Senior US Defense Official Reaffirms Reagan’s Assurances to Taiwan
As China intensifies its pressure campaign against Taiwan, the Trump Administration reaffirmed US commitment to Taiwan’s defense and security. At an international conference focused on cross-Strait relations held in Washington DC, US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Security Affairs, Randall Schriver, confirmed President Ronald Reagan’s assurances to Taiwan as a cornerstone of US policy towards the island. In his wide-ranging speech that covered Taiwan’s role as a “valuable partner” in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy to US-China relations, the senior defense official stated that US policy towards Taiwan is based on the “Taiwan Relations Act, Six Assurances, [and] other foundational documents, and we [the United States] will continue to honor those and implement those in a consistent way.”
The first set and most famously known assurances, which were delivered in 1982 by the Director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Director James R. Lilley, had six key elements:
(1) “… [w]e did not agree to set a date certain for ending arms sales to Taiwan”;
(2) “… [w]e see no mediation role for the United States” between Taiwan and the PRC;
(3) “… [n]or will we attempt to exert pressure on Taiwan to enter into negotiations with the PRC”;
(4) “… [t]here has been no change in our longstanding position on the issue of sovereignty over Taiwan”;
(5) “[w]e have no plans to seek” revisions to the Taiwan Relations Act; and
(6) the August 17 Communiqué “should not be read to imply that we have agreed to engage in prior consultations with Beijing on arms sales to Taiwan.”
The Six Assurances, as it became known, is not law and is non-binding on the Executive branch. Yet, it has been a long-standing declaratory statement of policy made by successive administrations to affirm its intention on how it will conduct policy towards the Taiwan Strait. Whether the Executive branch is committed to adhering to the Six Assurances had become a contentious issue at Congressional hearings on Taiwan policy, especially in the previous administration. Noting its intermittent absence in official policy statements, the US House of Representatives introduced H. Con. Res. 88, and in 2016 the US Senate unanimously passed concurrent resolution S. Con. Res. 38 that “affirms that the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances are both cornerstones of United States relations with Taiwan.”
While the importance of the Six Assurances as a guide for Taiwan policy cannot be understated in this uncertain environment, the full weight of President Reagan’s assurances must be read in its totality with two other “non-papers” conveyed on July 26, 1982, and August 17, 1982. These “non-papers,” include the core connotation “that any resolution of these [cross-Strait] issues be accomplished peacefully” and committed that the United States “will do nothing to jeopardize the ability of the people of Taiwan to deal with this matter in their own way.” Most importantly, that any further concessions to Beijing must be “predicated on one thing: that is, that the PRC will continue to advocate only to use peaceful means to settle the Taiwan issue.”
It is within this context that the significance of Reagan’s Assurances and its reaffirmation made by a senior Pentagon official in the Trump Administration come to light. To be sure, some US scholars have recommended for the US government to rescind the Six Assurances in order to reach a modus vivendi with China. To this point, albeit indirectly, Schriver emphasized that the administration wanted US-China relations to be based on a “foundation of objective reality.” This statement tracks with the extraordinarily clear assessment made by the deputy assistant director at CIA’s East Asia mission center, Michael Collins, at another recent conference, in which the CIA official stated: “The Chinese fundamentally seek to replace the United States as the leading power in the world … [by] this rising China, under this leadership, directed by this Communist Party of China … I would argue … that what they’re waging against us is fundamentally a cold war—a cold war not like we saw during the Cold War, but a cold war by definition.”
While warning Beijing that its recent actions are inconsistent with its commitment to resolving the cross-Strait dispute by peaceful means, Schriver noted—consistent with Reagan’s assurances—that China can impact things if they behave in a more constructive and peaceful way. The assistant secretary made clear that “[s]o much of what we [the United States] will do is based on what the PRC does, and what the PLA does in terms of that relationship …. [a]s China increases its pressure, increases their capabilities, put systems across the Taiwan Strait, that will impact … how we approach the security assistance relationship with Taiwan.” In response to a reporter’s question about the heightened chance of miscalculation and conflict between the United States and China in the Taiwan Strait, the assistant secretary replied: “What would be most helpful is if China renounced the use of force [against Taiwan], and began to pull back the military means they are using to intimidate and coerce the people of Taiwan, and that would be a great step to reduce risk and the chance of accident or conflict.” The Trump Administration appears to be taking President Reagan’s lead on Taiwan policy.
The main point: Against the backdrop of China’s intensifying pressure campaign against Taiwan, the Trump Administration’s affirmed President Reagan’s assurances to Taiwan.
