A Fourth U.S. Communiqué on the Sovereignty of Taiwan?

Written by David Pendery.

Image credit: 龜山島+國旗 by Vincent Chien/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This work will examine the possibility of a new announcement by the United States, which on the surface may appear to be an agreement between the United States and China but which is not, in fact, that. In a word, it is not a formal treaty or concord. It would instead express a US view on the reality of international relations. I will call it a “Fourth Communiqué,” and like the well-known first three communiqués, it would in large measure deal with relations between the US, Taiwan, and China, with other essential considerations.

In this announcement, the most important manifestation would be a declaration that the US officially recognises the sovereignty of the state of Taiwan and its supreme authority over its territory. Note that this is not a recognition of Taiwan’s independence. There has been talk of just such an announcement, given that Taiwan has the appearance of an independent country in many important aspects and often interacts with other countries with this in mind. While this may be in effect true, the fact remains that Taiwan, much less the Republic of China, has never formally announced its independence.

The definition of “sovereignty” can give us some insight into what is being considered. Sovereignty is “supreme and independent power or authority in government as possessed or claimed by a state or community; rightful status, independence, or prerogative; a sovereign or independent state, community, or political unit.” Outside of the “independence” part, Taiwan fits such a definition. Moreover, the nation’s sovereignty—which it does not need to announce in any formal sense, though the nation does just this, often—is recognised by many other countries, even China. Again, this is because Taiwan has all aspects of an autonomous government and conducts its affairs in a self-determining fashion. The nation is in effect recognised for this by virtually all other nations.

It would not make sense to announce the support of independence in Taiwan at this time. It is not, in fact, true, and few other states would recognise such an announcement. Yes, at this time, Taiwan has the legal right to enact and enforce laws, govern its citizens, and engage in diplomatic affairs with other states. “Independence”, some would call this, but that is not the whole reality. And thus, we return to sovereignty. Support of Taiwan’s sovereignty would be entirely adequate and a significant step forward in recognising just what Taiwan is in terms of country affairs, governmental control, and management. And it would be legal and recognised by others—even China, we might well say. Such a claim about Taiwan’s affairs would not disrupt any claims of just what “China” is. Even in terms of the potential of “two systems, one government,” such a “system” in Taiwan would be a sovereign actor in the big picture.

Such recognition by the US would not in effect create “two Chinas.” This is because the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan have long been separate entities (two separate countries, some would say, but the reasons noted here, that would not be a claim made in a 4th communiqué). The two entities exist as principalities with distinct and independent names, existence and being. Taiwan and the PRC share a language and several cultural attributes, but this is true of many nations worldwide (the US and the UK come to mind). Such commonality does not create a common overall state of affairs, much less a common legal framework through which we view countries and their rank and position in the world. It should be noted that the PRC has never held formal sovereignty or control over the Republic of China/Taiwan.

This communiqué would respect the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the states involved, and the fact that there is “one China” would not be disrupted. That there is “one China” is a fact in international affairs, despite some commonalities between the PRC, the ROC, and other nations. the creation of the written Japanese language, for example, was based on the written Chinese language; Chinese influence in the US, though not to the extent, say, of using Chinese names for cities and the like, is extensive, the very idea of “Chinatowns,” to say nothing of the popularity of Chinese food, is common in all major cities. To say that there are “Chinese” people in Taiwan is accurate in many respects but errant in that today, virtually all Taiwanese consider themselves “Taiwanese” people. Speaking Chinese does not make one Chinese, any more than speaking English makes one English. In a word, though Chinese influence is pervasive in Taiwan, that does not make the country fully culturally, much less politically, “Chinese.”

This communiqué, in many respects, endorses positions in the prior three joint communiqués, which is to say that the US, Taiwan and China will continue to strengthen economic, cultural, educational, scientific, and technological ties, and all endorse peace in the region, both independently and concurrently. Disagreements between the two nations can be discussed and arbitrated with ordinary methods that comply with international law. In a prior communiqué, it was stated that “All nations, big or small, should be equal; big nations should not bully the small and strong nations should not bully the weak. China…opposes hegemony and power politics of any kind.” This says a lot about what we have discussed in this editorial, and these attributes can continue in kind in terms of today’s issues. These are, in effect, attributes concerning the “normalisation” of country status, upkeep, and relations (peace, collaboration, government, society, education, etc.), which can be seen in play now in terms of Taiwan and China.

This announcement could be seen as supporting a policy of “one China, one Taiwan” (not “two Chinas”), and this approach seems reasonable, given the actual situation in China and Taiwan in the world today. Taiwan has taken many steps to rectify the use of its name, the understanding of its international status and its activity in global interactions. Following in these footsteps is not some political error or any attempt to “bully” another nation. Taiwan, in effect, comports itself sovereignly in all the matters we have examined, and therefore, the existence of a sovereign “Taiwan” is firm in almost all minds. Viewing Taiwan in this way is in no way different from current norms and expectations.

David Pendery is Associate Professor, National Taipei University of Business, Taipei, Taiwan

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