Ned Price, spokesperson of the United States Department of State, is a Twitter influencer at the exalted “celebrity/macro” rank. So, even though it was well after working hours on Friday evening, May 20, 2022 — as Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepared for President Biden’s first presidential trip to Asia — Ned Price was sure of an audience as he “tweeted” the following message:
“The PRC continues to publicly misrepresent U.S. policy. The United States does not subscribe to the PRC’s ‘one China principle’ — we remain committed to our longstanding, bipartisan one China policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, Three Joint Communiques, and Six Assurances.”
A few days later, at the conclusion of President Biden’s Asian journey, Mr. Price was back before the cameras at the State Department to declaim “Our policy towards Taiwan has not changed at all.” He continued, “our ‘one China’ policy” embraces “our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and “our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.” Note, of course, that there is no mention of “one China” in this policy.
A few journalists in Mr. Price’s audience were perplexed. “You tweeted just a couple days prior to this that Beijing is misrepresenting the US position on ‘one China,’ on the ‘one China’ principle,” one asked, “does the United States agree with the Chinese interpretation of it?”
Mr. Price drew a deep breath. One sensed that he, like so many State Department spokespersons before him over the past half-century, felt the matter was too complicated to offer a clear explanation.
“The Chinese,” he asserted, have “frequently attempted to misrepresent our policy in their briefings and statements from senior PRC officials.”
“Let me just give you one example of that,” Price said. “The English version of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs readout of the call between our National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) on May 18th incorrectly stated that, quote, ‘The US pursues the “one China” principle.’ Beijing’s — and this is important — ‘one China’ principle is not the same as our ‘one China’ policy.”
Then he gave another example: “In a May 12th press briefing, the PRC spokesperson stated that we [i.e. the United States] had made a quote/unquote ‘commitment to uphold the “one China” principle.’ That is also not correct.”
Mr. Price stated for the record, “We are committed to upholding our ‘one China’ policy, which, again, is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three US Joint China Communiques, and the Six Assurances. The PRC statements attempt to mischaracterize our position and our policy.”
For anyone still unclear about “our ‘one China’” this was unhelpful. Price stressed, “our longstanding — longstanding,” (repeating “longstanding” for emphasis) “our ... longstanding bipartisan ‘one China’ policy has not changed. These are policy issues of enormous sensitivity, and we are, I think, appropriately careful and precise with our language, and we urge the PRC to cease its mischaracterization of US policy and statements from senior US officials.”
One reporter countered, “well, the problem with that is that — you’re quibbling with the word ‘principle’ instead of ‘policy’?”
Checking his notes, Price repeated; “It is — it has a different meaning.” At last, one veteran diplomatic correspondent pleaded, “So, what’s your understanding of the difference between a one-China ‘principle’ and one-China ‘policy’?”
Cornered, Mr. Price re-checked his briefing notes, “We have heard from the PRC that there are so-called commitments under what they call the one-China ‘principle’ that are distinct from our one-China ‘policy.’ And again—” He thumbed his loose-leaf binder, “We abide by, ‘our one-China policy.’ It is a policy that, as we have said, is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three US-China Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances.”
The rest of the exchange was inconclusive. But Mr. Price’s tentative responses echoed a similar exchange on April 21, 2004, in congressional testimony by then-assistant secretary of state James Kelly: “Can the evolution of full-fledged democracy on Taiwan and the clear emergence of a sense of Taiwanese identity meld with the principle of ‘One China,’ or are they in stark contrast with each other?”
Secretary Kelly’s answer was apophatic: “The definition of ‘One China’ is something that we could go on for much too long for this event. In my testimony, I made the point ‘our One China,’ and I didn’t really define it, and I’m not sure I very easily could define it. I can tell you what it is not. It is not the ‘One-China policy’ or the ‘One-China principle’ that Beijing suggests, and it may not be the definition that some would have in Taiwan.”
This “policy” vs. “principle” debate hinges on Taiwan’s “unsettled” status, but since Nixon’s gracious promise in 1972 to avoid certain “trigger words”, “unsettled” is a term not uttered in polite company. The fact remains, “our one-China policy” against China’s “one-China principle” centers on “sovereignty” over Taiwan. The position of the United States is that this is an issue left explicitly unanswered at the conclusion of World War II and remains unanswered today.
US-China relations have rested upon agreement-to-disagree: “America pretends to have a ‘one China policy’ and China pretends to have a ‘policy of striving for a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question.’” As long as China pretends to have a “peaceful resolution” policy, the United States would pretend to have a “one China policy.” But for the past decade, China has dropped its pretense of “peaceful” unification. And accordingly, the United States is resurrecting its stance that “Taiwan’s international status is unsettled.”
Beijing has picked up on this. On February 28, China’s most senior diplomat, foreign minister Wang Yi (王毅), delivered an eighteen-minute elegy on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the “Shanghai Communique” — an anniversary that, as I wrote in these pages at the time, was ignored by the State Department.
For Minister Wang, the “Shanghai Communique” was not really about relations between the United States and China. Rather, Wang insisted, “the Taiwan Question was the ‘core issue’ in the Shanghai Communique, and the ‘one China Principle’ is the cornerstone of China-US relations.”
Wang then recited his version of World War II-era declarations which, he averred, establish China’s territorial claim to Taiwan. He went on to blame the “Chinese Civil War” and American “interference” for “prolonged political antagonism” over the question of China’s territorial integrity. But, he rejoiced, in 1972 US President Richard Nixon “agreed to acknowledge that there is only one China in the world, and Taiwan is part of China,” and that the United States “would not repeat the phrase that the status of Taiwan is unsettled.”
Wang was careful not to claim that, in 1972, Nixon abjured all allegiance to Taiwan’s “unsettled” international status, only that the American president “had agreed not to repeat the phrase.”
Minister Wang also treated his audience to a uniquely Chinese exegesis of each of the three US-China joint communiques and of American “acknowledgments” therein to China’s claims to Taiwan. Alas, Wang mourned, despite solemn commitments, the United States shortly afterwards “enacted the so-called ‘Taiwan Relations Act’ in 1979 and covertly pieced together the so-called ‘Six Assurances’ to Taiwan” in 1982. Such acts, Wang charged, not only violated American promises, but they also conflict with “United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758 of 1971” which, he asserted controversially, establishes in international law that Taiwan is part of China.
Hence, Wang concluded, the Taiwan Relations Act and the “Six Assurances” were “illegal and void from the very beginning”; they are “unilateral” policies of the United States and “the United States shall not place its domestic legislation above international law.” Wang employed weirdly Strangelovian allusion in his exhortation that the United States “stop draining the One China Principle of its essence and hollowing it out.” [trans: 停止虛化掏空一個中國原則].
America’s “draining and hollowing out” of China’s “principle” has been central to US-China normalization from Day One. The 1979 “Taiwan Relations Act” and President Reagan’s 1982 “Six Assurances,” and indeed every other US statement on China Policy, have enshrined the linkage of “peace in the Taiwan Strait” and “our one China Policy” as a “permanent imperative of US foreign policy.”
Without this understanding there could have been no “normalization” in 1978.
It is unsettling that the illusions of US-China relations are dissolving. As China abandons its pretense of a “fundamental policy of peaceful unification,” the United States will abandon “acknowledgment of China’s position” that Taiwan is part of China. This will not end well. The question in Washington is: should the US drop the pretense now, or wait for things to get worse?
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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