By Bonnie Glaser & Jacqueline Vitello
Discussions between Presidents Obama and Xi on the margins of the nuclear security summit in The Hague were dominated by pressing issues such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea, persistent use of cyber by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for commercial advantage, North Korea and Iran. Taiwan was likely mentioned only in passing, but it is notable that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs opted to highlight Taiwan in its coverage of the meeting. In what was almost certainly a willful mischaracterization of President Obama’s remarks, a report posted on the MFA website maintains the U.S. president said, “on the Taiwan issue and Tibet-related issues, the U.S. side respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This stance remains unchanged.” The Chinese media is clearly attempting to portray the United States as supporting Beijing’s interpretation of the “one China” policy, which is patently untrue.
First and foremost, U.S. policy differs greatly when it comes to Tibet and Taiwan, and President Obama almost certainly did not lump the two together. With regard to Taiwan, there are several important documents that outline U.S. policy on cross-strait relations, including the three U.S.-PRC Joint Communiques of 1972, 1979, and 1982, under which the United States “acknowledges” but does not endorse Beijing’s “one China” position.
The United States’ long-standing policy on the concept of “one China” has been purposefully vague. Indeed, since the United Nations formally admitted the PRC in 1971, U.S. presidents have — both publicly and in secret — articulated a “one China” policy, but have never recognized the PRC’s claim over Taiwan nor have they recognized Taiwan as a sovereign state. Ambiguity allows the United States to maintain a stable relationship with mainland China and to simultaneously support Taiwan as necessary.
This distortion of Obama’s statements is not the first time that the Chinese have twisted the words of a U.S. president to suggest that the United States recognizes and respects China’s sovereignty over Taiwan. In November 2009, U.S. and Chinese officials negotiated a joint statement, which contained a single paragraph about Taiwan. That paragraph included two sentences that highlighted the long-standing differences in policy between Washington and Beijing on the status of Taiwan. In one sentence, China unilaterally “emphasized that the Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and on the other side of the coin, “the United States stated that it follows its one China policy and abides by the principles of the three U.S.-China joint communiqués.” The United States once again maintained its now standard level of ambiguity in direct discussions regarding the status of Taiwan.
The paragraph that followed in the joint statement began with, “The two countries reiterated that the fundamental principle of respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is at the core of the three U.S.-China Joint Communiqués which guide U.S.-China relations.” According to a U.S. official who cited the joint statement negotiating record, this subsequent paragraph was intended to pertain to Tibet and Xinjiang, not Taiwan. U.S. policy toward Tibet and Xinjiang are in important ways distinct from policy toward Taiwan, and the 2009 joint statement was worded carefully to reflect that distinction. But in the joint press appearance by the two presidents, Hu Jintao wove together these two separate policies in what appeared to be a deliberate effort to distort what had been agreed to. Hu told reporters:
“President Obama on various occasions has reiterated that the U.S. side adheres to the one-China policy, abides by the three Sino-U.S. joint communiqués, and respects China’s sovereignty and the territorial integrity when it comes to the Taiwan question and other matters. The Chinese side appreciates his statements.”
President Obama unquestionably did not state that the United States would respect China’s sovereignty in regard to Taiwan. Like his predecessors, Obama assuredly upheld the long-standing policy of ambiguity regarding the Taiwan’s status–to do anything else would be a reversal of over 40 years of U.S. policy.
China should be rebuked for deliberately distorting President Obama’s words and U.S. policy. As the 35th anniversary of the enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act approaches, a re-statement of the U.S. “one China” policy would be well-timed. The United States recognizes the PRC as the sole legal government but only acknowledges the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China. At the same time, the United States should remind the Chinese that the dispute between Beijing and Taiwan over sovereignty should be worked out peacefully between the two sides of the Strait, not between China and the United States.
Ms. Bonnie S. Glaser is Senior Adviser for Asia within the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. Ms. Jacqueline Vitello is a Research Associate and Program Coordinator with the Freeman Chair in China Studies.
Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at CSIS.