COM 02/2018

US – Taiwan – PRC Relations: A brief history of US policy towards Taiwan

By Jan Kliem, Senior Program Officer and Researcher, German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Pubic Policy and Good Governance (CPG) 



After a period of relative calm, the Republic of China (Taiwan) has over the past years reclaimed much of the undesirable “spotlight” it had in International Relations during the last Taiwan-Strait crisis in the mid 1990s. Tensions have risen again, not least since the People’s Republic of China’s President Xi Jinping has stated that theunification of Taiwan and mainland China under Beijing’s government is a prerequisite to the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” at the congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2017. Taiwan, of course, is also governed by President Tsai Ing-wen who has not fully endorsed the 1992 consensus and marks a break to the previous government’s policies which were friendlier and by and large more accommodating to the PRC. The essay below looks at how the United States fits into the picture of cross-strait relations and more specifically, gives some background on how its current foreign policy towards Taiwan has developed.


Two wars and the first and second communiqué

The Taiwan conundrum, here defined as Taiwan’s ambiguous status somewhere between a (de-facto) sovereign nation state and a renegade province and the three different narratives on Taiwan from a US, PRC and ROC perspective, are a consequence of two wars; one that was ongoing and one that was started shortly after the end of the Second World War (WWII).

The first was the civil war in China, fought between the nationalist government of the Republic of China, the Kuomintang (KMT) under the leadership of Chiang Kai-sheck, and the communist forces, led by Mao Zedong. Mao would later claim an incomplete victory over the nationalist forces and establish the People’s Republic of China on the Chinese mainland in 1949. The victory was incomplete in that the beaten KMT forces under Chiang’s leadership, who had already been severely weakened due to shouldering most of the military actions against the imperial Japanese forces, fled the mainland to set up what was supposed to be a temporary government on Taiwan, less than 150 kilometres off the continent’s south-eastern coast. Taipei was declared the provisional capital of the Republic of China in 1949. Chiang Kai-sheck’s firm believe that the KMT would re-group and eventually re-unify with the mainland under KMT leadership, was met by a similar vision by Mao Zedong across the Taiwan Strait, who also believed in a re-unified Chinese nation. In his vision however, unification was to happen under his leadership of the entire Chinese nation and the final and unequivocal defeat of the KMT. Arguably, Mao was closer to achieving his vision, but the second of the two wars referred to above changed the realities on the ground and laid the foundation of the situation in the Taiwan Strait today.

In June1950neighbouring North Korea under Kim Il-sung invaded South Korea with the support of the unofficial military arm of the PRC, the “People’s Volunteer Army”. From the perspective of the US, the move was a clear challenge to its strategy of “containing” communism and it feared, in accordance with the evolving domino theory, that communism would spread. The move caused US President Truman to deploy the United States 7thfleet to Asia and have it sail right between the communist forces on the Chinese mainland and Chiang’s nationalists in Taiwan. The might of the US 7thfleet and US resolve to use it[1], had altered the balance of power in the strait to an extent that it no longer seemed possible for the PRC to take Taiwan by force. The US policy of containing communism to the Chinese mainland had offered Chiang Kai-sheck a lifeline and an opportunity to remain in control of Taiwan. Fundamental parts of the status-quo in which the US guaranteed no war would occur in the strait were established.

In addition to the military power, the US extended to Taiwan and the strait, the US continued to recognise Chiang’s government as the sole representation of the Chinese nation, the Republic of China, and engaged in normal diplomatic relations until 1979.

Once again, it was the iron cast of the Cold War and the dominating narrative of the fight against communism that changed the facts related to Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China. Despite the Sino-Soviet split and careful rapprochement between the PRC and the US, it was not until the 1970s that a new era of US policy towards the PRC, and as a consequence to Taiwan, developed. The new principle relationship was fundamentally based on the framework of the post WWII “One-China Policy”, which has its very foundation in the first US-PRC joint communiqué, the “Shanghai Communiqué” of 1972.

In this, US President Richard Nixon who travelled to the PRC on invitation of then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, declared that

The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in the peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves. With this prospect in mind, it affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan. In the meantime, it will progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes.”[2]

The US position is of course different from the People’s Republic of China’s interpretation of one-China, called the one-China principle. The PRC interpretation of one-China upholds that there is but one China in the world, that the government in Beijing is the sole representative of it, and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory. While the US one-China policy acknowledges that it is maintained that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of it, it does not subscribe to this assumption. Furthermore, the US did not have the choice of having diplomatic relations with both, Beijing and Taipei, as neither would accept the formal recognition of both by the US or any other country. Arguably, from a US perspective, this would have been the most desirable option.

