President Donald Trump will be hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping for a two-day visit on April 6-7 at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. As speculation boils over what will be discussed at the first-ever Sino-American summit of the new Trump Administration, there has been a flurry of rumors that a fourth communique may be in the works.
A fourth communique has long been a goal of Beijing, which views the previous three communiques as the gospel upon which to base US-Chinese relations on the unsettled issue of Taiwan. Beijing, naturally, chooses to ignore the Congressionally-mandated Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and President Reagan’s Six Assurances as being essential elements in the formulation of US policy toward Taiwan.
None of the three previous communiques proved particularly auspicious for Taiwan, the US’s traditional ally and global partner. The first, known as the “Shanghai Communique” and signed in 1972, has been viewed by many as a game changer since it ended two decades of isolation and hostility between Washington and Beijing following the Korean War. Henry Kissinger noted in his best-selling work, On China, that “normally communiques have a short shelf life. They define a mood rather than a direction. This was not the case with the communique that summed up Nixon’s visit to Beijing.” Kissinger goes on to describe the at-times contentious and delicate deliberations over the Taiwan issue that went into the drafting of the Shanghai Communique, which he negotiated with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) before President Nixon ever set foot in China. Kissinger notes in his memoir that, “principle and pragmatism thus existing in ambiguous equilibrium, Qiao Guanhua (喬冠華) and I drafted the last remaining section of the Shanghai Communique. The key passage was only one paragraph, but it took two nearly all-night sessions to produce.”
The key language included: “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.” The Shanghai Communique, the formulator of the so-called “One-China” policy, is thus often cited as effectively taking the “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan” solutions off of the table. As Taiwan has evolved in the decades since into a prosperous democracy with a growing sense of an identity apart from China, this first communique appears to represent a limitation on future possibilities.
January 1, 1979, the day President Jimmy Carter signed the second communique, normalizing diplomatic relations with the PRC and cutting off diplomatic relations with Taiwan, is still remembered as a dark day in Taipei. It immediately triggered a bipartisan Congressional effort to reaffirm an American commitment to the people of Taiwan. This led just three months later, in April 1979, to the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The TRA codified vigorous, continuing, unofficial commercial and cultural relations between the people of Taiwan and the US. The TRA also provided for the provision of “defense articles and defense services” from the US to ensure Taiwan could “maintain a sufficient self-defense capability,” and considered any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means a “grave concern” to the United States.
The third communique, energetically put forward in 1982 by Kissinger protégé, Secretary of State Al Haig, indicated the intent of the United States to gradually decrease arms sales to Taiwan. Its issuance required an almost immediate course correction, in which President Ronald Reagan sent the Six Assurances to Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo in July 1982. These assurances included steadfast commitments that “the United States would not mediate between Taiwan and China” and that “the United States would not formally recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan.” The Senate and the House both passed resolutions reaffirming the Six Assurances during the 114th Congress in 2016.
Beijing may be seeking a fourth communique as an intricate part of the increased assertiveness it has displayed in a number of regional territorial disputes, including maritime issues in the vicinity of Taiwan. Additionally, President Xi Jinping has adopted a far more impatient demeanor on the Taiwan question that will likely put it on the agenda when Chinese leaders hold discussions with the Americans.
Xi has previously verbalized hardline views about Taiwan. The South China Morning Postquoted Xi as stating that China’s Communist Party would be overthrown by the people if it failed to properly deal with Taiwanese pro-independence. Xi also reportedly stated that, “from the position of Chinese people’s nationalism, 1.3 billion people on the mainland would not agree to Taiwan’s formal independence.” In addition, China may work to amend its “Anti-Secession Law,” which was issued in 2005 and legalizes the use of force if Taiwan crossed certain red-lines it defines.
Furthermore, noted Hong Kong journalist Willy Lam reported in 2015 that, following the historic meeting of then Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou with Xi Jinping in Singapore, Xi may have a shorter timetable on Taiwan than was previously believed. Lam wrote that, “Xi, who is likely to remain China’s top ruler until the 21st Party Congress in 2027, hopes that at the very least, ‘political and reunification talks with the Taiwan leadership’ will have begun well before he leaves the scene.” Xi’s goal, then, in pursuing a possible fourth communique with the Trump Administration, may be to seek to win American acquiescence in an eventual “one country, two systems” solution or in another political accommodation on Taiwan. This would be doing what Secretary Tillerson said would never happen at his Senate confirmation hearing: treating the people of Taiwan as a “bargaining chip” as President Trump seeks the “art of the deal” with Xi on a number of contentious issues like trade and North Korea. Any such bargaining would, of course, involve a clear violation of Reagan’s Six Assurances and the “grave concern” clause of the Taiwan Relations Act.
In Chinese, the number four is considered unlucky because it is pronounced similarly to the word for “death.”The United States already has three communiques with Beijing, which have not been to the advantage of America’s old friends in Taiwan. A fourth communique is not only unnecessary but would be counterproductive, and perhaps dangerous, at this delicate stage of shifting power balances in the East Asian region.
The main point: A fourth communique has long been a goal of Beijing, however, any such bargaining could involve a clear violation of Reagan’s Six Assurances and the “grave concern” clause of the Taiwan Relations Act.
 Henry Kissinger, On China (London: Penguin Books, 2012), 267.
 Ibid, 271.