Richard Bush on U.S. “One-China Policy” and the Future of U.S.-Taiwan Relations

Richard Bush is a nonresident senior fellow in the Center for East Asia Policy Studies (CEAP) at Brookings. From July 2002 to June 2018, he served as the director of the center, and from 2013 until 2020 he served as the inaugural Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies. Before coming to Brookings, Bush served almost five years as the chairman and managing director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the mechanism through which the United States government conducts substantive relations with Taiwan in the absence of diplomatic relations. Bush has had an extensive and impressive career in research, national intelligence and leadership. Bush's areas of expertise include China, Taiwan, the Korean peninsula, Japan, and U.S.-China relations.

India Soranson Way CMC '23 interviewed Dr. Richard Bush on October 8, 2021.

Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Richard Bush.

America's "One-China policy" is very complicated and nuanced. Based on your knowledge and your background, could you briefly describe its essential points and explain their importance for our readers?

I think the best way to start our discussion is for me to draw some very important distinctions. A lot of people who talk about these issues don't understand these distinctions. On one hand, you have the state that we call China, a member of the international system. It has a seat in the UN. Second, in some cases, including China, there are rival governments or governing authorities who claim to be the government of China and, therefore, represent China in the UN. In 1950, the People's Republic of China said, "we are now the government of China and we deserve to be seated in the UN." The United States and other countries for 20 years set up a lot of procedural moves to keep the PRC out and maintain the Republic of China (ROC) as the representative of China in the UN. In 1971, when it appeared that the PRC was going to win the battle to represent China, we then came up with the idea of dual representation: that both governments should represent the state of China in the U.S. The person who led this fight was George Herbert Walker Bush, who was our UN representative at that time. The UN decided to seat the PRC as a representative of China, the ROC delegation walked out before they could do that, but the deed was done. 

Which government represents China in the international community also has a bearing on whether other countries have diplomatic relations with the PRC or the ROC. If a country recognizes the ROC, as the government of China, then it has diplomatic relations with it, but if you recognize the PRC, you have diplomatic relations with them. Depending on which choice you make, if you choose to PRC is the government of China, then do you have substantive relations with Taiwan? And how do you conduct those relations? I would make a point, and it's in my essay, that it really wasn't the U.S. preference to have to choose between the two, but at the time, both the PRC and the ROC insisted that we make a choice. 

Then there is a separate issue, whether the territory of Taiwan is a part of the sovereign territory of China. The government in Beijing, of course, says that Taiwan is a part of China. Some people in Taiwan, the so-called blue camp, also believe that Taiwan is a part of China (and that the ROC is the government of China). There are people in the green camp who believe that Taiwan is not a part of China, and it should be an independent country. Then there are other people in the green camp, including the current president, who understand full well that this is a real issue, but they just prefer not to talk about it. 

What happened in the 1970s, was that on this first set of issues, the United States government shifted its view on which government represented China in the international community, and that had implications for who we had diplomatic relations with. But we didn't take a position on whether the territory of Taiwan was a part of China's sovereign territory. We only “acknowledged the Chinese position.”

The U.S. has never accepted China’s “One-China principle and steadfastly maintained that the Taiwan question be peacefully resolved. How has China’s response to America’s position on Taiwan changed over the years? 

The basic PRC position is that the United States has engaged in a lot of schemes and tactics to block the unification of China or bringing back Taiwan into the embrace of the motherland. The common view is that we're doing this because we want to contain China and block the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and that we're just using Taiwan as a card. I think that is wrong. We've always said that the cross-Strait dispute is something to be worked out between the two sides. We don't have a position on how to resolve that disagreement substantively. What we care about is more an issue of process. We have said we have an abiding interest in the peaceful resolution across trade issues. Starting in around 1998, we started saying that not only should this be done peacefully, but it should also be in a manner acceptable to the people of Taiwan. I regard that as a simple factual statement because Taiwan is a democracy. The PRC doesn't like that because, to them, it sounds like self-determination. I think they believe that it would have been much easier to do unification back in the early 1980s when Taiwan had an authoritarian system and that people didn't have a say, but democracy gave the Taiwan public a seat at the negotiating table. Beijing has a very negative and paranoid view about U.S. intentions here.

I think you bring up a really good point about sovereignty, especially in relation to the "One-China policy." What were the critical junctures when the U.S. “One-China policy” changed more radically than others?  Are we now at such a point?

The first turning point came in late 1942, early 1943 when Franklin Roosevelt decided that Taiwan, which was then a Japanese colony, should be returned to China after the war. He had a logic for doing that. He could have made Taiwan a trusteeship of the UN, but chose not to, for strategic reasons. The next turning point was in late 1949, early 1950, when the communists had won in the mainland, and it looked like they were going to keep moving and take Taiwan. We understood that Taiwan had strategic value for the United States, but we didn't have the ability to defend it and we didn't have any confidence in the KMT government to do its part. So in early January 1950, for example, we said Taiwan's a part of China. Second, we signaled that we weren't going to block it from falling to the communists. 

