It all started innocently enough, with a phone call from Taipei in early December. In the wake of his election victory, Donald Trump was receiving messages from leaders around the world. But one such call — from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen (pictured above) — was different. It was the first time that leaders from the U.S. and Taiwan had spoken directly in nearly four decades.
Since 1979, the United States has managed a complicated policy stance toward Taiwan and the nation that claims sovereignty over it, China. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims that Taiwan is a breakaway province. In order to appease Beijing, every administration since Jimmy Carter’s has rejected formal relations with Taipei, while still maintaining unofficial ties with the island. All sides have maintained the fragile peace with some diplomatic jujitsu. The United States, for example, “acknowledges” China’s position, while not “recognizing” it. So, yeah, in this particularly case, an innocuous 10-minute chat matters.
While Beijing publicly shrugged off the phone call, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appears to be on high alert for any shift in U.S. policy. Just today, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman urged the new administration to “fully understand the high sensitivity of the Taiwan issue.” With relations between the world’s two superpowers looking increasingly shaky under the Trump administration, here is a brief history of a very tenuous diplomatic ménage à trois.
In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and his army fled to Taiwan after being routed by the Communists. Despite his exile, Chiang maintained that his Republic of China was the legitimate government representing the Chinese people, even on the mainland. The U.S. supported him, refusing to recognize the PRC.
The policy began to shift dramatically in the early 1970s, however, when Richard Nixon made his famous trip to China. Seven years later in 1979, Washington formally normalized relations with Beijing. Fundamental to the detente was the termination of diplomatic relations with Taiwan; the two powers issued a joint communiqué that “the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” But while the U.S. adopted a new position denying Taiwanese sovereignty, lawmakers maneuvered to maintain a the relationship with the island. That same year, lawmakers enacted the Taiwan Relations Act, which codified ongoing, albeit unofficial, ties.
America’s ongoing military support for Taiwan, in particular, proved to be a thorny issue. In 1982, United States pledged “that it does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan.” At the same, however, President Ronald Reagan wrote a secret memorandum asserting that a reduction in weapons sales was dependent on the threat posed by the PRC. He also had an American representative in Taipei articulate guidelines for U.S. policy in Taiwan. In what became known as the “Six Assurances,” the Reagan administration stated, among other things, that the U.S. had “not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to the Republic of China.” To this day, the United States continues to arm the Taiwanese government — around $50 billion in sales since 1990 — without officially recognizing it.
While the Americans were trying to manage their relationship with the burgeoning superpower, so too were Taiwan’s leaders. In 1992, the island’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) political party reached a historic diplomatic accord with the CCP. Known as the 1992 Consensus, the agreement affirms that there is only “one China,” while allowing for differing interpretations over who is the legitimate governing authority over it. Although the policy essentially took a hard pass on defining a lasting political solution, it offered the foundation for bilateral guidelines that have remained largely intact.
This principle — and efforts to undermine it — is at the heart of the current spat. Tsai, who took office in May 2016, is more skeptical of Beijing than her KMT predecessor. Her Democratic Progressive Party has traditionally advocated for Taiwan’s formal independence. Although Tsai herself had rejected the Consensus as a starting point for cross-strait relations during a failed presidential bid in 2012, since her inauguration she has pledged to maintain the status quo. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of his call with Tsai, Trump said on Fox News that the United States wouldn’t necessarily be “bound by a one China policy.” If that indeed comes to pass, the administration should be prepared for more than simply a stern statement out of Beijing.
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