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Congressional Research Service, China/Taiwan: Evolution of the “One China” Policy—Key Statements from Washington, Beijing, and Taipei, June 24, 2011

CRS report by Shirley A. Kan.

June 24, 2011

Executive Summary

Despite apparently consistent statements in four decades, the U.S. “one China” policy concerning Taiwan remains somewhat ambiguous and subject to different interpretations. Apart from questions about what the “one China” policy entails, issues have arisen about whether U.S. Presidents have stated clear positions and have changed or should change policy, affecting U.S. interests in security and democracy. In Part I, this CRS Report, updated as warranted, discusses the “one China” policy since the United States began in 1971 to reach presidential understandings with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government in Beijing. Part II records the evolution of policy as affected by legislation and key statements by Washington, Beijing, and Taipei. Taiwan formally calls itself the Republic of China (ROC), celebrating in 2011 the 100th anniversary of its founding. Policy covers three major issue areas: sovereignty over Taiwan; PRC use of force or coercion against Taiwan; and cross-strait dialogue. The United States recognized the ROC until the end of 1978 and has maintained an official, non-diplomatic relationship with Taiwan after recognition of the PRC in 1979. The United States did not explicitly state the sovereign status of Taiwan in the U.S.-PRC Joint Communiques of 1972, 1979, and 1982. The United States “acknowledged” the “one China” position of both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Since 1971, U.S. Presidents—both secretly and publicly—have articulated a “one China” policy in understandings with the PRC. Congressional oversight has watched for any new agreements and any shift in the U.S. stance closer to that of Beijing’s “one China” principle—on questions of sovereignty, arms sales, or dialogue. Not recognizing the PRC’s claim over Taiwan or Taiwan as a sovereign state, U.S. policy has considered Taiwan’s status as unsettled. With added conditions, U.S. policy leaves the Taiwan question to be resolved by the people on both sides of the strait: a “peaceful resolution” with the assent of Taiwan’s people and without unilateral changes. In short, U.S. policy focuses on the process of resolution of the Taiwan question, not any set outcome.

The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, P.L. 96-8, has governed U.S. policy in the absence of a diplomatic relationship or a defense treaty. The TRA stipulates the expectation that the future of Taiwan “will be determined” by peaceful means. The TRA specifies that it is U.S. policy, among the stipulations: to consider any non-peaceful means to determine Taiwan’s future “a threat” to the peace and security of the Western Pacific and of “grave concern” to the United States; “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character;” and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” jeopardizing the security, or social or economic system of Taiwan’s people. The TRA provides a congressional role in determining security assistance “necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”
President Reagan also offered “Six Assurances” to Taipei in 1982, partly covering arms sales.

Policymakers have continued to face unresolved issues, while the political and strategic context of the policy has changed dramatically since the 1970s. Since the mid-1990s, U.S. interests in the military balance as well as peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait have been challenged by the PRC’s military buildup (particularly in missiles) and coercion, resistance in Taiwan by the Kuomintang (KMT) party to raising defense spending, and moves perceived by Beijing for de jure independence under Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) President Chen Shui-bian (2000- 2008). After May 2008, KMT President Ma Ying-jeou resumed the cross-strait dialogue (after a decade)—beyond seeking detente. With President Obama since 2009, a rhetorical convergence emerged among the three sides about “peaceful development” of cross-strait engagement, but disagreement has remained about the PRC’s opposition to U.S. arms sales for Taiwan’s defense. On June 16, 2011, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing: “Why Taiwan Matters.”

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