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Vail Valley Voices: Taiwan riles U.S.-China relations

Matthew Kennedy
Vail, CO, Colorado

U.S.-China relations are among the most complicated affiliations within international affairs.

The relationship is dominated by both countries’ interactions over Korea, Taiwan, Japan, the South China Sea and Iran. It also entails disputes over the depreciation-appreciation of China’s currency, trade and Washington’s concerns regarding Beijing’s ownership of the U.S. debt.

The one issue that has brought both sides close to war since the Korean conflict is Taiwan.



Taiwan became an international hotspot in 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party almost defeated its opponents, the Kuomintang (KMT) during the waning days of China’s civil war.

The KMT fled to the island. A top priority among Beijing’s policymakers since then has been the reunification of Taiwan under China’s auspices. Chinese leaders would arguably prefer the occasion to transpire under negotiated terms, but they haven’t ruled out utilizing military force to achieve the objective.



The U.S. and China almost clashed over Taiwan in the 1950s and 1990s.

During the first instance, China attacked and occupied two of Taiwan’s islands. The U.S. deployed naval forces to the area to counter China’s moves. Beijing backed down.

China initiated several missile tests in the 1990s in the lead-up to Taiwan’s presidential election. The U.S. implemented similar measures with the same results.



Washington sees its ability to sustain a peaceful status quo between Beijing and Taipei as vital to maintaining security throughout East Asia. U.S. policymakers believe Washington’s regional strategic credibility will falter if it can’t maintain a peaceful situation between both sides. The U.S., consequently, has a deep interest in China-Taiwan relations.

Washington’s relations with Beijing and Taipei are governed by the 1972 joint U.S.-China Communique, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and the “Six Assurances” understanding between American and Taiwan authorities.

The 1972 Communique directs the U.S. to recognize there is one China. Beijing and Washington acknowledge this goal should be decided between Taiwan and China without Washington’s mediation.

The TRA reiterated the 1972 Communique’s points. It additionally requires the U.S. to assess Taiwan’s defensive needs and to furnish Taipei with the necessary military materials needed for this purpose. It mandates Washington intervene in the country’s security affairs when Taipei is threatened. The act also established unofficial diplomatic presence between both entities.

The “Six Assurances” understanding is the final document impacting the tri-relationship. The accord reaffirmed the above agreements. It also stated the U.S. would not acknowledge China’s sovereignty over Taiwan, nor compel Taipei to enter into negotiations with Beijing over its political or economic status.

Taiwan is rarely a top issue in U.S.-Chinese relations except when Washington fulfills its defensive obligations under the TRA. An example was seen last year when Washington provided Taipei with Patriot missiles, Harpoon antiship missiles and communications equipment for its F-16 fighters. Beijing protested by issuing a complaint with the U.S ambassador. It also cancelled several military-to-military exchanges, plus visits between high-level defense officials. It’s a pattern Beijing has followed for years.

One might think, based on the above, that the relationship between Taipei and Beijing is frosty . Quite the opposite. The affiliation is politically tense, yet financially fruitful. The economic element may lead toward a resolution of the reunification dispute.

Neither side refused to directly deal with each other until 2004. Taiwan elected a president during the year who was receptive to closer relations, unlike his predecessors. The changed relationship led to a meeting between China’s President Hu Jin Tao and the chairman of Taiwan’s leading political party in April 2005. Both sides increased their interactions, consequently, and signed several economic agreements shortly thereafter.

The first major accord transpired in late 2008. It allowed for direct flights, as well as maritime and mail links, between the countries. That same year, the countries signed several trade agreements augmenting investment opportunities.

Beijing and Taipei signed a significant accord called the Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement in June 2010. It seeks to reduce tariff barriers and obstacles to commercial interactions. The agreement will boost trade by $110 billion between both countries, according to some estimates.

The relationship’s political component is very sensitive. Taiwan is worried about losing its independence under China’s governance. What concerns Taipei is being placed under a similar status as Hong Kong. The former British colony came under Beijing’s jurisdiction in 1997. China allowed it to maintain a high degree of political and economic autonomy. Taipei is eager to avoid an analogous event.

How Beijing and Taipei might resolve the reunification issue is unknown. It will probably occur via a solution not yet thought up. It may not transpire until a new generation of leaders takes the reins in China and Taiwan.

American policymakers will monitor events, regardless. How Taipei and Beijing resolve their political differences will influence U.S. foreign and military policy toward the region.

Matthew Kennedy has a master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the University of Westminster in London. He’s lived in Europe, Asia and Russia. Comments or questions can be directed to intl.affairs@yahoo.com.


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