The Tsai Administration Commits to Maintaining “Status Quo” in the Taiwan Strait
The new minister of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC)—a cabinet-level agency in charge of implementing the Tsai Ing-wen administration’s cross-Strait policy—was in Washington DC last week to meet with senior US officials and the policy community to discuss relations across the Taiwan Strait. To be sure, the cross-Strait situation has changed considerably in the three years since a MAC minister last visited the nation’s capital back in 2015. As part of his visit, MAC Minister Chen Ming-tong (陳明通) delivered a public speech on July 18 near Capitol Hill that re-emphasized the Tsai Administration’s intent to maintain the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait.
Specifically, Minister Chen stated that the Tsai administration’s position on cross-Strait relations remains “in accordance with the ROC Constitution, the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, and other relevant legislation. She [President Tsai] has also respected the historical fact of the cross-Strait talks in 1992.” The senior Taiwanese official’s reaffirmation of the government’s consistent line in cross-Strait policy comes amid growing pressure on the Tsai administration, both internally and externally, from the opposition as well as from more hardline elements within her own party, and as China intensifies its pressure campaign against Taiwan. The minister sought US support to “convey to the Mainland the importance of maintaining the status quo, peace, and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and urge the Mainland to be rational, show goodwill, and stop affecting security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region by unilaterally undermining the cross-Strait status quo.”
On the same day of the minister’s public speech, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began conducting live-fire exercises in the East China Sea, which lasted through July 23, in an area that was reportedly similar in size to Taiwan. According to the hawkish Chinese tabloid Global Times, which is affiliated with the Party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily, the exercise is intended to send a strong warning to “Taiwan separatists.” A Chinese defense commentator cited in the article stated that “[t]he PLA Air Force and Navy have been frequently conducting island encirclement exercises. The drill this time will add up and form a military deterrence of high pressure against the Taiwan separatists.”
Despite the Tsai administration’s appeal for peace, Minister Chen noted that “the ROC will never relinquish sovereignty in exchange for an illusory peace. Nor will the 23 million people of democratic Taiwan ever allow their destiny to be decided under the non-democratic system of the other side.” A statement that appeared to be a veiled critique of the conciliatory policies of the previous Ma administration towards China, even as Chinese military capabilities and threat continued to grow under its watch.
The MAC minister’s commitment to maintain the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait was reinforced by Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in an interview with CNN, in which Foreign Minister Joseph Wu stated that “[w]e [Taiwan] want to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait … By itself, Taiwan exists outside China, Taiwan exists by itself, so there’s no need for Taiwan to go beyond what it is right now.” Contrary to the assessments of some analysts who see the United States as unreliable or believe that US support for Taiwan is provoking China at Taipei’s peril, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister stated: “What we are concerned about is that the US does not support Taiwan anymore,” he said. “If the security ties between Taiwan and the US are getting stronger and strengthening our ties, then that would become a barrier for the Chinese to think about future military scenarios against Taiwan,” Foreign Minister Wu added.
Not mincing words, Minister Chen pointed out that “Beijing’s long denial of the existence of the ROC has prevented resolution of the political impasse across the Taiwan Strait.” This statement echoes President Tsai’s previous call on Beijing “to face up to the reality that the Republic of China exists.” As noted in a recent congressional testimony by former Pentagon official and executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, Lt. Col. (ret.) Mark Stokes: “The objective reality is that Taiwan, under its current ROC constitution, exists as an independent, sovereign state. In 1979, the US withdrew diplomatic recognition. The shift in recognition was and is a matter of policy and political expediency. The ROC (Taiwan) did not cease to exist.”
The MAC minister’s visit to DC coincided with a large bi-partisan delegation of lawmakers visiting from Taiwan. However, this flurry of engagements between Taiwan and its most important security partner the United States occurred on the heels of another high-profile meeting between former KMT chairman Lien Chan (連戰) and CCP Chairman Xi Jinping that took place in Beijing on July 13. In a meeting that some analysts described as striking a more moderate tone, Xi stated that “We [the CPP] have the confidence and ability to keep a firm hold on the correct direction, work for the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations, and advance the process toward the peaceful reunification of China.” The timing of the meeting appears to suggest that Xi may be seeking to prop up the KMT as its only counterpart for cross-Strait dialogue as high-level governmental exchanges between the ruling DPP and the CCP remain frozen.
According to China Network Television, Xi issued four “unwavering” (堅定不移) promises: 1) unwavering adherence to the so-called “1992 consensus” and opposition to Taiwan independence; 2) unwavering expansion and deepening of cross-Strait exchanges; 3) unwavering work for the benefit of compatriots on both sides of the Strait; and 4) unwavering efforts to unite the compatriots on both sides of the Strait to work together for national rejuvenation.
The main point: Despite facing growing pressure both internally and externally, the Tsai administration has recommitted to maintaining the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait.