The Taiwan Issue: An unbridgeable gap in Sino-US relations?

The latest visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan has flared old tensions not only held between China and Taiwan but also between China and the US. The problematic nature of Sino-US relations has a much deeper background than some think, and the possibilities of easing tensions appear complicated due to the profound nature of the rivalry and the interests that both parties hold over Taiwan. This article aims at explaining the main points that make Sino-US relations so tense, especially when it comes to the Taiwan field. 


Taiwan, China, US, Sino-US relationship, diplomacy, international tensions. 


Sino-US diplomatic relationships have never been without turmoil; periods of tension and cooperation have been experienced in a myriad of fields, from international crises during the Cold War to trade and climate agreements. A frequent sticking point since 1949 has been the Taiwan issue. 

The One-China policy and the Taiwan Relations Act

The Republic of China (ROC) was funded in 1912 after the Qing Dynasty was overthrown by Chinese revolutionaries. By that time, the island of Formosa (or the island of Taiwan, as we would call it now) was under Japanese administration after defeat in the First Sino-Japanese war (1895) had forced the Qing government to cede its sovereignty over the Formosa Island (which had been declared a Chinese province around 1885), to Japan. In 1927 civil war outbreak in China, a conflict that confronted the Nationalist forces of the ROC against the Communist forces of Mao Zedong, and which course also coincide with that of WWII. Once WWII was over, the San Francisco Treaty (1951) forced Japan (given its defeat), to renounce several of its overseas territories, one of them being Taiwan, which was agreed to be returned to its original owner, that being China. 

By this time, the Chinese civil war was still ongoing, and when Communist forces won over Nationalist forces in 1949, the former Nationalist government decided to exile the ROC to Taiwan, where it would continue to be administered by former Nationalist forces. Mainland China, the territory won over by the Communist forces of Mao Zedong, would become the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from 1949 onwards. This split has since then created a very difficult situation among both regions because both governments have claimed to be the legitimate government to represent all Chinese people from both sides of the Taiwan Strait. The PRC keeps arguing its sovereignty over the territory of the Island of Taiwan, claiming it to be a breakaway province that must be annexed to mainland China someday using any means necessary (without ruling out the use of force) and that the only legitimate government of all China (of both sides of the Taiwan Strait) is the government of the PRC (One-China principle). Meanwhile, the ROC (Taiwan from now on), continues to administer itself as an independent country, although it has never formally declared its independence, so its international statute becomes a tricky territorial issue rooted on civil war dynamics that seem to remain unresolved, causing unrest to arise in the area. 

At the beginning of the issue, US support was directed only towards Taiwan, as tensions grew between the US and the PCR in light of several Cold War proxy wars (Korea and Vietnam wars). It would not be until 1969 that Sino-US relations would start to be reconstructed after the deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations (Sino-Soviet split); in 1971, the improvement of Sino-US relations saw itself reflected in recognition of the PRC by the UN, which led the organization to allow it to replace Taiwan’s seat in the UNSC after declaring that the government of the PRC was the sole legitimate government of China and that, as such, it should be the one representing China in the UNSC. In 1972, the Nixon administration went one step further in Sino-US reconciliation by signing the Shanghai Communiqué, the first of three communiqués that would be crucial support for Sino-US relations. 

A few years after that, following the signature of the 2nd communiqué in 1978 during the Carter administration, Sino-US relations were officially normalized in 1979 with the US diplomatic recognition of the PCR (referred to as ‘China’ from now on), and the acknowledgment of the One-China Policy. This diplomatic strategy governs all of China’s foreign relations and that forces all countries that want to maintain diplomatic relations with China to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognize the government of mainland China as the only legitimate one (not to be mistaken with the One-China principle). However, the US is not mainly known for playing by the rules, and after having assured to abide by the One-China policy and its prohibition of starting diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the US congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (also during 1979), which allowed it to continue its ties with Taiwan without officially violating the One-China policy. With the establishment of both agreements, the US government would be able to maintain cultural, economic, and, most importantly, military laces with an old ally like Taiwan while still improving Washington-Beijing relations, given the strategic importance of both sites in the Asia Pacific area. 

However, it seems unclear if the US strategy of playing both sides resulted in more benefits than drawbacks for the managing of both the Taiwan issue and Sino-US relations. The issuing of the Taiwan Relations Act raised suspicion in China that the US would not be acting in good faith regarding Sino-US relations since US ties with Taiwan established by the Taiwan Relations Act, although unofficial, violated prior points agreed with China over the 1st and 2nd communiqués. That is why, by 1982, the Ronald Reagan administration started negotiations with China on a 3rd communiqué that would help reconcile Sino-US relations. In light of negotiations of this third communiqué, the Taiwanese government proposed the US government Six Assurances that the US would have to guarantee in order to reaffirm its commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act. This way, by 1982, the Reagan administration ended up signing contradicting documents with both parties that reaffirm US commitment to both the One China policy and the Taiwan Relations Act, making the knot of tensions surrounding the triangle of relations much more complex to resolve. Reaffirming the Taiwan Relations Act means breaking much of the compromises in which Sino-US relations are rooted, including the sales of arms and direct military aid towards Taiwan in case of war between both parties, and an obligation not to recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, all points that, although not directly, go against points of the One China Policy and could deteriorate trust in Sino-US relations. 

Sino- US rivalries and Taiwan’s role 

The tensions between China and the US have also deployed in several fields other than the Taiwan issue, especially during the last decades. Although marked by instants of cooperation, Sino-US relations have lately been marked by economic and trade disputes, diplomatic quarrels (which have included the closing of diplomatic posts on several occasions), military tensions, and mutual accusations of the theft of intellectual property and cybersecurity issues. 

