents of Kinmen and Matsu want to hold a referendum on their status, the White House is in no position to interfere, as that falls beyond the treaty’s scope and jurisdiction.
Joshua Tin is an economist.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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