President Donald Trump’s administration and the US Congress have released major documents and passed key pieces of legislation over the course of time that signal the potential for a shift in the US’ “One China Policy” which has framed US-China-Taiwan relations for decades.
The concept of ‘one China,’ according to my research, has five different interpretations: China has two; the US has two; and Taiwan has one. The US follows a “One China Policy” consisting of two frameworks that contain areas of similarities and differences. The first one is the communiqués framework. It consists of the three joint US-PRC communiqués (1972, 1979, and 1982) and favors US-China relations. The other framework is what I label the “second framework.” It is made up of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the Six Assurances, and Reagan’s Memo on the 1982 Communiqués; and favors US-Taiwan Relations. Although the two frameworks are different because they separately support relations with either China or Taiwan, they share some common denominators.
Both promote the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues. Both oppose China’s use of force to resolve matters with Taiwan. Both want Taiwan and China to not engage in behaviors that disrupt the status quo. Although my research also shows there are several interpretations of the status quo, in this case, the US wants Taiwan to avoid activities that could unilaterally change Taiwan’s current status of de facto independence. For China, it means no use of force and threats to use force against Taiwan to resolve issues.
Generally speaking, in the past, both Republican and Democratic administrations tended to follow a “One China Policy” that neatly shifted between the two frameworks. Democrats favored the communiqués framework, whereas Republicans backed the second framework, particularly the US commitment to Taiwan as expressed in the 1979 TRA because it is domestic law. Both parties however promoted the same status quo policies.
President Trump’s administration prefers the second framework. Its National Security Strategy (NSS) 2017 commits to upholding the “One China Policy,” especially the TRA and the requirement to provide for Taiwan’s “legitimate defense needs and deter coercion.”
Based upon my reading of the NSS 2017, however, Trump’s administration could envision an expanded role for Taiwan that exceeds the limits of the second framework, specifically the TRA and US support for Taiwan’s self-defense and deterrence against aggression.
For example, in the NSS 2017, Taiwan is listed under the category of Indo-Pacific and the sub-category of “Military and Security.” This indicates the administration could envision Taiwan becoming a player in its emerging Indo-Pacific strategy.
The US’ strategy in part involves binding states from Japan to India in what appears to be an active strategy of encirclement of China to contain China’s power. Taiwan, based on its geographic location alone, could play a role in the encirclement plan. This approach would pose a challenge to Chinese sovereignty and territorial claims over Taiwan; and it does come at a time when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on Taiwan holds political power and refuses to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus; this phrase represents not only a commitment to China’s interpretation of the concept of ‘one China’ — the “One China Principle” — but also a rejection of Taiwanese independence.
Furthermore, Japan is set to play a leading role in the Indo-Pacific strategy. Japan has territorial disputes with China. In more recent times, it has somewhat altered the nature and scope of its ties with Taiwan as well as loosened constitutional constraints on its military. Encouraging Japan-Taiwan ties through the Indo-Pacific strategy in particular goes against former President Nixon’s pledge to China not to support bilateral ties between the two. All in all, the Indo-Pacific strategy could be targeting China, tapping Japan to play a leading role, and including Taiwan as an active player.
Integrating Taiwan into the regional security strategy, encouraging Taiwan to assume a military defense strategy that involves other states like Japan (which has territorial disputes with China), and advancing military-to-military ties would only exacerbate Chinese threat perceptions and lead to rising tensions.
The NSS 2017 also puts Taiwan in the sub-category of “Military and Security.” This implies the Trump administration perceives Taiwan as not only a part of the Indo-Pacific defense security strategy but also an important military and security issue within the evolving US-China dynamic.
Against this backdrop, the more recently issued National Defense Strategy (NDS) 2018 provides additional insight into the Trump administration’s perception of the emerging regional security architecture. The NDS 2018 states China is an ascending military power that seeks “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near term.” The Trump administration’s concern about China’s potential regional dominance could drive it to fully incorporate Taiwan into the US’ military defense strategy in the Indo-Pacific and, moreover, use Taiwan as leverage to counter China’s growing presence in the region.
Both the NSS 2017 and the NDS 2018 point to a US China policy that reflects past cold war practices, particularly one that used to involve Taiwan in the US military defense strategy to contain China. If this is the case, the Trump administration is contravening commitments made to China in the three joint communiqués while expanding the limits of the second framework of the US’ “One China Policy.”
Within this context, the US Congress has introduced or passed a series of legislation in support of US-Taiwan relations over the past several months. These include the Taiwan Security Act, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 2018, the Taiwan Travel Act (TTA), and a law requiring the Secretary of State to help Taiwan regain observer status at the World Health Organization. These initiatives aim to bolster US-Taiwan ties in the face of changing US-China bilateral relations. But, at the same time, they signal an intention to expand relations with Taiwan, particularly in the military realm, which, again, goes against commitments made in the communiqués framework and expands the parameters of the second framework.
The Taiwan Security Act, for example, wants to enhance military cooperation and exchanges between the US and Taiwan while the NDAA endeavors to strengthen defense cooperation between them.
Based upon the positions advanced by Trump’s administration in the NSS 2017 and the NDS 2018, it could be argued that the administration (and Congress) could envision an enlarged role for Taiwan in the US’ regional security architecture, which could lead to modifications in the US’ long-standing “One China Policy.” It could push the limits of the second framework, specifically the TRA, which confines US-Taiwan security ties to self-defense and deterrence, to encourage Taiwan to undertake a pro-active defensive role in a US-led regional security arrangement.
The Trump administration and the US Congress approaches to counter China’s ascendency in the region by leveraging Taiwan fall short. Sovereignty and territorial integrity issues are drivers of Chinese threat perceptions and thus play out in US-China relations over Taiwan and in other areas such as the East and South China Seas. Integrating Taiwan into the regional security strategy, encouraging Taiwan to assume a military defense strategy that involves other states like Japan (which has territorial disputes with China), and advancing military-to-military ties would only exacerbate Chinese threat perceptions and lead to rising tensions.
Furthermore, US active support for Taiwan is coming at a time when the DPP aggressively promotes its interpretation of the status quo, which is that Taiwan is an independent and sovereign state. Given the rapidly changing regional security architecture and given the US’s requirement for China’s support on key issues like North Korea and Iran, their plans to potentially alter the US’ “One China Policy,” specifically the military and security dimensions, are not optimal.
Unlike the US, China does not treat Taiwan as an exclusively military and security issue. Their ties are more complicated, encompassing economic, legal, political, and social aspects. In times of tension, like now, China tends to manipulate those elements to compel Taiwan (the DPP in particular) to accept reunification under a modified “one country, two systems” formula, as practiced in Hong Kong and Macau. Currently, Taiwan refuses to submit, so China uses tactics to apply more pressure on Taiwan in hopes of influencing the DPP-led government to embrace the concept of ‘one China’ and in particular the 1992 Consensus.
In response to these changing dynamics, the US needs to uphold all of its commitments made to both China and Taiwan in the communiqué and second frameworks which are the pillars of the US’ “One China Policy.” Aiming to alter the second framework in ways that reflect cold war practices could lead to increased tensions in US-China-Taiwan relations, as well as in the region. Further it could serve as a driver for the gradual erosion of an established diplomatic practice that has held trilateral relations together and kept the peace for decades.