The Curse Of The Shanghai Communique

Last week President George W. Bush arrived in Beijing 30 years to the day after Richard Nixon landed in the Chinese capital for what he called "a week that changed the world." By all accounts, there were neither surprises nor important results from Bush's talks with Chinese leaders. Nixon, however, really did change the world--without specifying who was to benefit from the change.

The way Nixon and his national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger, humbled themselves before Chairman Mao Zedong reminded many in China and abroad of the tribute-bearing foreign emissaries of previous centuries paying homage to Chinese emperors. At the end of his trip, Nixon and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai signed the now celebrated Shanghai Communique, agreeing to "make progress toward the normalization of relations " and committing the United States to the notion of "one China," including Taiwan. The two sides had some differences. Beijing asserted that "Taiwan is a province of China" and that "the liberation of Taiwan is China's internal affair in which no other country has the right to interfere." Washington more gently reaffirmed that a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question was a U.S. "interest."

When Jimmy Carter established full diplomatic ties with the People's Republic of China on Jan. 2, 1979, he accepted Beijing's definition of one China and cut off diplomatic relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan. This treatment of a long-term ally infuriated Congress; it quickly passed the Taiwan Relations Act, committing the United States to help provide for Taiwan's defense--and putting Beijing on notice that any use of coercion against Taiwan would be a threat to regional peace and "of grave concern to the United States."

The Taiwan Relations Act has preserved peace in the Taiwan Strait for a generation. It has done so by providing security and defense assistance to the island, enabling its people to move ahead with confidence on economic development and democratic reform in spite of China's refusal to renounce the use of force. The law's important security provisions have been reiterated and reaffirmed by congressional resolutions on many occasions since 1979. And the U.S. government acted on them when it dispatched two carrier battle groups to the waters near Taiwan in March 1996, after China test-fired missiles and used the threat of force to interrupt Taiwan's first popular presidential election.

On the other hand, the one-China policy initiated by Nixon three decades ago is obsolete and should be changed. Taiwan and its friends in the U.S. Congress have gone to painstaking lengths to remind everyone that Taiwan is a sovereign state and a democracy whose people have gradually come to identify themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. The victories of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party in the presidential election of March 2000 and the legislative elections of December 2001 are strong indications that the island's 23 million people do not wish to live under communist rule and want to determine their own destiny.

It is time for the United States to adjust to this new reality. There is no reason for Washington to believe that Taiwan's unification with China is desirable or inevitable. The Shanghai Communique and other subsequent U.S.-China agreements do not commit Washington to reunification--and democratic changes in Taiwan have precluded it. Former president Bill Clinton was wrong to espouse democracy and freedom in China and then commit the United States to oppose the right of Taiwan, a democratic and open society, to determine its own future. The historical record shows that when the United States has given Taiwan strong support, China has engaged in cross-Strait talks; when the United States has appeared weak, however, as when Clinton endorsed China's anti-independence policy, Beijing has been emboldened to bully Taiwan.

President George W. Bush has taken a correct first step by spurning his predecessor's policy of appeasement. People in Taiwan are greatly encouraged and reassured by his pledge "to do whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend itself" and his assurance to Japan's Diet last week that "America will remember our commitments to the people on Taiwan." If that is so, Taiwan will be able to engage with China as an equal partner and from a position of strength as a sovereign state. As an economic counterbalance to China, the United States also should explore the possibility of a free-trade agreement with Taiwan. With Taiwan and China as members of the World Trade Organization, and their economic and trades ties expanding further, Chinese leaders may see China's larger interests served by cooperation and economic integration with Taiwan rather than by political conflict and military saber-rattling.

Taiwan has become a democracy largely because the United States did much to promote and foster the forces of democracy there. Shouldn't the United States accept that outcome and recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation?