Depending on how Taiwan’s status is resolved, US-China relations could range from friendly cooperation to cold war. As China’s military capabilities grow, it will become not only increasingly difficult but also increasingly more important to prevent Beijing from attempting a violent reunification.
Notwithstanding, the main purpose of this paper is to analyze how Sino-US relations have been developed over time, the impact of the Taiwan issue in the core of these relations and the importance of this problem within the rest of the recent developments.
Keywords: Taiwan, China, USA, Invasion, Sino-US Relations
With the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the United States of America (USA) loses its great rival in the international sphere and becomes the world’s unanimous power. However, with the passage of time, a country appears in East Asia capable of standing up to the American hegemons: China.
Following the rapid economic growth of Deng Xiaoping’s China and his “one country, two systems” policy, the Chinese gained a preponderance in the international system never seen before.
Interestingly, the relationship between the United States of America and China has always been marked by competition, especially in terms of trade, but the rivalry goes far beyond that. When it comes to territorial and political issues, the Chinese and Americans tend to broadly disagree.
For Beijing, Taiwan has always been pictured as a domestic issue, so the Chinese government would not accept third party interference in resolving these issues. Conversely, the U.S. has a treaty with Taiwan under which it is stipulated that if the Chinese invade what they consider to be their 23rd province, the U.S. has the legitimacy to intervene and, as a last resort, declare war. It should be noted that formal recognition of Taiwan by the U.S. or a declaration of independence by Taiwan is inconceivable to China.
Sino-US statements on the Taiwan issue
Between 1949 and 1978, the U.S. government maintained relations with the Republic of China, which was then settled in Taiwan, as it always considered it a legitimate part of the government of China. However, in the 1970s, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) came to be seen by the U.S. as a strong setback in the struggle against the Soviet Union, and in order to resolve this situation, a U.S. National Security Advisor traveled to China to negotiate the terms of rapprochement between Beijing and Washington.
In 1972, Washington and Beijing jointly issue the first of three communiqués, in which the White House declares that the U.S. will abandon the narrative in place since 1949 of “One China, one Taiwan,” also announcing that “all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait hold that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China”. Further to this communiqué, the U.S. government states that the resolution of the Taiwan Question should be settled peacefully and negotiated without necessarily implying a unilateral change of the status quo. Nevertheless, the People’s Republic of China states that the independence of Taiwan, as a province of China, is a matter entirely of its own responsibility, and it does not admit the intervention of any other country.
In 1979, the second joint communiqué was issued, in which the U.S. emphasized the recognition of the PRC as the sole and legitimate ruler of China, with Taiwan being only a province. Whereas, this recognition had direct implications on the relations between the U.S. and Taiwan, which became dominated by unofficial representations from Washington.
Apart from this, after the release of the 2nd Joint Communiqué between China and the U.S., in 1979, the U.S. Congress approved the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) which allowed Washington to supply defense material to Taipei and also committed, albeit implicitly, to prevent any attempt by China to reintegrate Taiwan into its territory through the use of force. Additionally, on August 17, 1982, the third joint communiqué was released, which focused essentially on the sale of arms by the United States to Taiwan, where it was clear that the United States would only provide the Taiwanese government with weapons defensive in nature. Indeed, the TRA is the result of a bipartisan proposal in Congress in order to avoid a U.S. commitment to Taiwan depending exclusively on an executive agreement which, as we know, being conceived solely by the authority of the head of the executive branch, in this case the President, and without any opinion from the Senate, would have no legislative force.
Furthermore, the United States-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty, formally the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the United States of America and the Republic of China (ROC), is a treaty between the United States and Taiwan, effective from March 3, 1955 to December 31, 1979. Comprising 10 items, it concerns, in particular, military aid in the event of an attack on the territory of either signatory, essentially preventing the People’s Republic of China from retaking Taiwan during the years 1955 to 1979.
Moreover, the Taiwan Policy Review (TRP) was published in September 1994 by the State Department and presented a revision to the guidelines provided for unofficial relations between Washington and Taipei. In this agreement it was stated that the basic structure of U.S. policies towards the PRC and Taiwan remained unchanged, highlighting how this policy has been efficiently maintained.
