Garbling U.S. Policy Toward Taiwan Poses Risks

By Bonnie Glaser, Senior Fellow with the Freeman Chair for China Studies, CSIS

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, welcomes General Chen Bingde, Chief of Staff of the People's Liberation Army, last week. Defense Department photo in the public domain.

General Chen Bingde, PLA Chief of General Staff, has completed his discussions in Washington D.C. and is touring U.S. military installations. The visit produced some positive outcomes, including expanded U.S.-Chinese cooperation in counter-piracy and planned exercises in the areas of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. It is clear, however, that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan remain a major obstacle to the future expansion of military-to-military relations.

Regarding the discussion of Taiwan during Chen’s visit, I would like to pile on to the excellent points made by Michael Mazza on The American blog. I agree with Mazza that by endorsing “peaceful reunification,” and by suggesting that the TRA might be changed under yet-to-be-determined circumstances, that Mullen sent the wrong signal to Beijing. He inadvertently encouraged China to believe that the U.S. is moving toward adopting Beijing’s “one China” principle: that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inalienable part of that one nation. The catechism of U.S. policy toward Taiwan is carefully formulated and should be memorized by senior U.S. civilian and military officials hosting their Chinese counterparts.

Of course, Mullen is not the first to wrongly characterize U.S. policy toward Taiwan. In 2004 Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that Taiwan was not a sovereign state and the United States supported Taiwan’s peaceful reunification with China. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last June, Secretary of Defense Gates also misstated U.S. policy when he said the provision of defense capability by the U.S. to Taiwan underscored “our continued opposition to independence for Taiwan.” Since the Clinton administration, the U.S. has said that it does “not support Taiwan independence,” but has explicitly avoided expressing “opposition” to independence; rather it has maintained that it leaves the resolution of cross-Strait differences to Taipei and Beijing, insisting only that peaceful means be employed.

As Mazza noted, Mullen’s spokesman later corrected the statement, but the damage was done. Further damage to U.S. credibility was inflicted by Gen. Chen’s misquoting of Secretary Clinton’s private remarks on U.S. policy toward Taiwan. According to Chen, Clinton “reiterated the U.S. policy; that is, there is only one China in the world, and Taiwan is part of China.” Since the signing of the 1982 Shanghai Communiqué, the United States has “acknowledged” China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never recognized that as fact. Fortunately, the Department of State issued a correction the following day, noting that Clinton restated the consistent policy of the U.S. across eight administrations: one China policy, based on the three U.S.-China joint communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).

Mullen’s suggestion that the TRA might need to be changed is worrisome. With its forceful security backing for providing Taiwan with defensive weapons and maintaining robust U.S. military capabilities in the Western Pacific, the TRA is a unique piece of legislation that puts muscle to the U.S. commitment to the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan Strait question.

In addition to his distortion of Clinton’s remarks, Gen. Chen should be upbraided for his insistence that China has no ballistic missiles operationally deployed opposite Taiwan, only “garrison deployment.” Chen may be technically correct. Most if not all of China’s SRBMs are housed at bases and would be “deployed” in a crisis to previously built launch sites. So, technically, perhaps they are not “targeting” Taiwan, but it is truly remarkable that he could make this claim with a straight face when U.S. and Taiwan sources have reported that the number of Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan has exceeded 1,600 and are likely to reach 1,800 next year. Unfortunately, Mullen left this claim go unanswered.

I hope that U.S. officials are making tougher statements privately to their Chinese counterparts than they are making publicly. The message the Obama administration should convey is that the only path to a reduction of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is through Taipei: China must dramatically reduce its military threat to Taiwan and thereby persuade the Taiwan people that they don’t need to bolster their capability to deter and defend against an attack from China. Until then, the U.S. should uphold the TRA and correctly recite the U.S. “one China” policy at every opportunity.

Bonnie S. Glaser

Bonnie S. Glaser

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at CSIS.


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