Then the Korean War began. That's the real turning point. Two days after the North Korean invasion of the South, we put the Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait, and said that the legal status of Taiwan had yet to be determined. We reversed ourselves. Previously we'd said it was a part of China. Now, we said it wasn't. The next turning point had two parts. The first was in 1971-1972, when for strategic reasons, the United States began a rapprochement with the PRC to counter the Soviet Union. If Richard Nixon hadn't been brought down by Watergate, he might have finished normalization. President Carter did finish normalization, the second part of that turning point. In the normalization communique, we said we recognized the government of the PRC as the government of China, which had implications for international organizations. We said we intended to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC. We also pledged that we would have unofficial relations with Taiwan. So we set up this crazy AIT structure that, amazingly, has worked very well. Nobody thought it was going to work at the time. Some Americans at the time thought that Taiwan was in such a weak position that it would give in to Beijing.

There was growing concern that maybe someday China would actually be able to undertake a military campaign to take Taiwan militarily. But Beijing said that its policy now was peaceful unification. It proposed for Taiwan the same formula it applied to your hometown of Hong Kong: one country, two systems. But the events in 2019 and 2020 in Hong Kong, which was really a sad state of affairs, demonstrated the total bankruptcy of one country two systems as a formula for resolving the differences between the PRC and the ROC. I think for Taiwan’s leaders and  the Taiwan public, it was always a non-starter, but it was clearly a non-starter for the events of the last couple of years in Hong Kong. 

Policy questions have arisen about whether successive Administrations have changed the U.S. position since 1971 to adapt to changing circumstances and whether such shifts have advanced U.S. interests. In your report you mention that Donald Trump’s act of accepting a call from Taiwan’s president could have been a turning point for U.S. policy, but never ended being so. Could you provide insight on how the current administration’s “One-China policy” is evolving?

First of all, on the Trump phone call, I think he was encouraged to do that by people like John Bolton. He didn't understand the implications of what he was doing. Technically, that was not a violation of our "One-China policy because he wasn't an official at that time. He was just President Elect. He was still a private citizen, but then he reversed himself on broader Taiwan policy. Trump really wasn't that good for Taiwan, but parts of his administration were good for Taiwan. He himself was not Taiwan's friend. I think Taiwan understood that and Taiwan's leaders understood that. 

As far as fundamentals are concerned, we haven't fundamentally changed the "One-China policy", as we understand it, and we have always reserved the right to define what it is. As circumstances have changed, we have changed the way we conduct "unofficial" relationship with Taiwan to adjust to those changing circumstances. 

We now have a situation where some people claim that war over Taiwan is imminent. I think our leaders understand that even though war over Taiwan is unlikely, the PRC is doing a lot of nasty things towards Taiwan, none of which are violent, but they still pressure and intimidate Taiwan. The goal here is to weaken the confidence of the Taiwan people. I think some people in the Trump administration and in this administration believe that it's important for us to counter the PRC tactics in order to support the confidence of people in Taiwan. I think there are ways that we could help Taiwan a lot more, but there are some ways in which Taiwan is not helping itself when it could.

We rarely hear in the U.S. about Taiwan’s perspective on our ‘One-China policy”.  How would you summarize the different perspectives in Taiwan on America’s “One-China policy” and describe the stakes involved for Taiwan in any potential significant changes of this policy?

First of all, no matter which administration is in power, Taiwan officials don't like the unofficial  part of our relationship. Symbolism and protocol is very important for ethnic Chinese people, whether they're in the PRC, or the ROC, or Hong Kong or Singapore. We Americans tend to say "substance is much more important than symbolism. Let's focus on substance." Well for people in Taiwan, symbols are substance, so some are resentful that we don't treat them as a real country or as a real Chinese state. This was particularly true in the early days of the US Taiwan relationship after 1979. In 1994, we had a significant relaxation of our rules and how we conducted the relationship. We've been relaxing them ever since as circumstances dictate. The Trump administration as part of that, and the Biden administration will probably continue it.

You can see different views depending on which political camp we’re talking about. Each political camp is unhappy when they perceive that the U.S. is supporting the other. The Deep Green faction of the DPP thinks that the PRC is bluffing when it says independence means war and that if we would just take their side and declare that Taiwan was a separate country, then Beijing would back down. I don't believe them. People in Taiwan don't believe them. The majority says independence means war and they don't want war. Everybody understands that. Despite the way we treat Taiwan, and even though our improvements in the relations never go as far as Taiwan people would like, we are still their only salvation. They're stuck with relying on the United States.

What do you think the U.S., China, and Taiwan relationship will look like in the future?

I think the big picture is that the United States and China are involved in a test of wills over the future of East Asia. We've been the dominant power and part of that dominance has depended on our alliance system. We do have a security relationship with Taiwan even though we don't have an alliance with them. This has always been disturbing to China. There's another aspect of it if you're thinking generally about the rise of new great powers. There seems to be a pattern that when a new great power is rising, it first wants to dominate its home region. We did that in the Western Hemisphere and the Caribbean during the 19th century and early 20th century. That’s what China would like to do: dominate its home region. They see us there and they're trying various ways to make life more difficult for us; to wean the countries of East Asia away from the United States. I don't know how that's going to play out. We may end up maintaining our position or we may give up trying to dominate. We may continue this sort of current test of wills, we might find ways of coexisting or there might be a war. But whatever happens, it has profound consequences for Taiwan.

India Soranson Way CMC '23Student Journalist

U.S. Trade Representative, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *