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Either Go Back to the Drawing Board or Man the Battlements

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Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan made clear that the strategic logic which guaranteed peace in the Taiwan Strait for 50 years can no longer hold.

Several years after his wife died, I had lunch with a friend in a crab shack in Annapolis and noticed that he no longer wore his wedding band.  When I asked why, he said “If I wear the band, it sends a signal to society that I don’t quite intend, and if I take it off, that sends a different signal, which I also don’t intend, but my only options are to wear or not wear the ring.”

That’s the problem with enforced binary symbols: no nuance, no evolution, no explanations allowed.

The United States and China are now struggling with the results of the most successfully navigated binary in our diplomatic history. Both sides were set on rapprochement when they wrote the Shanghai Communique in 1972. All they needed was a plausible rationalization for the Opening. China had forced a binary choice—against our inclinations, we must go with either Beijing or Taipei—and we accepted it, swallowing the inherent contradictions and lurking dishonesty in order to counter the Soviet Union.  To borrow a famous phrase from the USSR: China pretended that we embraced the One China Principle and we pretended to respect the pretense, sort of.  This kept the peace and enabled the prosperity of Taiwan and China for almost 50 years.

It was an extraordinary record, but it couldn’t last.

In the wake of the Pelosi visit to Taiwan, America is claiming that its policy toward Taiwan hasn’t changed. This is disingenuous. The One China Policy cannot be reduced to mere technical recognition of Beijing over Taipei as the government of Mainland China; since 1979, One China has also been a set of deeply ingrained practices that guided American diplomacy. It has been a genuine commitment to keeping up the pretense of the Shanghai Communique in the interest of peace. We abandoned that commitment several years ago and entered a period of drift.

China is disingenuous too. It is unwise for one country to force another to accept a proposition it doesn’t believe in, and then behave for half a century as if acceptance of the binary choice was sincere and eternal.

The deal of ’72 was made untenable, first, by the evolution of China, the U.S., and Taiwan itself and, second, by China’s assertion of prerogatives that it believes should accompany its growing power. China hopes the U.S. will have the wisdom to continue to wear the One China ring and act like we mean it; American hawks want Washington to have the honesty to pull the damn thing off and throw it away.

The challenge now is to lower the temperature by adhering to past agreements as best we can while building a new foundation for U.S.-China relations—one based on current and emerging conditions rather than past compromises. Even at the starting gate, this will be nearly impossible. China will not want to compromise over Taiwan and the United States will not want to sanction any extension of CCP influence beyond China’s borders. 

But the attempt must be made.  Theocritus said The Greeks got into Troy by trying, my pretties; everything's done by trying.

Beijing and Washington aren’t even trying. They’re too busy escalating their rivalry in the Western Pacific and hoping, absurdly, that the other side won’t notice.

This was originally published by the Asia Society’s Chinafile.

About the Author

Robert Daly image

Robert Daly

Director, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States

Robert Daly, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, has compiled an unusually diverse portfolio of high-level work: He has served as a U.S. diplomat in Beijing; as an interpreter for Chinese and U.S. leaders, including President Carter and Secretary of State Kissinger; as head of China programs at Johns Hopkins, Syracuse, and the University of Maryland; and as a producer of Chinese-language versions of Sesame Street. Recognized East and West as a leading authority on Sino-U.S. relations, he has testified before Congress, lectured widely in both countries, and regularly offers analysis for top media outlets.

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Kissinger Institute on China and the United States

The Kissinger Institute works to ensure that China policy serves American long-term interests and is founded in understanding of historical and cultural factors in bilateral relations and in accurate assessment of the aspirations of China’s government and people.  Read more