Meanwhile, with the death of the then president Chiang Ching-kuo, he was succeeded by Lee Theng-hui, who was until then vice-president. Lee’s intentions to lead Taiwan to a new phase in the international conjuncture were clear — and quite evident in his attempt to rejoin the UN. Later, in 1991, he proposed to Beijing a new interpretation of the narrative that existed until then, that there was only one China. This new interpretation was motivated and based on the idea that there are, in fact, two political entities with distinct jurisdictions, but united by a common cultural heritage and past.
It should be noted how the granting of the visa to the then Taiwanese president contributed to create a climate of instability, since during his trip, Lee Theng-hui talked about Taiwan’s political achievements in order to state that it was making great strides towards democratic consolidation. Further, in one of his speeches, Lee also called for greater recognition of the Republic of China on the international stage, both by States and by International Organizations.
As expected, the Beijing government did not take these statements positively and, at the end of the Taiwanese president’s trip to the United States, demanded a fourth joint communiqué from the United States in which it committed not to grant visas to any entity that proposed to represent Taiwan and clarify its position towards this territory. However, this request was rejected by the White House.
Between July 1995 and March 1996, the People’s Republic of China first conducted a series of military exercises in the Taiwan Strait — prompted by the Taiwanese President’s trip to the United States in 1995. This trip cultivated in China the certainty that this would be the culmination of the “independence actions” carried out since the political opening of the island in 1991.
As a result, the U.S. government sent two escorted aircraft carriers to the vicinity of Taiwan in 1996 in response to exercises conducted by China, which resulted in heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing.
United States of America-China
Beijing’s strategic importance, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, suffered a strong shock. With the resuming deterioration of US-China relations, sharply accentuated by the well known massacre in Tiananmen Square, the shock culminated in the U.S. Embargo on the arms they once made available to Beijing. This resulted in a turn, on the part of the White House, in favor of Taiwan.
Currently, China is the great rival power of the United States and, after the breakup of the USSR and the decline of Russia, became a superpower and began to try to dominate the world, always competing with the Americans — the People’s Republic of China is seen as the only great power that can challenge the dominance of the United States.
In recent years, this Sino-American rivalry has been mainly commercial and, after the 2008 crisis, trade tensions increased due to U.S. deficits with China against a background of low growth in the US economy.
Since 1992, China’s exports have grown at an annual rate of 18%, more than double the growth rate of world exports, and continue to grow at higher rates than any other economy. While the People’s Republic of China ranked first in exports in merchandise trade in 2019, the U.S. was in second place. However, when it came to imports in that same merchandise trade, it already reached first place and China was in second place — for services trade, the U.S. led the table in both imports and exports.
Under the Obama administration, the U.S. tried to extend cooperation and friendship between the two economies, but with the election of former President Donald Trump, these attempts at rapprochement have been in vain.
In fact, with March 2018, Donald Trump, announced a heavy list of tariffs on imports from China, and in response, the Chinese government imposed tariffs on more than 128 American products, including soybeans, a major American export to China. This trade war has also focused heavily on technology, as seen with the banning of Huawei products in the U.S. and the constant pressure from U.S. officials to boycott Huawei technology in other countries.
Taiwan is yet another aggravating factor in this “toxic relationship” between Americans and Chinese.
The potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan
Following the “Taiwan Relations Act” of 1979, a U.S. domestic law designed to intervene in Taiwan’s affairs that states that if the Chinese invade what they consider to be their 23rd province, the U.S. will declare war against them and leave only a caveat for possible voluntary integration of the island.
In early August 2022, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi made an official visit to Taiwan, despite the fact that the People’s Republic of China has warned the Americans about the consequences of this visit.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives stated that the visit was “one of several Congressional delegations to Taiwan — and in no way contradicts American diplomacy guided by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979” and further added that “the United States continues to oppose unilateral efforts to change this ‘status quo’”. Furthermore, the United States seeks peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and continues to “oppose unilateral changes in the status quo by either side,” U.S. President Joe Biden told the U.N. General Assembly.