Tensions lately flared again in early August 2022 after the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei, despite China warning the US against strengthening formal relations with Taiwan. The move has been perceived as a violation of Sino-US agreements rooted in the three communiqués and has once again deteriorated trust in Sino-US relations. It is not the first time that tensions have risen over ‘diplomatic’ practices carried out between the US and Taiwan. Although the US maintains an unofficial relation with Taiwan, those ties do not provide for formal diplomatic relations, which would violate Sino-US agreements; however, the US and Taiwan have several times held mutual visits of figures of political importance on one another territories, which has very clear shades of formal diplomatic relations. This latest incident comes as the culmination of a long period of friction between the US and China, and even though the Taiwan issue is well entangled in the huge web of policies that foster unrest between the US and China, it is also true that given the difficult relationship both countries hold in regards to other matters, decades-long US politics towards the Taiwan problem overcomplicate its connection with China and the possibility to solve other Sino-US differences, particularly in light of the existence of US non-official relations with Taiwan that go against official diplomatic agreements that the US holds with China. 

Globalization is also a phenomenon to factor in, as it has caused the US and China to be dependent on each other, which makes Sino-US differences much more complicated and disrupting than US-Soviet ones were for global stability. China is much an economic and technological power than the USSR ever got to be; it is the second largest economy in the world and keeps growing at a pace that could endanger the US’ global first position as a techno-economic power. The quarrel between both sides to hold the first position in the global market is not only of an economic nature but also of a geopolitical and even ideological one. The multipolar character of the world is making those growing perspectives other than the US-led western one arise, and China is one of the big examples of this change. The US has always depicted itself as the biggest defender of democracy and has always claimed that democratic standards and economic liberalization are indispensable for a country to hold an important position in the international arena and the global market, and China’s position and features challenges greatly that point of view, because it has become a global power without completely meeting US-led western standards to become a global power, which endangers the US liberal discourse. 

This can also be related to the importance that Taiwan has for both China and the US. Taiwan is obviously a crucial location in the Pacific, the space that separated the US from China, especially if military interests are to be considered. China, has also a crucial position in regard to the South China Sea and a very deep historical importance rooted in century-long cultural ties and an unresolved territorial issue that originated during the Chinese civil war. But apart from all that, Taiwan is also crucial in light of the geopolitical and ideological rivalry that China and the US hold. It seems like defending Taiwan has been perceived as the perfect opportunity by the US to reaffirm its self-proclaimed hegemony as the world’s defender of democracy, while China seems to see the reunification of Taiwan (a very developed economic power as well) as a way to reaffirm the emerging of new growth perspectives that are separate from the Western ideals. 

Having said all that, it seems like rivalries over Taiwan are not only mirroring geopolitical quarrels held between both China and the US and rooted in something else than the Taiwan issue but also overcomplicating Sino-US understandings. The subject acquires greater importance when considering, as I mentioned before, the growing interdependence that globalization is subjecting China and the US to, especially in the economic arena, which explains itself by the difficulties that markets (their domestic ones and the global one), experience each time China and the US enrolled in a trade war. Such a strong economic interdependence tends to need the support of stable diplomatic ties in order to avoid economic difficulties both domestically and globally; because this type of connection between China and the US makes the stability of their domestic markets to depend on one another but being as they are first and second economies of the globe, the global market also depends to some extent of the stability of their relations. This way, China-US quarrels over the Taiwan issue have an impact on Sino-US diplomatic relations, which makes it difficult for trust to be built among both powers and affects their interdependence in a myriad of fields. 

Moreover, mediation over Sino-US relations seems extremely difficult in this case, not only because of the deep entanglement in their rivalries and quarrels but also because of the lack of importance given to cultural differences in negotiation processes, particularly from the US-led western side, which tends to perceive itself as the holder of the best ways to perceive conflict and its resolution. Faure (1999) explains the impact that culture has on negotiation processes (considering that diplomacy and mediation are sometimes also negotiation processes), centering on the Chinese perception of negotiation. One of the most interesting points of his work is that of the importance that trust acquires in Chinese culture, which would reflect the importance of trusting another negotiating party; that is why losing trust ties would make it more difficult to reach real and lasting agreements when Chinese negotiators are involved. If we apply all these facts to the current situation between the US and China, it seems like the absence of trust in Sino-US diplomatic relations would make it very hard for tensions to be eased, and that trust seems to be damaged greatly by the US involvement in the Taiwan issue, especially since the US keeps building agreements with China and Taiwan that contradict each other and that violate policies necessary to keep diplomatic relations with Beijing. 


As we have seen, the Taiwan issue is a tricky question that seems overcomplicated by US involvement, especially since that involvement creates a breach of formal Sino-US agreements that could endanger Sino-US relations and, to some extent, global stability. The great interdependence between China and the US is mirrored in the impact that the deterioration of their diplomatic relations is having on the global order.  

Sino- US understanding will be difficult to achieve as long as the US keeps fueling the deterioration of trust with conflicting policies over Taiwan. Later tensions over the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei have led to the reaffirmation once again of the US’ Six Assurances to Taiwan, which have further increased tensions. Both the One China Policy and the Taiwan Relations Act included prohibition the US from getting actively involved in the issue between China and Taiwan because it is perceived to be an issue that only Chinese people can solve peacefully among themselves. However, geopolitical quarrels that seem to endanger the US’ position in the globe appear to be reason enough for it to start inconsistent policies that deteriorate its relationship with China and that endanger global stability. The importance that culture acquires in international negotiations should also be considered in these cases because understanding cultural differences may be the key to an easier understanding. 


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