Away: The Clinton Administration’s Taiwan Policy
U.S. President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China initiated a series
of changes in relationship between the United States, China and Taiwan.
By 1979, the United States had completed a policy shift that transferred
U.S. diplomatic recognition from Taiwan, a traditional American ally, to China,
a communist nation useful in containing the Soviet Union.
Presidents Nixon and Carter justified this move by arguing that
Taiwan’s authoritarian government was not particularly attractive to the
United States and that America, even without recognizing Taiwan, could provide
adequate security guarantees to the island.
By 1993 however, the situation had changed.
China’s leaders, in the years following Operation Desert Storm, began
an era of rapid military expansion and modernization, and U.S. defense experts
began to speculate whether or not the United States was giving Taiwan adequate
diplomatic and military support.
Taiwan’s government, in an
extended process of liberalization, further complicated the issue for U.S.
policy makers. By 1996, Taiwan had
produced a full-fledged democracy, confusing American foreign policy priorities
and making past U.S. policies more difficult to employ.
Despite these developments, U.S.
President Bill Clinton, recognizing America’s long-standing policy of
strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan, emphasized peaceful relations
between mainland China and Taiwan and chose not to deal with Taiwan’s growing
diplomatic and military problems. Such
a stance implied an endorsement of the Chinese position.
Most importantly, in the aftermath of the dramatic 1996 showdown between
China and the United States in the Taiwan strait, the Clinton administration
appeared prepared to provide diplomatic cover for the Chinese position on the
Taiwan question and therefore marginalized Taiwan’s democracy.
By the end of the Clinton administration, protection of that democratic
regime had become less important than keeping the leaders of mainland China
satisfied that the United States would not offer overt support to the Taiwanese
In 1993, the Clinton administration was faced with a decision: would it
maintain the status quo’s strategic ambiguity and pretend to have no opinion
on any of the developments between Taiwan and China, or would it begin to
express some preference for the emerging democracy on the island trying to
escape the long shadow of the mainland? Adhering
strictly to a principle of peaceful resolution, the Clinton administration began
its eight years in office hoping to continue the stable status quo enjoyed by
the previous two presidents. By the
end of Clinton’s first term, however, it was clear that China and Taiwan no
longer fit into the old policy framework.
Clinton’s Foreign Policy Grand Strategy
Taipei might have been inspired by the rhetoric that initially came from
the Clinton foreign policy team. In
September 1993, Clinton and his assistant for national security affairs Anthony
Lake used two separate speeches to outline the new president’s foreign policy
strategy. The new speeches were
particularly important because they outlined the foreign policy priorities of
the first administration to be in office entirely outside of the Cold War. President Clinton, recognizing this fact when he addressed the
United Nations General Assembly on September 27, pledged to the world that
America would not cease to be a force for democratic change in the post-Cold War
In a new era of peril and opportunity, our overriding concern must be to
expand and strengthen the world’s community of market-based democracies.
During the Cold War, we sought to contain a threat to survival of free
institutions. Now we seek to
enlarge the circle of nations that live under those free institutions, for our
dream is of a day when the opinions and energies of every person in the world
will be given full expression in a world of thriving democracies that cooperate
with each other and live in peace.
days earlier, Lake had outlined the foundation of Clinton’s foreign policy
strategy in an address to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International
Studies. Lake discussed changing American foreign policy strategy from
one that contained threats to democratic governments to one that enlarged the
world’s community of democratic regimes.
Lake offered four specific components to this strategy.
First, we should strengthen the community of major market democracies
– including our own – which constitutes the core from which enlargement is
proceeding. Second, we should help
foster and consolidate new democracies and market economies, where possible,
especially in states of special significance and opportunity.
Third, we must counter the aggression – and support the liberalization
– of states hostile to democracy and markets.
Fourth, we need to pursue our humanitarian agenda not only by providing
aid but also by working to help democracy and market economics take root in
regions of greatest humanitarian concern.
the statements by Clinton and Lake indicated an American willingness to affirm
democracy from one corner of the globe to another.
These ambitious statements from Clinton and Lake came in contrast to a
small foreign policy budget which suggested that the United States was preparing
to pull itself back from the front of the world stage.
According to some analysts, such a retreat entailed “defending fewer
countries, doling out less foreign assistance and focusing more on consolidating
national power than on shaping the international environment.”
In short, Taiwan, unable to rely on speeches and soundbites, would have
to wait for concrete signs of support from the Clinton administration.
During the presidential campaign, Clinton had taken a strong stand
against mainland China – another encouraging sign for Taipei.
Despite Bush’s 1992 sale of F-16 fighters to Taiwan, then Governor
Clinton criticized Bush for “coddling” China, especially in the wake of the
Tiananmen Square incident, and pledged to hold Beijing to a higher standard in
his administration. However,
Clinton administration officials quickly concluded, as had earlier Bush
administration officials, that engaging China was preferable to a policy of
isolation. Consequently, in May of
1994, Clinton delinked human rights from Most Favored Nations trading status
with China, bringing his own policy in line with the previous administration’s
heavily criticized Chinese policy. This
continued engagement pleased China but did little to solve specific problems,
including the Taiwan issue. Indeed,
the Clinton administration quickly adopted the policies of the Reagan and Bush
administrations with regard to Taiwan, but the changing situation across the
strait made those same policies much more difficult to maintain.
Congress, on the other hand, did not allow the Taiwan issue to be
subordinated to other Sino-American concerns.
Many members of Congress and the general public believed that U.S. policy
was long out of date.
Taiwan Policy Review
In 1994, in an effort to update American policy toward Taiwan, Congress
mandated that the administration conduct what became known as the Taiwan Policy
Review. Winston Lord, Assistant
Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, explained the results of this process
to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Lord testified that the United States needed a balanced
relationship with both China and Taiwan and argued for continuity in a policy
pursued by several successive administrations.
