Imperial Collapse and Erasure of the One China Policy

By Thomas Dolusic

The United States’ interference in the People’s Republic of China’s sovereignty over Taiwan is rooted, like many other things, in the beginning of the Cold War. Beginning in the 1950’s, the United States eschewed the multilateral system it was building in Europe and sought to project its influence in a series of bi-lateral treaties. These treaties were signed with countries such as Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. On December 2, 1954, the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty (SAMDT), was signed. The treaty codified that the U.S. and Taiwan would work “separately and jointly by self-help and mutual aid” to resist “armed attack and communist subversive activities.” 

The first substantive changes in the USA-Taiwan relationship occurred 18 years later with the release of a joint statement in Shanghai on February 27, 1972. In it, following President Richard Nixon’s visit, the U.S. declared it “acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China” and that it “does not challenge that position.” The U.S. affirmed it would eventually withdraw all forces and military installations from Taiwan and begin reducing its forces.

While the most important, this first communique was followed by a second on January 1, 1979, where the People’s Republic of China and the U.S agreed to recognize each other and establish diplomatic relations. It reaffirmed the first communique and stated that neither side would seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region or in any other region of the world. The U.S. acknowledged the Chinese position that there is one China and Taiwan is a part of it. This communique led to President Jimmy Carter giving the one-year required notice, cancelling the previously signed SAMDT with Taiwan.

Facing legal challenges over his unilateral cancellation of the Treaty by conservative senators like Barry Goldwater, the Carter administration supported the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act. Among other things, the Act specified that any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means would be considered a threat to the peace and security and of “grave concern” to the U.S. It said that it was the policy of the U.S. to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character and maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan. 

In the third and final communique of August 17, 1982, the U.S. reiterated that it had no intention of infringing on Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity, or interfering in China’s internal affairs, or pursuing a policy of “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan.” The U.S. also said that it did not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, they would not exceed 1982 levels, and they would be gradually reduced.

The Reagan administration worked to undermine the third communique even before its public release. The administration’s “Six Assurances” aimed to reassure both the governing authorities in Taiwan and Congress that arms sales would continue. The assurances, known only vaguely until the exact content of was declassified in 2019 and 2020, have been reaffirmed repeatedly, most recently by former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, following her trip to Taiwan. They state that the U.S. did not agree to set a certain end date for arms sales to Taiwan; does not intend to mediate between Taiwan and the P.R.C.; and will not pressure Taiwan to negotiate with the P.R.C.. They further state that there is no change in the United States’ position on the issue of sovereignty over Taiwan; there are no plans to revise the Taiwan Relations Act; and the third and final communique should not be read to imply that the U.S. agreed to consult with Beijing on arms sales to Taiwan.

As is clear, almost from their inception, modern relations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic have been faced with pushback and unilateral “clarifications” meant to serve both the governing authorities in Taiwan and arms dealers in the United States and their friends in Congress. While the communiques seem to settle the matter, the subsequent unilateral actions by the U.S. in the Taiwan Relations Act and Six Assurances opened the door enough to U.S. military support in continued and increasing arms sales and potential U.S. involvement in cross-strait hostilities that the term “strategic ambiguity” has been used to describe the relationship and official U.S. policy. This undermining, however, has reached new levels as President Biden has made several statements that would appear to completely contradict the longstanding relations between the three parties.

For example, in October 2021, when President Biden was asked whether the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense if it were attacked, he replied: “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.” Despite the clear (although factually incorrect) meaning of Biden’s words, White House press secretary Jen Psaki later said that his comments did not change U.S. policy nor meant that he had made a decision to change the policy.

Biden later repeated his earlier assertion regarding a mythical defense agreement between the U.S. and Taiwan. Following the launch of Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine, Biden was asked about the presence of the People’s Republic of China’s aircraft around the renegade province. He said that, “The U.S. is committed and we support the One China policy, but that does not mean China has the jurisdiction to use force to take over Taiwan.” When asked if the U.S. would use its military to defend Taiwan, Biden said, “Yes.” After a pause he added, “That is our commitment.” Again, however, there is no such commitment. Later, administration officials were sent out to state this simple fact and that, no, U.S. policy had not changed.

It is important to note that former President George W. Bush also seemed to abandon strategic ambiguity by saying the U.S. would do whatever it takes to defend Taiwan. Bush himself, however, later stated that he opposed any actions by either side to change the status quo. This included a Taiwanese declaration of independence.

There is one clear fact in all of this. The U.S. has no obligation of any sort to Taiwan. There is no obligation to sell arms. There is no obligation to defend it from anything, ever.  There is nothing requiring the U.S. to interfere in any way with the sovereignty of the People’s Republic of China over its province in Taiwan.

Anyone trying to convince the public otherwise is misinterpreting history at best and lying at worst. Recent attempts by President Biden in making explicit his mistaken belief that the U.S. has some sort of treaty obligation to Taiwan is gaslighting on a massive scale. Not only is Biden lying about the current situation as it relates to U.S. relations with the island, he is trying to convince the American people that the last 53 years since the cancellation of the mutual defense treaty never happened.

The immediate rationale for Biden’s actions, however, is clear. The post-Cold War hegemony enjoyed by the Empire is slowly slipping away. As the People’s Republic of China ascends peacefully and without the spoils of imperialism, this is becoming more and more obvious to the ruling class in the Empire. 

Not only is the People’s Republic of China rising, however. It is serving as an example to the Global South of a different choice. A choice founded in Marxism that respects humans, communities, and the planet. Organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and BRICS+ and initiatives like Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road initiative allow a development model out from under the neo-liberal Empire’s thumb.

The actions of the U.S. also come as the People’s Republic has started to challenge the United States in a more direct manner on the international stage. On February 20, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released “US Hegemony and Its Perils.” This document details the U.S.’ abuse of its hegemony in all spheres: political, military, economic, technological, and cultural. The document is a laundry list of crimes committed by the United States in the furtherance of its imperial ambitions. It ends by saying, “The United States has been overriding truth with its power and trampling justice to serve self-interest,” and calls on the U.S. to “critically examine what it has done, let go of its arrogance and prejudice, and quit its hegemonic, domineering and bullying practices.”

One day later, the Ministry released “The Global Security Initiative Concept Paper.” Whereas the first document was aimed at past crimes, this document aimed at future hope. The document is upbeat and optimistic saying, “This is an era rife with challenges. It is also one brimming with hope. We are convinced that the historical trends of peace, development and win-win cooperation are unstoppable.” It ends with this hopeful message and clarion call to other nations: “China stands ready to work with all countries and peoples who love peace and aspire to happiness to address all kinds of traditional and non-traditional security challenges, protect the peace and tranquility of the earth, and jointly create a better future for mankind, so that the torch of peace will be passed on from generation to generation and shine across the world.” 

The Empire’s own actions in warmongering and sanctions abuse are an action in self-harm. When paired with the new internationalist messages being sent by the People’s Republic as well as it’s concrete actions in building genuine multilateral organizations, they may prove to be fatal. The elite of the Empire are aware of this but unable to stop the historical processes unfolding. They are thus grasping at any straw they can to stop, or at the very least, delay their own collapse. Their attempts to foment discord in the Taiwan Strait and convince the Empire’s citizens that there exists some obligation to interfere in the internal affairs of the People’s Republic are only the latest example of this and must be resisted in their entirety.