Pressured into balancing the rise of the Soviet Union in Asia, the communiqué looked like the beginning of the end of US policy of balancing out the asymmetries in the military capabilities on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. Even more so, the second communiqué of early 1979, following US President Carter’s decision of December 1978 to formally shift diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, so from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China, arguably looked like Taiwan would from now on have to fend for itself. The normalisation, as it became known, required both sides to compromise on certain issues. The demand side of the PRC included for instance the abrogation of the 1954 US-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty, as well as a removal of all US troops from Taiwan and the end of formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. While the US agreed to this, its own demands, such as unofficial American presence in Taiwan after normalisation, the continuation of American commercial, cultural, and other relations with Taiwan, or selected defensive arms sales to Taiwan after normalisation, signalled that it was not in the US interest to entirely abandon Taiwan, but not all demands found their way into the final draft.[3]The President’s statement on the communiqué[4], as well as the re-endorsement of the key points of the Shanghai communiqué, made clear that the US had an interest in the peaceful solution of the Taiwan question. However, critics were quick to point out that the communiqué did not include a PRC commitment to rule out the use of force against Taiwan or a US commitment to the security of Taiwan.

Following this agreement, just four months into 1979, the Carter administration signed the Taiwan Relations Act into law, which was followed by the third communiqué and the “six assurances” in 1982 under the Reagan administration.


Taiwan Relations Act; Third communiqué and six assurances

The passing of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) in 1979 was both a clear effort by the US Congress to assert itself in matters of US – Taiwan relations, as much as providing a “legal basis for the unofficial relationship between the United States and Taiwan, and enshrin[ing] the U.S. commitment to assist Taiwan in maintaining its defensive capability.”[5]

President Carter’s decision to sever ties with the ROC in favour of the PRC was not popular with either the American public, or Capitol Hill. Surveys conducted by news outlets such as ABC News and the New York Times-/CBS at the time, confirmed this for the public as much as congressional surveys did for the US congress.[6]In the light of the negative perception of the President’s ‘executive’ foreign policy, the TRA can be seen as the legislature intervening into foreign policy and “essentially maintain[ing] the substance of relations between the United States and the ROC.[7][8]The manner in which the second communiqué was negotiated, the fact that the formal normalisation was only announced to leaders of the congress hours before its official announcement and during congressional recess,[9]and the ‘weak’ contents of the communiqué on the defence commitments to Taiwan, gave a sense of urgency to passing the TRA. Since the formal endorsement of the one-China policy has upended all hope of having diplomatic relations with both the PRC and the ROC, to which both Chinese parties were still opposed, the TRA, the third communiqué and the six assurances provided a way to uphold the essence of the official relations without calling it that.

To clarify immediate legal-status consequences, President Carter had issued a memorandum stating that “[e]xisting international agreements and arrangements in force between the United States and Taiwan shall continue in force and shall be performed and enforced by departments and their agencies beginning January 1, 1979 in accordance with their terms.”[10]

The TRA itself then included legal clarity to the same effect, stating that: [w]henever the laws of the United States refer or relate to foreign countries, nations, states, governments, or similar entities, such terms shall include and such laws shall apply with such respect to Taiwan.”[11]

The TRA furthermore addresses crucial US policy questions, e.g. US policy (1) to preserve and promote extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan and to establish the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which is to a large extent an embassy in all but name and hence, of vital importance; (2) to continue the sale of arms of defensive character to Taiwan; (3) to maintain the capacity of the US to resist any resort to force or coercion against Taiwan; and (4) to oppose any non-peaceful effort to resolve the Taiwan question, including boycotts and embargoes, and declare those efforts a grave concern to the US.[12]

In essence, the TRA serves as a strong commitment of the US to the future of Taiwan by regulating the maintenance of unofficial ties and stating US interest in the peacefulness of cross-strait relations, while backing-up its pledges with concrete actions such as the continued sale of defensive arms and officially tying the prevention of use of force against Taiwan to its interests. Whilst it does not go as far as requiring the US to defend Taiwan or to sell arms to it in a legal sense, it struck the balance right so that it would not be vetoed by the White House and still shows enough teeth to deter the PRC from coercive action regarding re-unification.

Under the subsequent Reagan administration, the last of the three communiqués was issued in August 1982 after about ten months of negotiations. In addition to reassuring the continued commitments to the principles laid out in the previous communiqués, and a stated “understanding” on US behalf that the PRC is striving for a peaceful solution of the Taiwan question, the difficult question of US arms sales was raised again. This was of particular importance after the PRC had reacted negatively to the TRA and its provisions regarding the continued sale of weapons to Taiwan, alleging the act violates the normalisation communiqué.

In the communiqué, the US stated that it did not seek a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that those sales would neither qualitatively nor quantitatively exceed the level of those arms supplied since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979, and that it intends to reduce its arms-sales to Taiwan gradually over time.[13]The US did not agree to adding a specific cut-off date for arms sales.

