China has a long tradition of fascination with numbers. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) likes to use numbers and lists to communicate with the West, usually followed by the word “no” or “not.”
Before Mao Zedong (毛澤東) would agree to meet with then-US president Richard Nixon, Washington had to commit to Beijing’s “three conditions”: terminating diplomatic relations with Taiwan; ending the Mutual Security Treaty; and withdrawing its military from Taiwan.
In the 1972 Shanghai Communique, China declared its position on Taiwan: “The Chinese Government firmly opposes any activities which aim at the creation of ‘one China, one Taiwan,’ ‘one China, two governments,’ ‘two Chinas,’ and ‘independent Taiwan’ or advocate that ‘the status of Taiwan remains to be determined.’”
The US merely “acknowledged” China’s position and “did not challenge it,” but neither did it endorse it as Beijing wanted.
In the 1979 communique establishing diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the US, Washington again “acknowledged” China’s position, without agreeing with it, that “Taiwan is part of China.”
In the third communique in 1982 regarding arms sales to Taiwan, the US stated: “The United States Government attaches great importance to its relations with China, and reiterates that it has no intention of infringing on Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity, or interfering in China’s internal affairs, or pursuing a policy of ‘two Chinas’ or ‘one China, one Taiwan.’”
However, China was still not satisfied that the US’ commitment to Taiwan had been sufficiently diminished.
During then-US president Bill Clinton’s 1998 visit to China, it pressured him into explicitly declaring the “three no’s”: “We don’t support independence for Taiwan; or ‘two Chinas,’ or ‘one Taiwan, one China.’ And we don’t believe that Taiwan should be a member in any organization for which statehood is a requirement.”
The “three noes” increased in November last year, when US President Joe Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in Bali, Indonesia.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was careful to keep expectations low.
“I don’t think you should look at this meeting as one in which there’s going to be specific deliverables announced,” Sullivan said ahead of the event.
However, there were deliverables from the US side, at least enough to give Beijing more talking points in its false narrative that Washington ever concurred with its “one China” principle.
China’s readout of the meeting increased the numbers ante on prohibitions against conduct Beijing deems unacceptable. The expanded list now included “five noes and four no intentions to”: Respect the PRC system and do not seek to change it; do not seek a “new cold war”; do not seek to oppose China by strengthening alliances; do not support Taiwan independence; and do not advocate “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan.”
The four “no intentions to” were: No intention for conflict with China; no intention to seek “decoupling” from China; no intention to obstruct China’s economic development; and no intention to contain China.
When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Beijing this month, it wanted his affirmation of the “consensus framework” — which it said Biden and Xi had agreed to in Bali — recorded in its “notification document” of Blinken’s discussions. Nothing in Blinken’s account of his five-and-a-half-hour meeting and working dinner with Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang (秦剛), or his 35 minutes with Xi, contradicted Beijing’s account of what Biden supposedly agreed to in Bali and Blinken supposedly confirmed in Beijing.
China can be expected to expand its allegations of bad faith and deal breaking by US presidents.
Biden’s “dictator” remark, accurate though it is, gave Beijing another arrow for its quiver. It can plausibly argue that Biden does not “respect” the PRC’s system and is subversively “seeking to change it.”
That, of course, ought to be US policy, consistent with Nixon’s warning in his 1967 Foreign Affairs article: “The world cannot be safe until China changes.”
Such change is implicit in Biden’s recurrent focus on the existential struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.
The US and the West should stop suggesting that they are indifferent to the nature of Beijing’s communist system and declare it the problem that it is. Rather than the world changing to suit the CCP’s narrow, malign interests, democratic leaders should make a sustained effort to encourage peaceful change in China consistent with the multiple international commitments Beijing has made.
The West could start by borrowing Beijing’s obsession with numbers as guides for what it deems unacceptable behavior, and issue some of its own: No genocide against the Uighurs; no repression of Tibetans; no suppression of Hong Kong’s promised democratic system; no use of force or coercion against Taiwan; no interference with freedom of navigation in the East and South China seas or the Taiwan Strait; no violation of other countries’ sovereign rights in their waters and airspace for spying, military intimidation or other illegal purposes; no construction of artificial islands in international waters and use thereof for military purposes; no interference with Taiwan’s diplomatic and political relations with other countries; no interference in elections in Taiwan, the US or other democracies; no coercing small, poor countries into debt traps that squander their critical natural resources and strategic infrastructure assets; no violation of international commercial rules; no stealing of other countries’ technology; no proliferation of nuclear and missile technology; no economic, diplomatic or other support to countries and organizations that violate international norms, eg, Russia, North Korea and Iran.
The list could go on.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the US secretary of defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia, and was involved in US Department of Defense discussions about the US’ response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.
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