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  • Writer's pictureJocelyn Chau

America’s ‘strategic ambiguity’ on the Taiwan issue — why is China enraged?

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

The 82-year-old United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan on August 2nd, making her the highest-ranked US official to visit the self-ruled island in 25 years.

Pelosi’s high-profile visit to Taiwan occurred despite warnings from both Beijing and Washington that it would spark controversy in already-strained Sino-American relations. Pundits claim that the trip crossed China’s red line, thereby contradicting US policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding its commitments to Taiwan and China.

China is enraged at the visit; Beijing believes it is an expression of support for Taiwanese independence and a reneging of US commitment to the “One-China policy”, which prohibits official relations with Taiwan.

Brief History of the Taiwan Issue

Following the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the defeated nationalist government party (also known as the Kuomintang) retreated from the mainland to Taiwan, where they attempted to establish an independent government known as the Republic of China (ROC). Meanwhile, Mao Zedong’s victorious Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland.

The PRC considers Taiwan a breakaway province: it will eventually be unified with the mainland and come under Beijing’s control – using if necessary. Beijing views the PRC as the only legitimate government of China and asserts that there is only ‘One China’ while maintaining that Taiwan is an inalienable part of its territory.

However, with its own constitution and democratically-elected leaders, many Taiwanese people consider themselves a self-ruled and separate nation from the PRC, regardless of whether or not their independence is officially recognised on the mainland.

The ‘One-China’ Policy

As China and the US began to work towards the normalisation of their relations at the beginning of the 1970s, both parties issued the Shanghai Communiqué in 1972, which states that “the United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China” and that the US government “does not challenge that position”.

When Beijing and Washington finally established formal diplomatic ties in 1979 under President Jimmy Carter, the US moved to recognise the PRC as “the sole legal Government of China” and de-recognise the ROC.

However, as some scholars have observed, the “One-China policy” that the US claims to follow is not the same as Beijing’s “One-China principle”.

Beijing’s “One-China principle” explicitly states that Taiwan is an inalienable and integral part of China and that the PRC is the sole legal government of China. While the US acknowledges the Chinese position, it does not explicitly agree with the One-China principle, nor does it recognise Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan.

Thus, since 1979, the US has adopted a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on the Taiwan issue, allowing Washington to continue its informal relations and defence ties with Taiwan while adhering to the “One-China policy”.

Since the founding of the PRC in 1949, 181 countries have established diplomatic relations with China on the basis of the One-China principle, which was also endorsed by the United Nations in 1971 through UN Resolution 2758.

US ‘Strategic Ambiguity’ regarding Taiwan

Prior to Pelosi’s departure, senior members of Biden’s national security team are believed to have expressed deep reservations about the trip, given the heightened tensions with China and the possible sparking of a new Taiwan Strait crisis.

In an attempt to de-escalate tensions with China after Pelosi’s visit, the Biden administration reiterated the government’s adherence to the “One-China policy” and the White House insisted that the US does not recognise Taiwan’s independence.

The controversy over Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan illustrates the contradictions between US policy towards the island and its commitment to the “One-China policy.”

During a podcast with the Council on Foreign Relations, Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States said: “There has been a lack of clarity, consistency, […] discipline, [and] coherency, I think, in US policy statements.”

Glaser elaborated, “The Biden administration continues to say that the United States has a One-China policy, that the United States does not support Taiwan independence, but then there are other things that the US does, which from China’s perspective and using their language, looks like we are slicing the salami. We are heading towards supporting a Taiwan that is legally independent.”

Other political analysts commented on Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in a similar fashion, labelling it “utterly reckless” given that nothing meaningful would come out of this “purely symbolic visit”.

‘Strategic logic’ of Pelosi’s Visit

However, while Pelosi’s trip might have severed Sino-US relations, some argue that it is not without a strategic logic.

The Taiwan Relations Act is central to the America’s “One-China policy” and has been the basis of the strategic alliance between the US and Taiwan since 1979. The Act authorises the US 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 of Taiwan”.

In a Washington Post opinion piece, Pelosi cited the CCP’s “accelerating aggression” against Taiwan as the main reason behind her delegation’s visit to the country. She hoped to show support for Taiwan’s democracy and freedom, values also shared by the US.

Pelosi’s view is that there is a conflict between autocracy and democracy in Taiwan, and her trip to the country is part of the US obligation to defend the democracy and freedoms of the Taiwanese people against the PRC.

Why is Beijing enraged?

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP last year, President Xi stressed in his speech the need for Taiwan’s reunification with mainland China, calling it “a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China”.

China sees any official foreign visits to Taiwan as attempts to recognise the island’s sovereignty and change the status quo, violating Beijing’s “One-China policy”.

According to PRC’s official news agency, Xinhua, Pelosi has made six mistakes by visiting Taiwan in blatant disregard of Beijing’s continuous warnings: reneging on past commitments, trampling the rule of law, undermining peace, meddling in China's internal affairs, manipulating politics, and abusing power for selfish purposes.

A statement issued by China’s foreign ministry said Pelosi’s trip “has a severe impact on the political foundation of China-US relations and seriously infringes upon China's sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also condemned Pelosi’s Taiwan visit. He considers the action inflammatory as it has “reneged on [American] commitment on the Taiwan question” and will therefore “only further bankrupt the US’s credibility as a country”.

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