Lord outlined the changes in U.S. policy that resulted in the Review,
which included the ability “to send high level officials from U.S. economic
and technical agencies to visit Taiwan,” and the establishment of an economic
dialogue with Taiwan. The name of
Taiwan’s office in Washington DC was also changed as a result of the review.
But, while Lord contended that the changes were significant, few
observers thought the Review made any fundamental changes in American policy. China characteristically protested the move as a U.S. step
toward Taiwan, but did so in a notably quiet fashion.
For its part, Taiwan voiced disappointment that the changes did not go
far enough to address what it viewed as problems in the relationship between the
U.S. and Taiwan. Business leaders in the United States who recognized the economic
potential of Taiwan’s economy in East Asia were displeased with the policy
review, as were a collection of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Democratic Senator Paul Simon, an ally of Taiwan, decried Clinton’s
policy conclusions, saying that the administration had missed an important
opportunity to revise long out-dated policies.
James Lilley, former U.S. Ambassador to China, effectively voiced his
displeasure in a statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he
Unfortunately for Taiwan – a country that has made significant
progress in its democratization and economic development within the world
community – U.S. policy has not changed under President Clinton, whereas under
President Carter, Reagan and Bush, significant progress was made.
In my opinion, the recent U.S. policy adjustments toward Taiwan do not
change our relations except for a minor name change.
In fact, I would even say that, in some respects, it is a step backwards
– indicating that some people, as far as democracy is concerned, are more
equal than others, to paraphrase George Orwell.
short, the Clinton administration chose not to establish a new policy framework
that reflected the new realities of
Taiwanese democracy and Chinese hegemony across the Taiwan strait.
In fairness to Clinton’s policymakers, Taiwan had not yet completed its
democratic transition and the full extent of China’s military expansion and
the resulting security implications for Taiwan were not yet readily apparent.
However, there were indications that the Clinton administration was
changing Taiwan policy outside the scope of the policy review, and these changes
appeared to have a negative long-term impact on the interests of Taiwan.
Clinton was reportedly prepared to engage in negotiations with Beijing
prior to arms sales to Taiwan, especially the pending sale of F-16s.
He apparently also personally informed Chinese President Jiang that the
U.S. was committed to a unified China, marking the first time the United States
had departed from its “peaceful resolution” strategy and specified an
outcome to the ongoing process of resolving the issue.
Most significant, however, was a brief statement given by State
Department spokesman Mike McCurry at a press conference immediately following
the release of the results of the Taiwan Policy Review in September of 1994.
When asked if the administration considered Taiwan a part of China,
McCurry responded, “[a]bsolutely. It's ‑‑ that's been a consistent
feature of our one‑China policy, consistent with the three China
communiques and the Taiwan
McCurry’s statement clearly
contradicted the texts of the three Chinese communiques which indicated that
since the Nixon administration, the United States had only “acknowledged”
that the government in Beijing believed Taiwan was a part of China.
Though White House officials quickly moved to clarify McCurry’s
statement, reports indicated that his remarks had been
designed to soothe Beijing after Taiwan’s President Lee visited Cornell
University – an event discussed in great detail below.
In Clinton’s defense, the situation across the Taiwan strait in the
early 1990s was much more stable than it is at the dawn of the 21st
century. Beginning in 1993,
officials from China and Taiwan engaged in their first ever high-level talks. Leaders of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan
Straits, a Chinese organization, and the Straits Exchange Foundation, a
Taiwanese organization, discussed several non-political bilateral issues and
established a framework for future cross-strait discussions.
While the talks did not resolve any of the issues regarding Taiwan’s
political status, the dialogue was historic and gave the appearance of a new era
of reduced tension across the strait.
In this light, the Clinton administration may have been hesitant to make
any major adjustments in U.S. policy in the congressionally mandated Taiwan
Policy Review. Nevertheless, the
trends of Taiwanese democratization and Chinese militarization suggested that
the situation required continued attention from the United States.
Even if the Clinton administration felt that the Taiwan Policy Review was
not the appropriate vehicle for a policy shift, any assumption that China and
Taiwan were headed for a truly peaceful and less contentious relationship was
The 1996 Crisis in the Strait
Clinton’s failure to reassess the triangular relationship between the
United States, China and Taiwan resulted in four major controversies over the
course of the last five years of his administration.
The first and most dramatic of those controversies began in early 1995
and culminated with the widely-publicized 1996 Chinese missile tests.
In May of 1994, coinciding with the delinking of MFN trading status with
human rights, the Clinton administration denied Taiwanese President Lee a
transit visa that would have allowed him to get off of his plane and spend an
evening in a Hawaii hotel while en route to Central America.
Supporters of Taiwan were outraged when Lee had to spend the night on his
plane and subsequent pressure applied to the Clinton administration by Congress
forced the adjustments that appeared in the Taiwan Policy Review.
Chinese officials interpreted that review as the result of an emerging
anti-China containment policy from the United States.
In truth, the Clinton administration had raised objections to even small
upgrades in Taiwanese relations but was forced into accepting Congressional
demands because of the domestic political climate.
Fearing Chinese wrath, the administration sent Deputy Secretary of State
Peter Tarnoff to Beijing to explain that the review had not changed fundamental
U.S. policy. China remained
Congress – disappointed by the limited nature of the policy review, but
emboldened by its successful influence on Clinton’s foreign policy strategy
– had a strong reaction when in the Clinton administration initially denied
Lee another visa in early 1995. Lee
had been invited to speak at commencement exercises at his alma mater, Cornell
University. Building on past
successes in influencing Clinton’s policy toward China and Taiwan, on May 2,
1995 the U.S. House of Representatives voted 396-0 to give Lee a visa. Twenty days later, the Clinton administration capitulated,
reversed course, and gave Lee the visa he had requested.