Throughout the negotiations, the US made sure that the relevant authorities in Taiwan were kept informed on the progress in order to alleviate concerns that Taiwan could be ‘dropped’ and a US commitment to the island’s security could end. Even before the communiqué was formally announced in August 1982, the US, via the AIT, made six assurances to Taiwan. These assurances were that the US:

  • had not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to the Republic of China;
  • had not agreed to hold prior consultations with the PRC regarding arms sales to the Republic of China;
  • would not play a mediation role between the PRC and the Republic of China;
  • would not revise the Taiwan Relations Act;
  • had not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan; and
  • would not exert pressure on the Republic of China to enter into negotiations with the PRC.

In sum, with regards to Taiwan, the three communiqués, the TRA and the six assurances built the foundation of US-PRC relations. Today’s US one-china policy is informed by these foundations and has therefore developed from its initial use in its particular reference to Taiwan. Without officially saying that it will, the PRC has never renounced the possibility of using force against Taiwan, whereas the US has always maintained that it has an interest in a peaceful solution to cross-strait issues. The TRA and the six assurances in particular at least imply that the US would defend Taiwan in case of military action against it by the PRC. But the US does not support Taiwanese independence. As far as the US is concerned, the issue over Taiwan’s status remains unsettled. An important addition to complex US-PRC relations with regards to Taiwan was made by US President Clinton in 2000, when he added that cross-strait issues “must” be resolved peacefully and “with the assent of the people of Taiwan”. [14]This gives credit to and accounts for the people of Taiwan whose nation has developed into a vibrant democracy, with a watershed moment only four years prior to Clinton’s speech, when Taiwan had its first direct presidential election based on universal suffrage and a multi-party system. Only nine days after the speech, Taiwan would experience its first ever power transition with the election win of Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Chen Shui-bian, who remained President until 2008.

According to Richard Bush, an acclaimed Taiwan expert and former chairman of the AIT, however, this small but vital progress was reversed after the Clinton years as the administration of President George W. Bush changed the words to the assent of the people on both sides of the strait, suggesting a curious equity of the possibility of the people on either side of the strait to register their assent, which for obvious reasons weakens the statement considerably.[15]


[1]Mao tested US resolve to interfere on several occasions. On 3 September 1954 and again in August 1958 for instance, communist forces attacked Quemoy, an island held by the ROC. After the first attack the US-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty was signed, followed by a resolution authorizing the US President to use US forces to defend Taiwan and “related positions and territories” to which Quemoy belongs. Tucker (2009): 14ff.

[2]U.S.-PRC Joint Communiqué (1972)

[3]Chang (1986): p.39ff. and U.S.-PRC Joint Communiqué (1979)

[4]Address to the Nation on Diplomatic Relations Between the United States and the People’s Republic of China

December 15, 1978,, accessed 14.02.2018

[5]US Department of State,, accessed 15.02.2018

[6]Chang (1991): p.24f.

[7]Ibid: p.25

[8]In Section 2, the TRA states that as “The President- having terminated governmental relations between the United States and the governing authorities on Taiwan recognized by the United States as the Republic of China prior to January 1, 1979, the Congress finds that the enactment of this Act is necessary–

to help maintain peace, security, and stability in the Western Pacific; and

to promote the foreign policy of the United States by authorizing the continuation of commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan.”

[9]Chang (1986): p.41

[10]Presidential Memorandum of December 30, 1978, Relations with the People on Taiwan, cited in Li (1979): p.134

[11]Taiwan Relations Act (1979): Section 4, 2.1.

[12]See Taiwan Relations Act (1979)

[13]U.S.-PRC Joint Communiqué (1982)

[14]Bill Clinton Speech on China Trade Bill, 9.3.00,, accessed: 17/02/2018

[15]See Bush (2017)


Bush, R. 2017. A One-China Policy Primer, Brookings Institute, available at, accessed 19.02.2018.

Taiwan Relations Act (1979), available at, accessed: 16.02.18.

Chang, J.L.J., 1986. United States-China normalization: An evaluation of foreign policy decision making. Maryland Series in Contemporary Asian Studies, 1986(4).

Chang, J.L.J. ed., 1991. R.O.C.-U.S.A. Relations, 1979-1989. Institute of American Culture. Academia Sinica, Taiwan.

Tucker, N.B., 2009. Strait talk: United States-Taiwan relations and the crisis with China. Harvard University Press.

U.S.-PRC Joint Communiqué (1982), available at, accessed: 16.2.2018.

U.S.-PRC Joint Communiqué (1979), available at, accessed: 10.2.2018.

U.S.-PRC Joint Communiqué (1972), available at, accessed: 10.02.2018.