The Awkward Impasse

Taiwan: Where the U.S. and China agree to disagree

It’s no exaggerated claim that the United States and The People’s Republic of China don’t see eye to eye on every issue. There are clear differences of interest on key global issues such as the sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Island group and the controversy on the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. But the source of most friction between the US and China is Taiwan.

Tai Pei, Taiwan’s capital, claims to be the legitimate government of an independent nation. But the Chinese administration adamantly claims sovereignty of Taiwan, proclaiming there is only one China. While the US officially recognizes the Chinese government as the only legitimate governing authority, the US has a strong unofficial relationship with the government of Taiwan. In November, a Chinese representative told Clemson students visiting the Chinese Embassy in DC, that the US cooperates with Taiwan by selling arms in large quantities to Tai Pei. The point was stressed as the crucial obstacle in the US-Chinese relationship, and one China would like to resolve as soon as possible.

The US has made efforts to quell Chinese concerns. The US has decided not to sell a new F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter to Taiwan and has delayed the sale of F-16 C/D planes for over eight years despite Tai Pei’s pleas and claims of a crippling, aging air defense force. But Chinas’ President Xi Jinping has personally asked for the US to cease all arms sales.

The Taiwan question is an awkward impasse for two trade allies, but it’s one in which the US is stuck firmly in the middle. For years after the Chinese Communist Revolution, the US officially recognized Taiwan as the government of China. When the US switched its official recognition from Tai Pei to Beijing, it made six assurances to the Taiwanese. These assurances included the sale of arms to Taiwan without consultation from Beijing, and the agreement to not officially recognize Beijing’s claim on Taiwan. This is a major cause of concern to the Chinese, who view Taiwan as a part of China. From the Chinese government’s perspective, the US is aiding in the armament of a separatist group which may one day become violent.

However, in spite of the US’s continued sale of arms to Taiwan, it has pledged to stay out of the dispute between Taiwan and China. It will not intervene in nor mediate any political talks between either respective governments. The US has made it clear that the question of sovereignty of Taiwan shall be left alone for the peoples of mainland China and Taiwan to settle. The US will neither promote nor discourage negotiations between the two governing bodies, but the US will support decisions made by the two consenting bodies.

The question of Taiwanese sovereignty is daunting. One only needs to look at the fireworks between Russia and Ukraine to understand the potential consequences of jurisdictive disputes. While there is a clear dispute over the sovereignty of Taiwan, and it seems that Washington and Beijing have picked separate camps, the question of Taiwan is awkward but dormant. The US-Chinese trade relationship has grown so strong, that even Chinese officials admitted to Clemson students that the areas where the US and China can profit from mutual cooperation far exceed the detriments of any disagreement over Taiwan. Whether or not Taiwan is officially recognized as either an independent nation, an autonomous region, or simply another Chinese province remains to be seen, but for now, it will be left to the peoples of China and Taiwan to sort out.