Taiwan and U.S.-China Relations

Taiwan and U.S.- China Relations

(Please see also the companion article on on U.S.-China Relations Since 1949)

In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power on the Chinese mainland from the Nationalist government and declared the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC). The Nationalist government evacuated the administration of the Republic of China (ROC) , as it was called, to the island province of Taiwan, contesting the power of the CCP on the mainland. The United States and other governments continued for some time to recognize the Republic of China (ROC) as the government of all China. That policy changed in the 1970s.

Geographic note: the Taiwan Strait, a body of water hat is approximately 110 miles wide at its widest point, separates the island of Taiwan from the mainland of China. As a result, relations between China and Taiwan are often referred to a "cross-Strait relations."

On January 1, 1979, the United States and the Peoples' Republic of China (PRC)—hereafter, "China"—established diplomatic relations, almost thirty years after the Communist government came to power in 1949.

  • The process of establishing diplomatic ties with the United States began in February of 1972 when President Nixon visited China. That visit produced "The Shanghai Communiqué," which was an acknowledgement by China and the United States that the two countries faced obstacles to establishing diplomatic relations, but also that they would work toward "normalizing" their relations.
    It was clear," writes one historian, "that the principal obstacle to regular diplomatic relations, to 'normalization' with China, was not the American role in Vietnam [1955-1975], but rather Taiwan."
  • The problem centered on the fact that both China and Taiwan claimed that there is only one China, and that Taiwan is a part of China, but each side also claimed to be the legitimate government of China, with Taiwan using the formal name "Republic of China" (ROC) to express that claim, and China using the formal name "People's Republic of China" (PRC).
  • The PRC objected to the United States having diplomatic relations with both the PRC and the "ROC," here after, "Taiwan,"—because it would mean that the United States believed there were "two Chinas," and not just one China.
  • Further, China demanded that the United States withdraw its troops stationed in Taiwan, but refused to promise that the PRC would not use force to "reunite" the island of Taiwan with the mainland of China, which the United States asked the PRC to promise.

The PRC government believed that the issue of Taiwan was an "internal" problem; it concerned only the Chinese on Taiwan and the Chinese on the Mainland, and the United States should not interfere. In the "Shanghai Communiqué" the United States said that it did not challenge the claim that there was one China but would insist on "a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question."

China's Seat on the UN Security Council:

  • Despite U.S. opposition, but very much in response to U.S.-China détente, the United Nations in 1971 voted for the PRC to replace the ROC in the China seat, which includes a seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
  • Finally in 1979, official U.S. ties with the Republic of China on Taiwan were cut as the U.S. switched its diplomatic recognition to the People's Republic of China on the mainland.

Taiwan Relations Act of the U.S. Congress

Many Americans were upset at what they felt was the "abandonment" of Taiwan, and soon after diplomatic relations were established with the PRC, the U.S. Congress passed the "Taiwan Relations Act."

  • This Act sought to grant Taiwan the same privileges as a sovereign nation, though it was no longer recognized as one;
    • it reiterated the American commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue, and
    • it promised to make available "such defense articles and defense services as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability."
  • Some Americans and members of Congress felt that without a promise by the PRC not to use force against Taiwan, the United States had a moral obligation to help Taiwan protect itself, and also that the credibility of the American strategic position as the guarantor of peace in Asia required this.
  • The PRC government was extremely angry. The issue of Taiwan has continued to be a major obstacle in the PRC's relations with the United States.

Joint Communique of the U.S. and China—1982

In 1982, the United States and the PRC again signed a "joint communiqué" (sometimes referred to as the "the 2nd Shanghai Communiqué") stating that the United States would not sell Taiwan a greater number of weapons than it did before 1979, and that they would not be more sophisticated.

  • But the commitment was premised on progress toward peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue, and the United States refused to commit itself to a date on which it would stop selling weapons to Taiwan.
  • Indeed, arms sales to Taiwan have continued at a robust or even increasing level in both quantity and quality right through 2020.