China considered that Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan demonstrates an “extremely dangerous” attitude on the part of the United States. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it strongly condemns this visit, which “ignored Beijing’s stern warnings” and “sends the wrong signals” to “separatist forces seeking Taiwan independence.”
In October 2022, Admiral Mike Gilday, a top figure in the U.S. Navy, warned that the U.S .military must be prepared for the possibility of an invasion of Taiwan before 2024 and, in the same month, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry reported a series of new incursions into the territory’s air and sea space by Chinese People’s Liberation Army planes and ships, confirming incursions by nearly 20 Chinese planes and three ships — Taiwan responded by deploying its own planes and ships. Ultimately, the Chinese invasion of Taiwan is being increasingly considered, and given this, Taiwan is preparing for this possible Chinese invasion by turning shopping malls and subway stations into shelters.
Also, at the G20 meeting, the summit was preceded by a bilateral meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the first time the two had met since Biden became president. Even though there were few tangible results, it was a positive meeting after relations between the superpowers plunged to near record lows in early 2022. Both sides said that while the three-hour meeting featured major differences, especially over Taiwan, trade restrictions and technology transfers, the two agreed to keep communications open and avoid confrontation.
The White Paper released by China
Over the past 5,000 years, China has created a splendid culture that has shone throughout the world from ancient times to the present and has made an enormous contribution to human society. After a century of suffering and hardship, the nation has overcome humiliation, emerged from backwardness, and embraced limitless opportunities for development — it is now moving towards the goal of national rejuvenation.
On August 10, 2022, the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council and the Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China published an official document, a white paper, entitled “The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era”, their first white paper on Taiwan since Xi Jinping came to power, refusing to rule out force in order to unify and blame the island’s ruling party, which seeks independence, for exacerbating the conflict with Beijing.
The paper, which stated China “will tolerate no foreign interference in Taiwan,” comes days after China held unprecedented military drills around the island in the wake of a visit to Taipei by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Even so, this is not the first document to clarify the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) position on the island. A first document from 1993 proposes a return to Chinese rule under the “one country, two systems” model, allowing the territory’s social and political systems to be preserved. The next document, dated 2000, guarantees that “everything” could be negotiated as long as the independence issue is definitively closed. In both policy documents, China pledges not to send troops or administrative personnel to settle in Taiwan.
The new white paper, the first to be issued during Xi Jinping’s rule, is more assertive in its ambitions for reunification. “This new white paper is being released to reiterate the fact that Taiwan is part of China, to demonstrate the resolve of the CCP and the Chinese people and their commitment to national reunification, and to emphasize the position and policies of the CCP and the Chinese government in the new era.” it is contextualized, in an introductory note — the multiple references to a “new era,” including in the title, are idiosyncratic to Xi Jinping’s government.
Beijing assures that reunification will be peaceful, but that it will not hesitate to combat separatist activities by resorting to the “last resort” — the use of military force. The warning is left to Taiwanese separatist movements, but also to “external forces that have been trying to exploit Taiwan in order to contain China”.
The final chapter outlines a “bright outlook” from the reunification of the territories, with the promise of social and economic development and respect for the “rights and interests” of the Taiwanese people. Collaboration between China and Taiwan, the document reads, will only make the Chinese nation “stronger and more prosperous,” in a scenario of undisputed hegemony before “all the nations of the world”.
Chinese military movements near Taiwan
Taiwan is essentially an internal Chinese issue, however, in a strategic context it is extremely complex and thus an international crisis arises.
It should be noted that Taiwan has been acquiring high-tech weaponry from the United States of America. Primarily, it had maritime, air and landing ban superiority as its policy, which later evolved into high surveillance of the enemy in crossing the strait and attacking ships and aircraft.
In August 2022, eleven Chinese military aircraft crossed the Taiwan Strait and some of them managed to enter its air defense zone. The event occurred hours before the U.S. Congressional delegation landed in Taiwan, at a time when the Chinese capital is maintaining its war activities around the territory, which China says is a rebel region. After this event, Beijing intensified its military maneuvers around the region that lasted for almost a week.
