For those who are concerned that democratic Taiwan should continue to have the freedom to choose its own future, President Barack Obama’s coming visit to Beijing brings back the memory of a regrettable episode during President Bill Clinton’s visit to China in June 1998.
Early in the spring of that year there were signs that the American government would assure China that the United States would not defend Taiwan if it declared independence. On March 13, Joseph Nye proposed in a Washington Post op-ed the elimination of ambiguity in the American position by stating that the U.S. would not recognize or defend Taiwan, if it were to declare independence.
I argued against such a policy in an op-ed in The Japan Times and directly to Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth in Tokyo when he was accompanying Secretary Madeleine Albright on her way to Beijing for the preparation of the presidential visit.
My argument was as follows: “Suppose Taiwan declared independence and China used force, believing in the American statement of its position, I wonder whether the American public and the Congress would acquiesce in abandoning a free and democratic Taiwan to China. If not, it is tantamount to tricking China into a war. It would be similar to how the Korean War began. The United States declared that South Korea is outside its defense line, but intervened when the North launched an attack, having possibly believed in (the United States’) words.”
I do not know whether my arguments had any influence, but there were no statements about not defending Taiwan then. Then on the eve of the president’s visit, stories began to circulate that the president was going to commit to “three no’s” — that the U.S. would oppose Taiwan independence, a one-China-one-Taiwan policy, and Taiwan’s formal membership in state-based international organizations. Fortunately, there was no mention of the “three no’s” in the joint press conference or in the major policy speech at the Beijing University.
Then the volte-face came. Dropping by in Shanghai, the president declared the three no’s in a dialogue with Chinese intellectuals on a TV show.
Although the U.S. Congress quickly rejected the commitment through resolutions of both houses, China may still view the remark as an official commitment of the U.S. president and may quite likely expect President Obama to reconfirm it.
It is not difficult at all to suspect that there were some disgraceful deals behind the scenes. The date of the visit, to start with, is believed to have been sought by the U.S. to turn attention away from a domestic scandal, and that indebted the U.S. to say the three no’s and bypass Japan and Korea while making the longest trip that Clinton made to a single country. The topics to be discussed during the Shanghai TV interview, which had originally been planned to concentrate on cultural affairs, seemed to have been changed at short notice.
Through the 37-year history of U.S.-China engagement, the U.S. has consistently retreated in the war of semantics on Taiwan. The U.S. has been unable to muster points against the steel wall of one-party dictatorship. They lost inch by inch every time. However, each time, the Americans reassured the public that the U.S. position hadn’t changed.
How deceptively the U.S. position had eroded can be seen in the comments made by President Clinton. He began his remarks on the three no’s by stating that he was reiterating the American policy on Taiwan but not specifying the time of the previous remarks, whether it was during his meetings in Beijing or some unknown time before. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger explained that the U.S. had simply repeated its basic position.
In fact, the U.S. has kept on shifting its position. It started with an admirably objective statement by Henry Kissinger, national security adviser, in 1972. “The U.S. 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.” This was cleverly phrased but would have become obsolete were Taiwan to declare independence. Retreat from this position began in 1983 by denying the intention of pursuing a policy of “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan.”
The word “pursuing” implies planning, working for, and encouraging, but it does not prevent the U.S. from accepting a fait accompli of Taiwan’s independence. However, there is a more clear implication in the term “not support” used during Clinton’s visit of 1998, which is well explained in the editorials of the Washington Post among others: “What is not fine is for the United States at this time to rule out independence or any other option that the Taiwan people eventually might choose.”
The American reassurance to Taiwan at that time was that “not support” does not mean “oppose.” In fact “oppose” is the term coveted by China throughout the Bush administration. China boasts domestically that it has won the commitment from the U.S., but no diplomatic record has yet to testify to such a position.
In the coming visit of President Obama, the best is not to go beyond the three communiques. The bottom line is not to reconfirm the “three no’s,” which are already denied by Congress. Never accept the change from “not support” to “oppose.”
Incidentally, the Japanese government, uncharacteristically perhaps, has never conceded an inch from its stand to “understand and respect the Chinese position” in the past 37 years.
Hisahiko Okazaki is former Japanese ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Thailand. He now runs the Okazaki Institute, a think tank. This article originally appeared in the newsletter (No. 1528) of the American Committees on Foreign Relations.