The U.S. and China have had different understandings of these fundamental texts. To China, the Communiques embody binding international commitments. For the U.S., they are two sides’ parallel statements of deeply entrenched policies. Where China sees U.S. acceptance of China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, the U.S. insists that it merely acknowledges the existence of a view ostensibly shared on both sides of the Strait. From the U.S. perspective, the U.S.’s Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and—less securely—President Ronald Reagan’s Six Assurances stand alongside the Three Communiques as authoritative statements of U.S. policy. For China, the additional documents lack such stature and have been sources of U.S. failures to implement commitments in the Communiques, particularly on arms sales to Taiwan.
Despite such divergences, the Communiques have underpinned a mutually acceptable framework for handling what was once the most serious problem for U.S.-China relations and remains a major area of potential discord today: Taiwan. For the U.S., the arrangement has meant adopting a “one China policy” that eschews support for “two Chinas,” “one China, one Taiwan,” Taiwan independence, diplomatic relations or security pacts with the government in Taipei, support for Taiwan’s joining states-member-only organizations, and so on. For China, it has meant acquiescing (although with objections) in U.S. policies and practices that support a functionally autonomous Taiwan, including robust informal relations, some level of arms sales, advocating Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in the international system, and insistence that any resolution of the cross-Strait issue be peaceful and (since the Clinton administration) have the assent of the people of Taiwan.
Perhaps the most important practical contribution of the Communiques (and the TRA) has been to provide a fixed anchor for U.S. policy—one on which Beijing has been able to rely. Occasionally, U.S. presidents or officials have appeared to deviate from policies rooted in the documents. Sometimes, these moves seemed “pro-Taiwan,” as when President George W. Bush said he would do “whatever it took” to help Taiwan defend itself, or when President Bill Clinton offered what Beijing saw as excessive support for the unacceptably “pro-independence” Taiwanese leader Lee Teng-hui. Other times, the seeming shifts were “pro-Beijing,” as when Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated Taiwan lacked sovereignty and seemed to imply support for reunification, or when President Barack Obama omitted a robust reference to Taiwan, while reaffirming respect for China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, in a joint statement during his 2009 visit to China. When these disturbances have occurred, U.S. leaders have retreated to the “big four” texts and reassured nervous audiences in Beijing, Taipei, and elsewhere that there was no change in policy. This has been good for stability in cross-Strait and U.S.-China relations. The bounds the Communiques have set for both sides have helped contain even serious crises, including those surrounding China’s missile tests in the Strait in the mid-1990s and Taiwan’s referendum on entry into the United Nations in 2008.
Will this pattern persist in a new difficult period, with Tsai Ing-wen and Donald Trump in power? Trump’s early moves have been, at best, extreme versions of the apparent departures from established policy undertaken by other administrations. Trump appeared to move in a “pro-Taiwan” direction when he accepted Tsai’s congratulatory phone call. Much more alarming for Beijing, Trump declared the one China policy to be negotiable, and linked its continuation to possible Chinese concessions on issues ranging from trade to the South China Sea. Trump statements also shook Taiwan, where his suggestion that the one China policy was a “bargaining chip” in negotiations with China implied that Taiwan might be a bargaining chip too, and where candidate Trump’s less-than-reassuring statements about commitments to treaty allies such as Japan and South Korea undermined confidence in the U.S.’s thinner and less formal support for Taiwan’s security.
It is encouraging that the Trump administration has imitated its predecessors in returning to the shelter of long-established policy: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson affirmed that there were no plans to change the one China policy, and Trump promised, in a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, that the U.S. would “honor” the one China policy. While these are welcome moves, concerns continue. Trump framed his pledge as granting a request from Xi, not as reconfirming unshakeable U.S. policy. Like many of Trump’s statements, it may be fleeting, soon to be undercut by a tweet. Disturbingly absent from Trump administration statements have been strong references to the Three Communiques and the TRA—the traditional underpinnings of stability in U.S. policy. Recommitment to those foundational documents is especially important today, with a U.S. leader prone to extraordinary volatility, a leader in Taiwan distrusted by Beijing, and a leader in China who has said that a political solution for Taiwan cannot be passed on “from generation to generation.”