The Chinese believed that decision contravened State Department
statements that top leaders from Taiwan would not be allowed to visit the United
States. The mainland was
The Clinton administration quietly undertook several steps to cool
mainland anger. First, the United
States did not immediately react to China’s July 1995 missile tests in the
waters north of Taiwan. The Chinese
believed that U.S. silence was an indication that America would not be likely to
intervene in a cross-strait conflict. Second,
in high level talks in August, Secretary of State Warren Christopher explained
to his Chinese counterpart that the Lee visit had been a “special situation
and a courtesy.” Third, in a
letter not yet public in the United States, Clinton wrote Chinese President
Jiang that “the U.S. government is against Taiwan independence and does not
support Taiwan’s admission to the United Nations.” Both
of these pronouncements represented new ground in U.S.-Taiwan policy.
Additionally, Clinton did not mention the U.S. commitment to a peaceful
resolution of the Taiwan issue, even after the recent missile tests.
Thus, the Clinton administration, forced to make concessions to the U.S.
Congress on Taiwan policy, went out of its way to appease China in the aftermath
of the Taiwan Policy Review and the decision to allow President Lee into the
U.S. The Chinese, sensing that the
United States was not willing to take military action in the Taiwan strait,
prepared for a new round of missile tests to coincide with Taiwan’s historic
1996 presidential election. In
January 1996, China warned the Clinton administration that it had plans to
attack Taiwan, but Clinton administration officials brushed aside the Chinese
warnings as mere rhetoric designed to scare Taiwan’s people before they went
to the polls for the election. One
unnamed official reportedly said there was “no independent confirmation or
even credible evidence” of a possible attack by the Chinese on Taiwan. Nevertheless,
prior to the March 23 vote, China fired several missiles into the waters around
the island of Taiwan, illustrating its opposition to the process of democracy
and the possibility of a Taiwanese declaration of independence.
The U.S. responded by dispatching two U.S. carrier groups to the region
as an illustration of its displeasure with China’s attempt at intimidation.
The administration recognized that while it did not wish to risk a full
scale conflict, it had to demonstrate a continuing U.S. presence in Asia.
In retrospect, this show of force seems even more important in
light of later reports that China was very close to launching a full-scale
invasion of Taiwan that was prevented by only the highest echelons of the
Chinese military establishment.
Both China and the United States eventually backed down from the crisis. Taiwan went forward with its democratic elections, China
ceased firing missiles and the U.S. withdrew its two carriers from the area.
President Clinton, speaking on the USS Independence as it withdrew from
the Taiwan area, praised the American forces for their work and spoke of their
ability to keep the peace. Notably,
Clinton did not discuss a successful defense of the Taiwanese democracy. Clinton
appeared more concerned with the prevention of military hostilities in the
region and did not herald the symbolic support of democracy in the region.
In fact, though the world admired the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s
security, reports later surfaced that showed at the height of the crisis, the
United States was counselling Taiwan to back off from its independence rhetoric.
“On March 11, 1996, [deputy National Security Advisor Sandy] Berger and
Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff summoned Taiwan’s national security
advisor, Ting Mou Shih, to a New York hotel.
They told Ting to cool Taiwan’s independence drive because U.S.
military support was not going to be a blank check.”
Policy Implications of the 1996 Crisis
Prior to the missile tests in 1996, American officials had been skeptical
that China would even come close to using force as a means to intimidate
Taiwan’s electorate. After 1996,
the threat to Taiwan’s democracy, even if thought to be remote, became
tangible. Analysts have concluded
that time will eventually tip the military balance between China and Taiwan
toward the mainland. In the
meantime, China is likely to maximize its diplomatic and political leverage over
the situation so that Taiwan does not slip from its grasp. An American policy
focused primarily on a peaceful resolution facilitates Chinese objectives.
Since Taiwan is unable to bring force to bear against the mainland,
without a strong American deterrent, the only sure way to avoid conflict in the
region is for Taiwan to capitulate in the face of pressure from Beijing.
Despite this strategic reality, an analysis of the Sino-American
relationship during the final nine months of 1996 indicates a surprisingly quick
warming of Sino-American relations after the dramatic military showdown in the
strait. Immediately following the
election crisis, National Security Advisor Anthony Lake began having regular
lunches with independent Chinese scholars, seeking to better understand Chinese
foreign policies, and signaling a new interest in closely managing China policy
from the White House.
In fact, after losing the battle with Congress over President Lee’s
visa, and miscalculating the potential for aggressive mainland behavior at the
time of the elections, by mid-1996, the Clinton administration was desperately
seeking a measure of credibility for its China policy.
That credibility emerged after Lake made use of a new diplomatic channel
with his counterpart in Beijing, a channel that “became the primary vehicle
for reshaping the relationship,” and brought a “big picture” focus back to
U.S. China policy. That
big picture focus included a meetings between Clinton and Chinese President
Jiang in November at the annual APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation)
gathering and between Clinton and China’s State Council Foreign Affairs Office
Director, in which the president related his desire for a Sino-American
A flurry of activity in December appeared to be the beginning of that new
partnership. Secretary of State
Warren Christopher went to China with new human rights proposals in November of
1996. Though those proposals were
not well received,
a series of events evidenced the new emphasis on Sino-American cooperation.
On December 10, the head of the U.S. Small Business Administration,
Philip Lader, headed to Taiwan to express the administration’s wishes for the
resumption of cross-strait dialogue.
Three days later, an article in The Christian Science Monitor
called the visit of General Chi Haotian, China’s top military commander, to
Washington DC “the best example yet of President Clinton’s shift to smoother
ties with Asia’s emerging giant.”