Throughout the 1980s the PRC's relationship with the United States continued to flourish, as did the U.S. relationship with Taiwan.

The PRC has made many offers to Taiwan to "reunify" with the mainland on the basis of "one country, two systems," a proposal that China claimed would give Taiwan plenty of freedom to maintain its own political, social, and economic systems.

  • Most Taiwanese opposed this solution, fearing that it would give them less security and autonomy than their existing status as a self-governing territory that neither declared independence from China nor unified with it.

Viewpoint of Taiwan

Starting in the mid-1980s, the political system on Taiwan moved dramatically toward becoming a democracy.

  • It held free elections for its legislature every three years starting in 1992 and free presidential elections every four years starting in 1996.
  • As a result of this process both Taiwanese and American policies toward relations between Taiwan and China changed.
  • Fewer and fewer people in Taiwan favored unification with the mainland, and increasing numbers favored independence in the long run, but maintaining the status quo as long as necessary to avoid war with mainland China.
  • Taiwan's leaders sought negotiations to reduce tensions with China so long as the two sides could negotiate as equals, which Chinese negotiators avoided.
  • The United States for its part insisted that any solution to the problem of Taiwan's status must command the assent of the people of Taiwan.

Viewpoint of China

From the point of view of the PRC government in Beijing, the Chinese and American positions represented erosion of its long-standing claim to sovereignty over Taiwan.

  • China responded by threatening Taiwan with missile exercises in the waters around Taiwan during 1995-1996, an episode which led the United States to dispatch two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region as a show of its determination to prevent a Chinese use of force against Taiwan.
  • In 2000, the election of Taiwan's first opposition party candidate, Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), again raised tensions in the region, as China suspected him of intending to accelerate the trend toward asserting a separate Taiwanese sovereignty.
  • While Taiwan changed, the political system on mainland China did not change dramatically.
  • The PRC is reforming its socialist system, but mainly in the economic field and to only a limited degree, and has become more repressive politically, which has made unification with the mainland even more unattractive for citizens of Taiwan.
  • Taiwan and the PRC have established mail, telecommunications, shipping, and air travel links, and Taiwan permits its citizens to travel to the PRC, and allows citizens from the PRC to visit Taiwan.
  • Face-to-face talks between delegates of the two sides have, however, been infrequent and not very productive. Chen Shui-bian's successor as Taiwan's president, Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party, modestly improved relations with the PRC.
  • Taiwanese opinion continued to shift against unification, based on a revulsion against political repression on the mainland.
  • Ma was succeeded by another DPP leader, Tsai Ing-wen, who maintained a "status quo" stance of neither unification nor independence and close ties with the United States.

Status Quo as of 2020

In response to the adverse trend in public opinion on Taiwan, China steadily strengthened its military posture so as to deter an American intervention aimed at protecting Taiwan.

  • Taiwan has responded by hardening its own military posture so that Chinese forces, although much larger and more advanced than Taiwan forces, would have a hard time taking the island militarily.
  • The United States, meanwhile, maintains a stance of "strategic ambiguity" about what it might do in case of a mainland attack on Taiwan.

As the stalemate continues, China's policy-makers in Beijing believe that the residents of Taiwan will eventually have no alternative but to accept Chinese terms for reunification, while most Taiwan residents hope that the PRC will eventually undergo a transition to democracy and then be willing to reach a formula that respects Taiwan's autonomy.

For the current status of Taiwan-U.S.-China relations, consult:

"Shanghai Communiqué" (1972)

Taiwan Relations Act (1979)

The consultant for this unit is Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. His teaching and research interests include Chinese politics and foreign policy, the comparative study of political participation and political culture, and human rights.

Discussion Questions

  1. Using your own words, describe the major obstacle in China establishing diplomatic relations with the United States?
  2. Why did China want the United States to stop selling weapons to Taiwan, and why did the United States refuse to stop selling weapons to Taiwan?

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