Following the assumption set forth by the U.S. in United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China, “The United States will continue to maintain strong unofficial relations with Taiwan in accordance with our “One China” policy, based on the Taiwan Relations Act and the three joint communiqués between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.” Thus, in accordance with President Ronald Reagan’s (1982) memorandum stating “that the quantity and quality of the arms provided Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC,” the U.S. will be able to contribute and strengthen its unofficial support to Taiwan by carrying forward what was discussed in President Barack Obama’s first term.
The recent congress of Xi Jinping’s communist party
Xi Jinping acquired the third term as secretary-general of the CCP and with the new Central Committee an amendment to its magna carta was approved, elevating Xi Jinping as the leader of China in which it was written that any criticism of his directives will be considered a direct affront to the Party.
Indeed, by being elected for another term the Chinese president broke the two-term limit that was instituted to prevent excesses of absolute power that marked the reign of Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, who ruled for 27 years. Moreover, Xi Jinping decreed that the revision “sets clear requirements to command and strengthen the Party’s leadership”, also saying that the Party will be able to “create new and greater miracles”.
The Chinese leader during his speech to the delegates of the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party conveyed a warning on the Taiwan issue, prompted by the visit of the Washington delegation to the island and the U.S. perseverance to defend Taiwan in case of attack: the “Taiwan issue is a matter of the Chinese people and should be resolved by the Chinese people alone”. Xi Jinping added that China will make efforts for the conflict to be resolved peacefully, however the possibility of using force will never be put aside. “Reunification” is the word used in connection with Xi Jinping’s intention regarding the former island of Taiwan, which is somewhat incorrect, as Taiwan has never been under direct Chinese control since the creation of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong in 1949, the same year that the Republic of China (aka Taiwan) was proclaimed by the defeated forces of the Chinese civil war.
The Sino-US rivalry, growing after the dissolution of the USSR, and especially after the Third Strait Crisis, definitely marks the international system of our days. Henceforth, although both Americans and Chinese usually try to make the bilateral relations between the countries peaceful, as could be seen in the meeting of their leaders at the recent G20 Summit, the truth is that the bond between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China has been marked by discord, in addition to fierce competition.
Indeed, both intend to maintain their position on Taiwan and refuse to change, even going so far as to state that China will not tolerate foreign interference on the island which they consider to be the 23rd province and that, as a last resort, will not rule out the use of force. The U.S., on the other hand, in the event of a Chinese invasion of the former Taiwan Island, will also not hesitate to mobilize to protect the island and enforce its “Taiwan Relations Act.” At the same time, the island of Taiwan knows that it can count on unconditional American support, something made clear by the visit of U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi.
Evidently, there is a growing hint in the international community of a possible future Chinese invasion of the island of Taiwan. However, this is only conjecture, and it is clear that with the conflict in Ukraine, Taiwan increasingly fears this possibility.
Marshall, T. (2017). Prisioneiros da Geografia – Dez Mapas que lhe Revelam Tudo o que Precisa de Saber Sobre Política Internacional. Desassossego.
“China’s First White Paper on Taiwan since Xi Came to Power — in Full.” Bloomberg.com, 10 Aug. 2022, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-08-10/china-s-first-white-paper-on-taiwan-since-xi-came-to-power-in-full#xj4y7vzkg
David M. Lampton, Same Bed Different Dreams: Managing U.S.-China Relations 1989-2000 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001).
See Departure Statement by AIT Chairman Richard C. Bush, CKS International Airport, July 25, 1999, http://usinfo.state.gov/regional/ea/uschina/bush725.htm.
Bernice Lee, ibid. Miro Cernetig, “China Warns Taiwan: Start Talking or Face War,” February 22, 2000, www.globeandmail.com.
Stanley O. Roth, “The Taiwan Relations Act at Twenty and Beyond.” presented at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington, D.C., March 24, 1999.
Richard C. Bush. “United States Policy Toward Taiwan” (American Foreign Policy Interests, vol. 22, no. 3, June 2000).
Ross, R. S. (2002). Navigating the Taiwan Strait: Deterrence, Escalation Dominance, and U.S.-China Relations.