Has Washington’s Policy Toward Taiwan Crossed the Rubicon?

December 10, 2021 Topic: Taiwan Region: Asia Tags: TaiwanTaiwan CrisisOne China PolicyChinaStrategic Ambiguity

Has Washington’s Policy Toward Taiwan Crossed the Rubicon?

Testimony from officials in the State Department and Defense Department this week included subtle but important shifts in the U.S. policy toward Taiwan.


The ground shifted under Washington’s policy toward Taiwan on December 8, a shift no less seismic for being subtle and semantic. During a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner asserted that Taiwan is “a critical node within the first island chain (in the Western Pacific), anchoring a network of U.S. allies and partners … that is critical to the region’s security and critical to the defense of vital U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific.”

Although his focus was on deterring a Chinese military attack on the island, it is hard not to interpret Ratner’s statement as reflecting a judgment that Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland cannot be allowed under any circumstances. If Taiwan is a critical node and an anchor for U.S. security in the region, it must be kept out of China’s hands. Whether or not it was Ratner’s intention, that was the message received by Beijing, which will recalibrate its strategic plans accordingly.


U.S. policy has been moving slowly but inexorably in this direction for years, through incremental upgrades in the U.S. relationship with Taiwan and incremental reinterpretations of Washington’s “one China” commitments to Beijing. These commitments made possible the establishment of U.S.-China diplomatic relations in 1979. All of this has been routinely explained as “consistent with our one-China policy.” But the substance of that policy has become increasingly indistinct and elusive as time has passed. And Ratner provided a seemingly new rationale for it: After outlining Taiwan’s critical importance, he said it was “for these strategic reasons that this Administration, like those before it, has affirmed our commitment to our one-China policy, as guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint U.S.-PRC Communiques, and the Six Assurances.” When did Taiwan’s strategic importance become the foundation for “our one-China policy?” It was the mainland’s strategic importance that prompted the shift in U.S. diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

Moreover, the Biden administration has appeared to adopt a rhetorical shift in its citation of the founding documents of “our one-China policy,” routinely highlighting and quoting the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, while downplaying or sometimes not even mentioning the Three Communiques. Unlike the TRA, the Three Communiques actually reflect bilateral understandings with Beijing. Apparently, it is necessary to recall briefly what these documents actually say.

The TRA, as we are now frequently reminded, affirms that the United States would “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means ... a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific and of grave concern to the United States.” Accordingly, Washington must “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” However, it is important to note that this has never constituted a U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan. The TRA was originally an adjunct to “our one-China policy,” not its foundation.

The Three Communiques, on the other hand, explicitly address “one China.” In both the Shanghai Communique of 1972 (on the occasion of President Nixon’s famous trip) and the normalization communique of 1979, the United States said it “acknowledges ... the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” Although American acknowledgment did not constitute concurrence, it must be noted that the Shanghai Communique added that “The United States does not challenge that position.” Moreover, and no less important, in the third (“arms sales”) communique of 1982, Washington affirmed that “it has no intention of infringing on Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity, or interfering in China’s internal affairs, or pursuing a policy of ‘two Chinas’ or ‘one China, one Taiwan.’”

A key question today is whether Washington is now drifting toward a “one China, one Taiwan” policy. In addition to characterizing Taiwan as an “anchor” for U.S. security in the Indo-Pacific, Ratner described it as a “successful and prosperous democracy.” Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink, who appeared with Ratner at the Senate hearing, described it as “an important U.S. partner” and “a leading democracy, a technological powerhouse, and a force for good.”

But what is Taiwan, in U.S. policy, with regard to “one China?” Ratner, Kritenbrink, and other Biden administration officials all routinely talk about Taiwan as distinct from China, particularly when they include it in the community of democracies that are arrayed in strategic competition against autocracy, as exemplified by China. If Taiwan is not part of China, or part of the “one China” (in “our one-China policy”), and indeed is part of an international struggle against the People’s Republic of China, how is that not a de facto “one China, one Taiwan” policy?

Washington has asserted (since 1950) that Taiwan’s international legal status remains “undetermined,” and routinely—or at least occasionally—affirms that the United States “does not support Taiwan independence.” But formal independence for Taiwan is not the core issue, especially since Taiwan itself routinely asserts that it is already a sovereign, independent country and thus has no reason to take further steps to formalize it. The core issue is whether Taiwan can achieve permanent separation from the mainland. The significance of Ratner’s statement is that it provides the logic for U.S. support for Taiwan’s permanent separation. Indeed, it argues that this is a strategic imperative for the United States.

Intentionally or otherwise, both Ratner and Kritenbrink obscure this behind their wholly appropriate reaffirmation of Washington’s opposition to forced unification of Taiwan with the mainland. Ratner observed that “leaders in Beijing have never renounced the use of military aggression.” Kritenbrink said “We have publicly and privately urged the PRC to abide by its commitment to peacefully resolve cross-Strait issues.” But no country voluntarily renounces the use of force in defense of its sovereignty claims, and Beijing never made a commitment to peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue. The latter is a myth based on a selective misinterpretation of U.S.-China exchanges dating from the Three Communiques. Beijing never promised anything more than to “strive for a peaceful solution to the Taiwan question,” and Washington said explicitly (in the 1982 communique) that it “understands and appreciates the Chinese policy of striving for a peaceful resolution.” However, on that occasion, President Reagan issued an internal memo noting that the “the U.S. willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of the Taiwan-PRC differences. It should be clearly understood that the linkage between these two matters is a permanent imperative of U.S. foreign policy.” But that was not Beijing’s understanding or its commitment; and thus Reagan’s memo was a unilateral American interpretation.

In any event, the statements by Ratner and Kritenbrink essentially make the case that Washington is opposed to even peaceful unification of Taiwan with the mainland, because the island’s autonomy from Chinese control is critical to vital U.S. interests and regional security. In that regard, Ratner took a major step into the debate over whether Washington should abandon “strategic ambiguity” in favor of “strategic clarity”—publicly affirming a commitment to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack. In an exchange with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, Ratner said it was his “personal view” that “a change in U.S. declaratory policy would not meaningfully strengthen deterrence” against Beijing. But in his formal statement, Ratner nonetheless seemed to approach that line. He later said the Pentagon “remains committed to maintaining the capacity of the United States (invoking the TRA) to resist the resort to force or other forms of coercion that may jeopardize the security of the people of Taiwan. Let me be clear that this is an absolute priority: The PRC is the Department’s pacing challenge and a Taiwan contingency is the pacing scenario. We are modernizing our capabilities, updating U.S. force posture, and developing new operational concepts accordingly.” That may not have been “a change in US declaratory policy,” but it certainly sounded like a determination to defend Taiwan if it is attacked.

Beijing has long assumed that Washington would come to Taiwan’s defense, so Ratner is probably correct that a public U.S. commitment to do so would not strengthen deterrence. On the contrary, Ratner’s statement is likely to reinforce Beijing’s determination to resolve the Taiwan issue by any means necessary, as well as its belief that Washington is opposed to unification in any form.

This new situation requires two things of Washington. The first, as a matter of urgency, must be an effort to supplement deterrence of China with some form of reassurance to Beijing that “our one-China policy” still has substance, and does not include support for Taiwan’s permanent separation from the mainland. This, of course, depends on whether that is actually correct, Washington is ready to offer such an assurance, and Beijing is ready to believe it. The second requirement, less urgent but no less important, is for Washington to contemplate whether there is any conceivable form of reunification between Taiwan and the mainland that would not be deemed inimical to U.S. vital interests and security.