Yet this visit from General Chi had its share of controversy.
On December 10, the same day that the administration encouraged a new
cross-strait dialogue, and days before the Clinton foreign policy team heralded
the new Sino-American military cooperation, General Chi told members of Congress
that “not a single person lost his life in Tiananmen Square.”
Considering that Chi was chief of the general staff during the 1989
massacre, and therefore directly responsible for the deaths of scores of student
demonstrators, the fabrication was appalling.
Such a statement, however, was not allowed to derail the general’s
visit or the new era of friendly relations.
The Chinese were pleased with the new, less confrontational tone of their
American relationship. Foreign
ministry spokesman Shen Guofang noted on December 19 that “Sino-US relations
have experienced quite large improvements and developments.” Government
officials across the strait in Taipei did not share this optimistic appraisal.
By the end of December, newly elected President Lee had lost much of the
optimism he had held at the beginning of the year, as Taiwan became concerned
that improving Sino-American ties would ultimately hurt the island.
Studies indicated that the Taiwanese fears were not unfounded.
Taiwan’s democratic success had not come without a price.
One scholar concluded that
democratization, Taiwan may become the victim of its own success by engendering
a domestic American backlash against its alleged purchase of American support;
that China’s rapidly growing power will increasingly give pause to American
buttressing of Taiwan except under conditions increasingly narrowly defined;
that Washington can no longer afford to be Taipei’s lone security guarantor;
and that the American interest – while certainly supportive of democracy on
and free trade with the island – is to get beyond the Taiwan problem and thus
to persuade Taipei to make whatever viable settlement it can with Beijing sooner
rather than later.
Taiwan’s leaders saw the writing on the wall. While it would be unfair to suggest that Sino-American
relations did not undergo various difficult phases over the remainder of
Clinton’s administration – several issues ranging from trade to human
rights, and particularly nuclear secrets all caused major headaches for
Clinton’s foreign policy team – the rapproachment at the end of 1996
indicated that Clinton’s support for Taiwan had reached a zenith in March that
would never again be reached. “The
‘bottom line’ was that Washington and Beijing would no longer allow Taiwan
to interfere unduly in the joint effort to resolve their differences and develop
a new relationship. And Taiwan
would find its panoply of tools, hitherto so successful in configuring American
policy, to be little if any use.”
Articulating the Three No’s
After 1996, there would be no more military exercises to intimidate the
people of Taiwan, but the debate over Taiwan’s status would continue.
The second major controversy to erupt on Clinton’s watch came as a
result of the extensive contacts between the governments of China and the United
States during Clinton’s second term. Chinese
President Jiang Zemin visited the United States in 1997 and Clinton made a
reciprocal visit to mainland China in 1998.
The two summits covered a lot of diplomatic territory, and statements
about Taiwan were inevitable. Jiang’s
visit to the United States was a concrete signal of a new era of Sino-American
cooperation on the Taiwan question.
After Jiang’s departure, U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin,
publicly articulated the so-called “three-no’s” of the Sino-American
relationship – echoing President Clinton’s 1995 letter to President Jiang
cited above. The United States,
according to Rubin, did not “support a two-China policy, we don’t support
Taiwan independence, and we don’t support membership in organizations that
require you to be a member state.”
These same assurances had been communicated privately by Henry Kissinger,
among others, as far back as 1972. However,
Rubin’s news conference marked the first time a U.S. official had reiterated
these promises publicly, elevating their status to the level of actual U.S.
policy, rather than just underlying assumptions.
Taiwan’s perception of the United States security commitment was
already deteriorating. Even before
Bill Clinton reciprocated President Jiang’s November 1997 visit in the summer
of 1998, reports were giving insight into the worried thoughts of Taiwan’s
officials. One of these reports,
for example, said:
Some officials in Taiwan worry that the Clinton administration is being
pushed to narrow Taiwan’s options. They
fear that proposals now coming from China specialists, and some former Clinton
administration officials, call for the U.S. to formally agree that Taiwan should
not be independent – something which the U.S. has avoided in the past. . .
While there are those in Taipei who are resigned to such strategies, others see
them as a real and present danger. “So
many China experts are impatient about the situation between Beijing and
Taipei,” says national security specialist Lin Cheng-yi at the Academia Sinica.
“I’m concerned that there is a creeping U.S. policy to endorse
China’s unification as the only option for the future of Taiwan.”
Taiwan’s increasing fears of a drift in U.S. policy were surely not
assuaged by developments a few months later.
While Rubin’s statements regarding the three no’s did not receive
much publicity, President Clinton’s trip to China the following year would
receive a lot of attention around the world.
Clinton repeated Rubin’s lines as he spoke with a group of Chinese
students about his meetings with Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
“I had a chance to reiterate our Taiwan policy,” he said, “which is
that we don’t support independence for Taiwan or ‘two Chinas’ or ‘one
Taiwan, one China.’ And we
don’t believe that Taiwan should be a member in any organization for which
statehood is a requirement.”
Clinton thus became the first president to ever articulate the three
no’s of U.S. Taiwan policy out loud – and he did so on Chinese soil.
American supporters of Taiwan were dumfounded.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (MS), said that Clinton had
damaged U.S. policy and argued that the time had come for Congress to step in
and make adjustments.
Harvey Feldman, former alternate U.N. Ambassador, wrote in The
Washington Post that “Clinton essentially offers Taiwan a choice between
continued status as an international pariah or amalgamation in one form or other
with China. In
short, the groundwork quietly laid by James Rubin in 1997 had allowed Clinton to
characterize American policy toward Taiwan in an historically unprecedented
fashion. No president had ever dared to articulate publically what
Clinton said in front of the world in Shanghai in 1998.
Clinton administration officials, particularly in light of such strong
reaction to the president’s statements, were quick to defend the articulation
of the three no’s. Richard Bush,
leader of the American Institute on Taiwan (AIT) for President Clinton, in
seeking to prove that Clinton did not change U.S. policy when he articulated the
three no’s, gave a three part defense of Clinton’s statement at a conference
on Taiwan in December of 1998.
Bush first argued that Clinton’s comments were “by no means new.
These statements are in fact corollaries of our one-China policy, and
have been operative for years, the first two since 1971.” In
the strictest sense, this is an accurate assertion. The United States has never advocated two Chinas, one
Taiwan/one China, Taiwanese independence, or Taiwanese membership in
organizations that require statehood since Nixon and Carter changed U.S. policy
in the region. Nevertheless, any
statement of a specific policy destroys the ambiguity supposedly central to
keeping the peace. While the U.S. might prefer that Taiwan were free and
independent, it avoids making those statements to prevent a confrontation with
the PRC. By openly declaring that
the U.S. does not want an independent Taiwan, Clinton brought Washington in line
with Beijing. Clinton may have
perfectly articulated the reality of U.S. policy, but in so doing, undermined
the theoretical framework on which that reality was to be based.
Once Clinton eliminated the possibility of two China’s or one China/one
Taiwan, he, by process of elimination, said that the U.S. version of
“one-China” was Beijing’s version, and subordinated Taiwan’s interests
to that end.
Additionally, as Los Angeles Times reporter Jim Mann pointed out,
Clinton’s statement was not the same policy that Nixon had developed in 1972. Nixon found it necessary to keep the United States silent on
Taiwan’s status because Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong claimed they ruled both
the mainland and the island. Put
simply, in the 1970s, Taiwan had as much of a “one-China” policy as mainland
China did. By the time of the
Clinton administration, however, Taiwan had relinquished its claim on all of
China, meaning that Clinton’s words, stronger than anything said by Nixon,
pushed Taiwan toward an outcome that they no longer desired.
Secondly, the leader of the AIT contended that there was more to U.S.
policy than just the three no’s. “Together,”
Bush remarked, “[the three no’s] are one of several elements of our Taiwan
policy; among the others are the Taiwan Relations Act, the insistence on
peaceful resolution, and so on.”
Bush is correct in listing the aspects of U.S. policy that support the
island of Taiwan, but in so doing, further highlights President Clinton’s
failure to articulate America’s stance correctly.
Clinton’s statement repeated, almost verbatim, the Chinese position on
the Taiwan question. If Clinton had
proceeded to discuss America’s commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act while on
Chinese soil, he would have given a balanced impression to his Chinese hosts –
the essence of strategic ambiguity. Instead,
Clinton failed to say why the United States remains a neutral player, and
strongly implied American support for the Chinese position.
Third, Bush took issue with the concept of a zero-sum game in the Taiwan
strait saying, “the Clinton Administration, like its predecessors, does not
believe that our relations with Taipei and Beijing are a zero-sum game.
The historical record suggests that when U.S.-PRC relations are good,
cross-Strait relations and U.S. ties with Taiwan are good as well.”
Bush’s third argument contends not only that Clinton did not change
policy toward Taiwan, but comes close to implying that Clinton’s statement of
the three no’s was actually good for Taiwan.
Taiwan might disagree with Bush’s third point for three reasons.
First, Bush said that since Taiwan has great confidence in the United
States, its government trusts the U.S. to negotiate with mainland China without
turning its back on Taiwan. However,
Taiwan trusts the U.S. only because it is dependent on the United States for its
Unless Congress specifically repeals the Taiwan Relations Act, Taipei has
little choice but to place confidence in the United States because the U.S.
provides the only long term security guarantee for Taiwan.
Instead, it is more likely that a cool U.S. attitude toward Taiwan would
compel the Taiwanese government to negotiate with Beijing from a subordinate
position since it would no longer be able to defy the mainland’s wishes with
any degree of credibility.
Further, Taiwan was so worried that American support might diminish
during Clinton’s visit to China that they set up a special situation room to
monitor any developments during Clinton’s tour of the mainland.
Hours before Clinton articulated the three no’s, the Taiwanese were
reassured by a statement from President Clinton that there would be no change in
American policy toward Taiwan during his trip.
At least in this instance, Clinton undermined the very trust that Richard
Bush spoke of when he defended Clinton’s actions.
Second, Bush’s negation of the zero-sum game concept relies on an
incomplete reading of the historical record.
History suggests the times at which the Sino-American relationship were
at their worst are precisely the same times the U.S. relationship with Taiwan
flourished. Both in 1989, during
the Tiananmen Square massacre, and in 1996, when China was firing missiles
toward Taiwan, the Sino-American relationship was in tatters, yet American
support for Taiwan could hardly have been more pronounced.
Conflicts between the U.S. and the mainland do not mean the island will
suffer and warmer Sino-American relations do not necessarily bode well for the
island’s future. One Taiwanese
official told author Dennis Van Vranken Hickey about Taiwan’s hopes for the
U.S.-Chinese relationship by saying, “From our point of view, we hope that the
U.S. and the PRC relations will be stable.
Stable, but not necessarily good. Good
relations will hurt us too – we will be sacrificed again.
But stable relations, within a range without big vibrations, would serve
our interests.” Though Taiwanese
authorities do not have any desire to exacerbate other strains in the
Sino-American relationship, they clearly do not believe that an America that is
on good terms with the Chinese, particularly on the Taiwan question, will be
beneficial to Taiwan.
Third, history has proven that Taiwan did lose diplomatic ground after
Clinton’s articulation of the three no’s, invalidating Bush’s idea that
there is no zero-sum element in the triangular relationship between the United
States, China and Taiwan. The U.S.
did not support Taiwanese President Lee Teng-Hui in the summer of 1999, when he
came close to declaring that Taiwan was a state just like China (discussed in
greater detail below) and the U.S. gave only tentative support to arms sales to
Taiwan under President Clinton. These
examples suggest that Taiwan cannot realistically expect concrete American
support if Clinton’s policy is to be extended into the future precisely
because of a closer alignment between China and the United States on the Taiwan
Clearly, there are ways for the United States to improve its ties with
the mainland without sacrificing the island.
However, Bush’s defense of Clinton’s statement mis-characterized the
issue. Since China and Taiwan hold
opposite and mutually exclusive views of the future of the island, there is
currently no way that the U.S. can improve its relationship with Beijing on
the specific subject of Taiwan without also diminishing its relationship
In any case, despite media reports that President Clinton’s
articulation of the three no’s in 1998 was a new development, comments by Mike
McCurry in 1995 and James Rubin in 1997 suggest that Clinton’s statement
should not have been a surprise. Instead,
Clinton’s words in Shanghai were the culmination of several intermediate steps
to make the three no’s an integral part of American policy toward Taiwan – a
change in the nature of strategic ambiguity, despite the protestations of
A State to State Relationship?
The third controversy over U.S. policy on the Taiwan question during the
Clinton administration came in the summer of 1999 and started in Taipei.
This controversy was not initiated by Clinton administration officials
and those officials could not have prevented it, yet their reaction provides
evidence American diplomatic policy on the Taiwan question has tilted toward
Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui decided that negotiations between the
mainland and Taiwan over Taiwan’s status could no longer be conducted under
the framework of “one-China.” President
Lee contended that the regime in Beijing was using the concept of one-China to
put Taiwan in a diplomatic box. The
only alternative, he said, was to conduct negotiations on a special
“state-to-state” basis. Only in
that framework, Lee contended, could the interests of the people of Taiwan
survive in the face of the powerful Chinese negotiators.
Predictably, Beijing interpreted this move as a big step toward a
declaration of independence.
Days later, the United States loudly voiced its displeasure with
President Lee’s statement. State Department spokesman Rubin once again reviewed the
three no’s of U.S. policy, and stressed that U.S. policy on the Taiwan
question remained unchanged, despite Lee’s new rhetoric. The United States flatly refused to take any step toward what
it perceived as a two-China policy. Further,
Rubin criticized the rhetoric from Taiwan because it made it more difficult for
the two sides to sit down and discuss their differences.
Though there was no pending Taiwanese election, China again – although
less dramatically than in 1996 – used its military to send a political message
to Taiwan. As large scale military
exercises were getting underway, President Clinton called Chinese President
Jiang Zemin to express continued American commitment to the concept of
“one-China.” Clinton reportedly
told Jiang that “you should have full confidence in the statements I have made
to you in our previous meetings.” Jiang was much less conciliatory, reminding
Clinton that China would not abandon the use of force as an option to resolve
Again, the United States adopted
a diplomatic position that cooperated with the only party that could
realistically initiate force across the Taiwan strait.
The United States did not acknowledge Taiwan’s precarious diplomatic
position and did not ask that Beijing concede any diplomatic ground in its
negotiations with Taipei.
Taiwanese sympathizers in the U.S. were angered by the Clinton
administration’s actions. Senator
Jesse Helms, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, almost immediately
voiced his displeasure with the Clinton administration’s unambiguous rebuke of
President Lee. Helms referred to
the Clinton administration’s statements as appeasement toward Beijing and
publicly called for an end to the U.S. one-China policy.
The Taiwan Security Enhancement Act
In an effort to circumvent the Clinton administration’s moves toward
mainland China, Taiwan’s supporters on Capitol Hill drafted a bill known as
the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (TSEA), which formed the fourth and final
controversy over Taiwan policy of the Clinton administration.
The legislation was designed to increase the military ties between the
United States and Taiwan, authorizing the sale of theater missile defense
equipment, satellite early warning data, air-to-air missiles, advanced fighters,
and other military equipment.
Congress and the Clinton administration had divergent views on the TSEA.
State Department spokesman Rubin referred to the set of communiques and
the Taiwan Relations Act as adequate expressions of U.S. policy that did not
require reinforcement in the form of additional Congressional legislation.
By contrast, House International
Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) said that the U.S. House was
not intimidated by Beijing and that, “a failure to meet Taiwan's legitimate
military needs will make China's military domination of the Taiwan straits a
officials countered that the legislation would destabilize the region.
An unnamed State Department official told The Washington Post that
the TSEA would “prompt a strong reaction from Beijing and throw all positive
opportunities down the drain.” The
official went on to say that the legislation would threaten the opportunity for
cross-strait negotiations in the future.
Though the U.S. House passed the TSEA in February of 2000 by a wide
margin, the U.S. Senate did not act on the legislation because support was not
strong enough to override a presidential veto.
The contrast between the executive and legislative branches is striking.
Congress intended to take concrete steps to assist Taiwan in maintaining
its security. The administration
contended (albeit in diplomatic rhetoric) that Congress was making a mistake and
that the effect of such steps to protect Taiwan would be to anger Beijing and
should therefore not be taken lightly. Such
a contention from the administration tended to minimize the extent of the
differences between the Chinese and the Taiwanese views of the reunification
issue. While the administration
contended that each side could sit down and negotiate the fate of Taiwan, it did
not publicly acknowledge that China and Taiwan hold diametrically opposed
positions. The United States has
traditionally held to an ambiguous position on the Taiwan question, but the
Clinton administration failed to recognize the clarity with which China has
articulated its own strategy. The
PRC appears to believe that unless Taiwan is willing to reunify with the
mainland on terms that are more or less favorable to China, time will eventually
require a use of force to bring about reunification.
Taiwan, for its part, refuses to take any steps that would sacrifice the
gains made by its democracy in the last two decades.
The Clinton administration hoped to smooth over the rough edges of the
debate across the strait, but in so doing, failed to address the reality of the
situation: peaceful resolution currently appears likely to occur on Chinese
terms, making reunification a disaster for Taiwan.
The Clinton administration started with every intention of being tough on
mainland China, but quickly recognized that the United States needed a close
relationship with China. Efforts to
avoid angering China resulted in a benign review of American Taiwan policy.
Just as the Clinton administration was moving toward an endorsement of
China’s position on the Taiwan question, the strait nearly exploded in a storm
of Chinese missiles. After a strong U.S. military response, China learned that
until it could bring more military pressure to bear on Taiwan, it had to resort
to diplomatic pressure – both on Taiwan and on the United States – to keep
Taiwan from slipping away.
But, the Clinton administration appeared more than happy to yield to that
diplomatic pressure in the years following the 1996 crisis.
Sino-American relations improved with surprising speed after the 1996
standoff. The Clinton
administration’s controversial statements about the one-China policy in 1998
and its negative reaction to President Lee’s state-to-state comments in 1999
both suggested that China was welcome to reunify with Taiwan on its own terms,
as long as force was not involved. This
suggestion was further confirmed by the administration’s strong opposition to
the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act. The
Clinton administration’s strategy preached the values of peaceful resolution,
left little room for Taiwan’s voice in the discussion of potential
settlements, and ultimately subordinated the Taiwan issue to other priorities in
the Sino-American relationship.
Considering the rapidity with which China is currently modernizing its
military forces, the Clinton administration’s failure to refashion the nature
of strategic ambiguity amounts to a tilt in diplomatic posture toward the
Chinese communists. Two analysts,
James Przystup and Robert Manning, writing in National Review, succinctly
evaluated the American position on Taiwan following Clinton’s various policy
So, where does this leave the United States? If there is a lesson, it is that no matter how hard the
Clintonites try to force events into it, the old policy framework under which
all three sides of the triangle have prospered for a generation is no longer
adequate. It requires adjustment to
account for the views of Taiwan’s 22 million citizens, most of whom support
Lee. Otherwise, the Clinton
administration – which claims that the enlargement of democracy is a pillar of
its national security strategy – will be in the odd position of attempting to
contain the results of democracy out of excessive deference to the decidedly
undemocratic government in Beijing.
Unfortunately for Taiwan, Przystup and Manning were quite accurate.
The Clinton administration concluded with, at best, a diplomatic
stalemate across the Taiwan strait, and at worst, an ever deteriorating state of
diplomatic affairs for officials in Taipei.
Clearly, Taiwan’s democracy could not afford the latter.
Only China could afford the former.
This paper is an adaptation of the author’s unpublished 2001 thesis
at Eureka College. Chapter One
of that document discusses the shift in
U.S. policy toward China in detail. For
further analysis, see also, for example, James Mann’s About Face
(New York: Vintage, 2000).
Chapter Three of the author’s thesis discusses the military
modernization effort in great detail. For
further information, both on the
modernization effort, and the revolution in Chinese military doctrine, see,
for example, Michael D. Swaine and
Ashley J. Tellis in Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy (Santa
Monica, CA: RAND, 2000).
Chapter Two of the author’s thesis evaluates Taiwan’s transition
to democracy using standards developed by Robert
Dahl in Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1971). Taiwan’s
democratic transition is described in detail by Shelley Rigger in Voting
for democracy (New
York: Routledge, 1999). The
completion of that transition is best described by Hung-Mao Tien and Yun-
han Chu in “Building Democracy in Taiwan,” The China Quarterly
(December 1996) 1141-1170.
Strategic ambiguity is a term that describes the policy employed by
the United States for the last two decades.
Under strategic ambiguity, the United States does not officially
endorse the Chinese view that Taiwan is a part
of China, but also does not support Taiwanese independence.
American military commitments are also
ambiguous. While the United States reserves the right to intervene if
force were used in the Taiwan strait, it is not obligated by any treaty or
legal statute to undertake such action.
Bill Clinton, “Confronting the Challenges Of a Broader World,”
U.S. Department of State Dispatch, (27 September 1993): 650.
Anthony Lake, “From Containment to Enlargement,” U.S. Department of State Dispatch, (21 September
1993), 660. For a broader
treatment of early Clinton administration foreign policy speeches, see
Martin Lasater’s The Changing of the Guard: President Clinton and the
Security of Taiwan (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), 17-35.
Alan Tonelson, “Superpower Without a Sword,” Foreign Affairs
(Summer 1993): 166.
Martin Lasater, The Changing
of the Guard: President Clinton and the Security of Taiwan (Boulder:
Westview Press, 1995), 69-71 and 128-129.
John W. Garver, Face Off: China, the United States, and Taiwan’s
Democratization (Seattle: University of Washington
Press, 1997), 37-39.
Winston Lord, “Taiwan Policy Review.
Statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Washington
DC, September 27, 1994,” U.S.
Department of State Dispatch, (17
October 1994): 705-706.
Jim Mann, “U.S.
Slightly Elevates Ties with Taiwan,” Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1994.
Dick Kirschten, “The Other China,”
The National Journal, 8
James Lilley, “Prepared Testimony of Ambassador James R. Lilley,”
Federal News Service, 27 September 1994.
Lasater, The Changing of the Guard, 149-151.
Mike McCurry, “State Department Regular Briefing,” Federal News Service, 8 September 1994.
Dennis Van Vranken Hickey, Taiwan’s
Security in the Changing International System, (Boulder: Lynne Rienner
Publishers, 1997), 144.
