How well the U.S. and China can work together into the future will depend largely on American posture toward the most crucial of China’s long-standing political concerns: Taiwan, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. said in Atlanta Friday.
Taiwan is still the “most important and sensitive issue” in a globally vital relationship that derives its political foundation from the U.S.’s one-China policy, Cui Tiankai said during a wide-ranging speech at the Carter Center.
China still considers Taiwan, a self-ruled island with a democratically elected president and legislature, as a wayward province. The two sides split in 1949 after a civil war.
Since early 2017, the Trump administration has rankled China with a range of actions perceived as upsetting the status quo. Shortly after his inauguration, President Trump famously broke precedent by taking a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, then questioned whether the U.S. would remain committed to the one-China policy.
He has gone on to complete arms sales to Taiwan, allowed opening of a $200 million de facto embassy in Taipei and signed a law making it easier for Taiwanese government officials to travel to the U.S.
Mr. Cui suggested that progress on talks to de-escalate the ongoing U.S.-China trade war could be threatened by further moves in support of Taiwan.
On New Year’s Day, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a widely publicized speech on Taiwan, reiterating the long-held Chinese goal of reuniting with the island, by force if necessary, though he set no timeline for action.
Mr. Xi’s message was intended to convey “China’s determination to achieve national reunification and the opposition to any external interference,” Mr. Cui said at the Carter Center. “Future stability of China-U.S. relations will no doubt hinge on how this red line is upheld.”
“Future stability of China-U.S. relations will no doubt hinge on how this red line is upheld.”
A forceful response from President Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan had a galvanizing effect at a time when she faces lukewarm support at home.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Defense reported this week its concern that China’s military buildup is focused on retaking Taiwan and defending against potential U.S. intervention.
President Jimmy Carter was a catalyst in all this historical drama. After President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, Mr. Carter went ahead with the decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan, a U.S. ally, to the People’s Republic of China in 1979.
The 40-year anniversary of that move was the subject of the Carter Center symposium, which attracted prominent China scholars to Atlanta to discuss how to build on the past four decades of collaboration.
Mr. Carter’s move was bold at the time. Opposition to abandoning Taiwan was strong and required both assurances of U.S. protection (see the Taiwan Relations Act) and an exercise in strategic ambiguity.
Starting in the Shanghai communique in 1972, the U.S. acknowledged that there was only one China and that both sides claim Taiwan as a part of it, but it has never held the policy officially that Taiwan is a part of the People’s Republic of China.
Mr. Carter, however, seemed to say that this distinction didn’t come into play until his Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping Dec. 15, 1978, which affirmed the Shanghai communique and added this language:
The Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.
In his Friday speech following the Chinese ambassador, Mr. Carter said the “breakthrough” moment in his talks with Mr. Deng came when the two sides settled the Taiwan issue:
“For many years after [Nixon’s visit], under him and President Ford, we continued to recognized Taiwan as the only China, and I didn’t think that was correct. I had visited China quite early in my life and had grown up with a very deep interest in China.”
“We had a breakthrough when we finally resolved the very difficult issue of Taiwan and China’s relationship with Taiwan. To make a very complicated issue real simple, we agreed that there was only one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. But Deng Xiaoping agreed with me that any resolution of that altercation with Taiwan would be done in a peaceful way.”
Mr. Xi’s new year’s speech was meant to echo Mr. Deng’s message to Taiwan in 1979, which called for both sides to work toward peaceful reunification as China embarked on a path of opening its economy to the outside world.
Shelley Rigger, an expert on Taiwan at Davidson College who was attending the Carter Center forum, said the former president’s statements weren’t wildly off base, but that they didn’t reflect the nuance of U.S. policy since 1972.
“I think it was a kind of a shortcut. Under different circumstances (the remarks) would not be a big deal. Under these circumstances, in this particular venue, they could be problematic in a potentially troubling way,” she told Global Atlanta.
China has taken a harder line on Taiwan since the DPP took power in 2016, poaching its dwindling number of allies and even going so far as to pressure global companies like Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines to list Taiwan as a part of China on their websites.
Dr. Rigger said China is also more wary of Mr. Trump than previous presidents, given the moves he has already made and his general unpredictability.
“With this administration, you just don’t know what they might do. Any movement is a little bit more worrisome for China,” Dr. Rigger said.
Mr. Cui urged both sides to build trust, suggesting “unfounded worries” about China in the U.S. are due to a lack of understanding about both China’s history and present-day goals of “peaceful development.” Collaboration through communication is key, he said.
“When this is done, the possibilities of miscalculation will be greatly reduced. Of course, some self-claimed strategists may still refuse to face the realities. They may still try to sell conspiracy theories of various kinds to the world, perhaps because they themselves are true conspirators. We need to promote cooperation so as to expand common interests and avoid vicious rivalry.”
Vincent Liu, a diplomat representing Taiwan at Atlanta’s Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, said during a discussion with Global Atlanta in September that Taiwan has always aimed to maintain a steady foreign policy even when dealing with tumultuous periods.
He didn’t comment directly on China’s more aggressive diplomatic posture toward Taiwan, but he welcomed the Trump administration’s receptivity, shown by actions like the Taiwan Travel Act.