History Shows Beijing Won’t Budge an Inch on Taiwan

by Patrick Kim / January 3, 2017 / ForeignPolicy

Much has been made of President-elect Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and his statement in a recent interview that he does not understand “why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things,” Some have criticized Trump for unnecessarily shaking up a delicate understanding on Taiwan that has underpinned decades of U.S.-China relations.

Others have expressed a range of cautious optimism for Taiwan’s sake, to outright praise for Trump for refusing to “kowtow” to the Chinese. And some, including the student leaders of the 2014 Sunflower Movement that began in opposition to a Beijing-pushed trade deal, have decried the use of Taiwan as a “tool to score political points.” But the real issue is this: Trump’s gambit won’t work, because Beijing doesn’t believe it owes Washington anything for recognizing Taiwan as a part of China.

Trump is not the first president to try to use Taiwan as leverage with Beijing. Richard Nixon, while negotiating the opening of relations with China from 1971 to 1972, tried to link American concessions on Taiwan to Chinese cooperation in Vietnam. Around this time, thousands of U.S. troops were deployed in Taiwan as part of the United States’ mutual defense treaty with the Republic of China (ROC).

Nixon and Henry Kissinger knew one of Beijing’s greatest priorities was obtaining American recognition of Taiwan as a part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and getting U.S. troops off the island. Thus, they decided to link the withdrawal of American troops from Taiwan to China’s pledge to help the United States achieve an “honorable exit” from the Vietnam War. The two American leaders suggested to their Chinese counterparts that they should pressure their ally, North Vietnam, to sign a peace agreement with the United States if they wanted a quick exit of U.S. troops from Taiwan.

But Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai categorically rejected the quid pro quo. Zhou insisted that because Taiwan was a rightful part of China, Beijing had no reason to reward the United States for leaving the island. In fact, Zhou said, making such a demand was as ridiculous as China taking exception to the United States’ sovereignty over Hawaii or Long Island. While the bargain failed, rapprochement proceeded with a general understanding that the United States would gradually withdraw its troops from Taiwan. Beijing, however, continued to support North Vietnam’s war efforts and provided significant amounts of military assistance to its ally between 1971 and 1973.

Ronald Reagan also tried to strike a bargain with Beijing that involved Taiwan when he first arrived in office. Reagan had campaigned on the platform that the Carter administration had conceded too much to the Chinese while normalizing relations with the PRC in 1979, and suggested he would re-establish official relations with the ROC if he were elected. After assuming office with this tough stance, the Reagan administration was immediately obliged to confront the issue of arms sales to Taiwan, and especially with the question of whether it would proceed to sell FX fighter jets as had been discussed during the previous administration.

Beijing objected not only to the potential sale of the FX, but also to all arms sales to Taiwan as an infringement upon Chinese sovereignty. With the knowledge that Beijing coveted advanced American-made, dual-use technology and weapons, the Reagan administration decided to offer an implicit bargain to their Chinese counterparts. Beijing was told it would be granted the status of a “friendly, non-aligned state,” making it eligible to purchase American arms if it acquiesced to the United States’ arms sales to Taiwan. Read more…

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