Paul F. Horvitz, “U.S.
Restates ‘One-China’ Policy to Placate Beijing,”
International Herald Tribune, 14 July 1995.
Lasater, The Changing of the Guard, 104-105.
This analysis is bolstered by the comments of Dennis Van Vranken Hickey in
his 1997 book Taiwan’s Security in the Changing International System
(Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, ????), 9-10. Even then, Hickey warned that the impact of the cross-strait
dialogue and the resulting cultural exchanges should not be exaggerated.
Garver, Face Off, 37-41.
Patrick E. Tyler, “As China Threatens Taiwan, It Makes Sure U.S.
Listens,” New York Times,
24 Jan 1996.
Jonathan S. Landay and George Moffett, “U.S. Walks a High Wire in
China-Taiwan Feud,” Christian Science Monitor, 16 March 1996.
“China said to have canceled plan to attack Taiwan: paper,”
Agence France Presse, 14 April 1996.
John M. Broder, “Clinton Hails Role of U.S. Troops in Asia,”
Los Angeles Times, 18 April 1996.
Barton Gellman, “Reappraisal Led to New China Policy; Skeptics Abound, but
U.S. ‘Strategic Partnership’ Yielding Results,”
Washington Post, 22
Steve Erlanger and David E. Sanger, “On World Stage, Many Lessons
for Clinton,” New York
Times, 28 July 1996.
Barton Gellman, “U.S. and China Nearly Came To Blows in ‘96; Tension
Over Taiwan Prompted Repair of Ties,”
Washington Post, 21 June 1998.
Barton Gellman, “Reappraisal led to New China Policy; Skeptics Abound, but
U.S. ‘Strategic Partnership’ Yielding Results,”
Washington Post, 22 June 1998.
David M. Lampton, “China and Clinton’s America: Have they Learned
Anything?” Asian Survey
(December 1997): 1103.
Gellman, “Reappraisal,” Washington Post, 22 June 1998.
“Clinton asks Taiwan and China to resume talks: US official,” Agence
France Presse, 10 December 1996.
Jonathan S. Landay, “General’s Visit Signals Shift to Wary US-China
Science Monitor, 13
Bill Gertz, “Beijing general defends action at Tiananmen; Says no
protestors were killed,” Washington
Times, 11 December 1996.
“China praises improving relations with United States,”
Agence France Presse, 19 December 1996.
Todd Crowell and Laurie Underwood,
“In the Eye of the Storm,” Asiaweek,
3 January 1997.
Thomas W. Robinson, “America in Taiwan’s Post Cold-War Foreign
Relations,” The China Quarterly (December 1996), 1342.
See also David Lampton’s “China
and Clinton’s America: Have They Learned Anything?” in Asian Survey
(December 1997): 1105.
Robinson, America, 1358-1359.
James Rubin, “Statements by Secretary of State Madeline Albright
and Secretary of Defense William Cohen and
State Department Regular Briefing,” Federal
News Service, 31 October 1998.
Julian Baum, “Strait Talking,”
Far Eastern Economic Review (26 March 1998): 29.
Maggie Farley and Tyler Marshall, “The President in China; U.S.,
Beijing Used Ringer to put Taiwan on the Table;
Shanghai Scholar Who Joined Panel Discussion At Last Minute Paved the Way
for Clinton’s Public Assurances to China,”
Los Angeles Times, 1 July 1998.
Ken Washington, Wendy Koch, Jim Drinkard, and Steven Komarow.
“Lott criticizes Clinton for Taiwan Statement,”
USA Today, 8 July 1998.
Harvey Feldman, “In Clinton’s China Shuffle, Taiwan Loses,”
Washington Post, 19 July 1998.
Richard Bush, “The United States Role in the Taiwan Strait
Issue,” in United States, China, and Taiwan: Bridges for a New
Millenium, ed. Paul H. Tai
(Carbondale: Public Policy Institute, Southern Illinois University, 1999),
Robert A. Manning and James Przystup, “Straits Jacket,” New
Republic, 27 September 1999, 13-14.
Jim Mann, “Clinton 1st to OK China, Taiwan ‘3
No’s’,” Los Angeles
Times, 8 Jul 1998.
Bush, “United States,” 39.
Hickey, Taiwan’s Security, 171, 178-179.
See for example, Baum, “Strait Talking,” 28-29; and, Ross Munro,
“Taiwan: What China Really Wants,” National Review, 11 October
Nicholas D. Kristof, “Taipei Is on Alert for Sign of Betrayal,”
New York Times, 29 June 1998.
Hickey, Taiwan’s Security, 72.
Gus Constantine, “Taiwan abandons one-China doctrine; Beijing says
the island is ‘playing with fire’,” Washington Times, 13 July
Toni Marshall, “U.S. doesn’t support Taiwanese position; Won’t
endorse ‘two-China’ policy,” Washington
Times, 14 July 1999.
“Force ‘an option’ against Taiwan, Jiang tells Clinton,” Agence
France Presse, 19 July 1999.
Ann Scott Tyson, “US’s delicate dance on China-Taiwan issue,” Christian
Science Monitor, 23 July 1999.
Bryan Bender, “Legislation aims to boost US arms sales to
Taiwan,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, 14 April 1999.
Bill Gertz, “U.S. Might Sell Missile Shields to Aid Taiwan,”
Washington Times, 24 November 1999. <http://www.washtimes.com> November 24,
Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson, “House Votes for Stronger
Military Ties to Taiwan; Administration Says Move Could Upset China
Balance,” Washington Post, 2 February 2000.
John Pomfret, “Beijing Firm On Conditions for Taiwan Talks; U.S.
Said to Soft-Pedal China’s Stance,” Washington Post, 7 April
Manning and Przystup, “Straits Jacket,” 14.