U.S. Updates Taiwan 'Fact Sheet' After China's Misinterpretations

The State Department has made the first major change to its "fact sheet" on Taiwan in 4 years, stripping some official language to elevate the island's importance to the U.S. amid increased diplomatic pressure from China.

The "U.S. Relations With Taiwan" page under the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs now leads with a description of the island as "a leading democracy and a technological powerhouse." For the first time, Taiwan is also called an important U.S. partner in "semiconductor and other critical supply chains."

The May 5 update is a noticeable departure from the old fact sheet published on August 31, 2018, by the administration of former President Donald Trump. The opening paragraphs of the previous version provided more historical background on U.S.-Taiwan ties, including Washington's decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.

In a joint communique with China that year, "the United States recognized the Government of the People's Republic of China [PRC] as the sole legal government of China, acknowledging the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China," said the Trump-era fact sheet. That language is now gone, possibly owing to popular misconceptions about the U.S.'s official position on Taiwan, which differs from China's own reading.

As Beijing asserts a claim to self-governed Taiwan as part of Chinese territory, the older version on the State Department's website also stressed that the U.S. "does not support Taiwan independence," and "opposes unilateral changes to the status quo by either side"—two phrases that have now been removed.

Instead, the more official but rigid language is replaced by an emphasis on the U.S.'s "longstanding one-China policy," including the Taiwan Relations Act, the three U.S.-China Joint Communiqués and the Six Assurances.

"The United States continues to encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait differences consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people on Taiwan," the new fact sheet reads. Regular public opinion polls show Taiwanese residents have little interest in being ruled from Beijing.

Under the TRA, the U.S. provides Taiwan with defensive arms in order to maintain a credible deterrent against China's potential resort to force in the future. The law, which was supported by President Joe Biden when he was still a senator for Delaware, also requires the U.S. to maintain its own capability to resist such action.

The Three Communiques—issued in 1972, 1979 and 1982 during the respective presidencies of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan—are considered by Beijing to be foundational to U.S.-China relations.

In the final communiqué, Washington signaled its intention to gradually reduce arms sales to Taiwan, but among its Six Assurances given to Taipei, the Reagan administration said it hadn't set a date for the end of arms sales and didn't intend to pressure the island into negotiations with China.

Today, the U.S. defense relationship with Taiwan, including its supply of weapons, "continues to be commensurate with the threat we assess it faces from the PRC," a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek last month.

China has long criticized the TRA and the Six Assurances as illegitimate, despite the former being the only element of the U.S. "one China" policy that is enshrined in American law. Taiwan, meanwhile, views Washington's prioritization of the TRA and its regular inclusion of the Six Assurances as an important diplomatic win in the typically charged trilateral relationship.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry didn't respond to Newsweek's request for comment before publication.

U.S. Updates Taiwan Fact Sheet Amid Misiunterpreation
This combination of photographs shows Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The State and Defense departments have publicly clarified the U.S.’s official position on Taiwan in May 2022 following a series of misinterpretations by China. Chip Somodevilla/AMANDA ANDRADE-RHOADES/Pool/Getty Images/AFP via Getty Images

Setting the Record Straight

While the State Department's new fact sheet doesn't represent a change in official policy on Taiwan, its decision to emphasize certain elements over others could be a response to frequent misinterpretations and attempts to undercut its often careful diplomatic language.

Last month, after Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Senate that the Biden administration would ensure Taiwan has the means "to defend itself against any potential aggression," Beijing suggested the U.S. was contradicting itself.

"Since Taiwan is a part of China, how can the mainland 'invade' Taiwan?" asked Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, which added the line: "The U.S. admits that Taiwan is part of China, but keeps talking about the mainland's potential 'aggression' of Taiwan. Isn't this self-contradictory since a country cannot 'invade' part of its own territory?"

Under Beijing's "one China principle," Taiwan is unambiguously classified as a Chinese province. In response to Wang's remarks, the State Department told Newsweek: "The U.S. one China policy is distinct from Beijing's 'One China Principle.'"

"The United States takes no position on sovereignty over Taiwan, only that cross-strait issues are resolved peacefully according to the will and best interests of the people on Taiwan," the spokesperson said.

The Pentagon has faced similar challenges. Last week, it issued a public clarification after China's Defense Ministry "erroneously" misquoted Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin following April 20 talks with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, Defense Department press secretary John Kirby told reporters on May 5.

While the Pentagon's statement on the call was typically short and light on details, China's English-language readout claimed Austin had committed to the "one China principle." Reached by Newsweek at the time, the Defense Department confirmed that the Chinese interpretation of Austin's remarks was inaccurate.

This week, the Chinese Defense Ministry updated its website to correct the record. It now quotes Austin as committing to the "one China policy." A Pentagon spokesperson said it didn't requested the change from Beijing.

Update: 4/10/22 at 10:55 a.m. ET. This article was updated to include a response from the Department of Defense regarding the Chinese Defense Ministry's readout of the April 20 Austin-Wei call.