On Thursday last week, the US Department of State updated its online “US-Taiwan Relationship” fact sheet. Given the amount of substantive and symbolic developments in this bilateral relationship over the past few years, it was long overdue. While the new language does not reflect an official change in US policy, it demonstrates how far Washington has come in publicly expressing support for Taiwan and challenging Beijing’s preferred narrative. The update follows a string of statements and actions from US President Joe Biden’s administration hitting on those two issues.
The most notable change is the removal of the sentence “The United States does not support Taiwan independence.” The tweaks reflect a more positive spin on that issue, stating now: “The United States has a longstanding one China policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three US-China Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances. Though the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, we have a robust unofficial relationship as well as an abiding interest in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” The US stance on Taiwan’s independence has not changed since it is imbedded within the US’ “one China” policy, but removing that sentence is significant.
Last year, Biden made an unclear statement about Taiwanese independence when he said: “I said that they have to decide — Taiwan, not us. We are not encouraging independence... Let them make up their mind. Period.” Biden’s answer about independence caused confusion and with the changes to the State Department’s Web page, his statements are sure to continue to be hotly debated. After all, there is a stark difference between the US not “supporting” independence, the US not “encouraging” independence and telling Taiwan that it is up to them to “make up their mind.” Each of those statements has very different meanings and possible interpretations.
However, taking that sentence out of the fact sheet sends a clear message to China. It is a challenge to Beijing, whose governmental officials purposefully misconstrue other countries’ policies regarding Taiwan. Beijing uses its “one China” principle as a stand-in for all countries’ policies relating to Taiwan. The US’ new language shows the difference between its own “policy” and Beijing’s “principle.” The word “principle” does not appear anywhere on the fact sheet.
On the same day that the State Department updated the page, US Department of Defense spokesman John Kirby corrected Beijing for switching “principle” for “policy” in an official readout of a call between US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chinese Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe (魏鳳和) two weeks prior on April 20.
“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] Ministry of National Defense published a readout of their own which erroneously claimed that the United States adheres to the one China principle. The secretary did not say this; rather, Secretary Austin made clear that the United States remains committed to our one China policy as enumerated in the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances,” Kirby said.
Kirby’s correction is taken almost verbatim from the State Department’s tweaks from the same day. If it was not clear before, it is clear now that the US does not abide by Beijing’s statements, policies and principles when it comes to Taiwan.
Given the interval between the call between Austin and Wei on April 20 and Kirby’s correction and the State Department’s update on Thursday last week, it seems like the US’ intention was to put Beijing on notice. The Biden administration is taking a stand for Beijing’s constant misconstruing of the US’ “one China” policy and the PRC’s “one China” principle.
After Kirby’s public protest, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense fixed its English-language readout, swapping out “principle” for “policy.”
After the changes to the fact sheet were picked up on Twitter by American Foreign Policy Council fellow Michael Sobolik, Beijing responded to the new language. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) lambasted it.
“The US has made solemn commitments on the Taiwan question and the one China principle in the three China-US Joint Communiques. The US’ latest modification of the fact sheet is a trick to obscure and write off the one China principle,” Zhao said.
Zhao’s comments — which again incorrectly claim that the US follows Beijing’s “one China” principle — are the precise reason why the new language was needed. As Washington has never made “solemn commitments” to the one China principle, it can easily “write off” a policy that it does not hold. After all, it is the Biden administration, not Zhao, that decides official US policy.
The new language clarifies the often-confusing and vague US position on Taiwan and how it relates to China, as well as stops Beijing from framing the narrative around the “one China” principle. The only way to prevent officials like Zhao from falsely stating US policy is to have pages like this that contradict the Chinese position and have US officials like John Kirby use his podium to call out purposeful Chinese errors.
The last notable change to fact sheet is the characterization of Taiwan and the bilateral relationship. The old version only stated in dry diplomatese the various elements and history of the US-Taiwan relationship. The new version moves beyond that dry language to rationalize why the US has this unique relationship with Taiwan.
Before, there was no reason or logic provided as to why the US supported the existence of Taiwan and sold it defense weapons. The new version characterizes Taiwan “as a leading democracy and technological powerhouse,” saying that the two parties “share similar values, deep commercial and economic links, and strong people-to-people ties.”
If those statements were not enough, the update also explains Taiwan’s economic importance: “Taiwan has become an important US partner in trade and investment, health, semiconductor and other critical supply chains, investment screening, science and technology, education and advancing democratic values.”
Now, if someone curious about not only the US policy toward Taiwan, but also the rationale for the relationship wants to learn more, these two paragraphs on the State Department’s Web site bring a level of clarity to an otherwise extremely complicated bilateral relationship. The spirit of the language changes, and the flip toward a more positive explanation of the relationship was long overdue and reflects the reality of the US-Taiwan relationship now.
Thomas Shattuck is the Global Order Program manager at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, and a member of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Foreign Policy Initiative and the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program. The author is grateful to Lauren Anderson for comments on an earlier draft.
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