The US must end its dangerous policy of ambiguity on Taiwan 

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When Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with his Chinese counterpart, Dong Jun, in Singapore late last month, he was treated to the usual litany of preemptive Beijing complaints alleging hostile U.S. intentions — “containment,” “encirclement” etc. — and U.S. bad faith by failing to honor the “one China principle.” Such charges have been repeated so often and so relentlessly that many Americans and others have come to accept them as historical fact. 

Whether China’s professions of injured sensitivities are feigned or authentic depends on whether the communist leaders believe their own propaganda.  

The bad-faith charge stems from the seminal document co-authored by Henry Kissinger and Zhou En-lai, the Shanghai Communiqué, the original sin of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations. Attempting to bridge the longstanding chasm between the Chinese and U.S. positions on Taiwan, Kissinger utilized what he, President Nixon, and many others considered “brilliant” wordsmithing.  

In the Joint Communique, China emphatically stated its position on Taiwan: “[T]he Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government of China; Taiwan is a province of China; which has long been returned to the motherland. … 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.” Over the last half-century, that language became encapsulated in Beijing’s “one China principle.”  

Kissinger apparently took no issue with China’s misstatement of history that Taiwan “has long been returned to the motherland.” In fact, after its surrender ending World War II in the Pacific, Imperial Japan, which had held Taiwan as a colony since 1895, simply relinquished its own claim to Taiwan without designating which country now exercised sovereignty over the island. 

In the face of China’s unambiguous declaration, the U.S. side mildly stated: “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves. With this prospect in mind, it affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan. In the meantime, it will progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes.” The shorthand for the U.S. formulation is our “one China policy,” which Beijing routinely conflates with its own position.  

As a former Harvard professor perfectly fluent in English notwithstanding his background as a German immigrant, Kissinger surely knew that the term “acknowledge” has several meanings. 

Its first definition is “to admit to be real or true.” Beijing immediately accepted that meaning as expressing America’s agreement with China’s position. The second dictionary definition of “acknowledge” is “to express recognition or realization of.” That is the bottom-line view Washington has espoused over the decades — that it simply took note of China’s position without concurring in it. But Beijing and much of the world are not buying the semantics. 

Last week, President Biden was asked for the fifth time in the last two years whether the United States would defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack. On the first four occasions he answered unequivocally in the affirmative, only to have White House and State Department officials rush to dilute the message by saying there was “no change in U.S. policy” — without explaining what the policy is. 

This time, Biden did not state an ironclad commitment to directly defend Taiwan, only that he is “not ruling out using U.S. military force.” So far, no administration official has walked back Biden’s more equivocal statement. 

Given his 40-year record of foreign policy mistakes, from the first Gulf War to Afghanistan and Ukraine, China is justified in believing that when push comes to shove and it makes its overt move against Taiwan, Joe Biden will back down. His well-advertised fear of triggering World War III reflects the intellectual and moral paralysis that continues to inhibit his administration from giving Ukraine what it needs to defeat Russia. 

But as former Indo-Pacific Commander Harry Harris said last week, “Strategic ambiguity has had its day and it’s time to move to strategic clarity.”  

It was not the first time Harris has urged strengthening deterrence against Chinese adventurism. While serving as U.S. ambassador to South Korea in September 2021, he said “We should reconsider … our longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity.” 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken missed an opportunity to affirm an important public message to China when he met recently with Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Washington. Wang said the relationship required both countries to “behave in a way that is consistent with the provisions of the three China-U.S. joint communiques, international law and basic norms of international relations, and consistent with the climate of the times.” 

According to public reporting on the meeting, Blinken did not point out that China’s threatening behavior is not consistent with anything in that statement, including the three communiques in which the U.S. repeatedly states its position that Taiwan’s fate must be decided peacefully.  

Nor did Blinken invoke the Taiwan Relations Act requiring the U.S. to provide Taiwan with weapons to defend itself and for the U.S. to “maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion.” Also neglected is the TRA language stating that U.S. recognition of the PRC itself “rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.” 

To put U.S.-China relations on a sounder footing, the U.S. has a lot of clarifying to do with Beijing — and doing it, as Wang said, “consistent with the climate of the times.” Taiwan is now a vibrant, full-fledged democracy where the people rule, and they repeatedly choose freedom over tyranny. America must help defend that freedom. 

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.  

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