The Debate

What China’s Stance on Hong Kong Means for US-Taiwan Relations

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The Debate

What China’s Stance on Hong Kong Means for US-Taiwan Relations

If the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong is now void, why should the Shanghai Communique stand?

What China’s Stance on Hong Kong Means for US-Taiwan Relations
Credit: Richard Nixon Presidential Library

China’s Communist leaders have declared the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong outmoded and no longer relevant to changed circumstances.

They may have inadvertently provided U.S. President Donald Trump with a useful precedent to finally discard the obsolete and increasingly dangerous “one China” myth.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said in his regular Friday briefing that the 33-year-old agreement, “as a historical document, no longer has any practical significance, and it is not at all binding for the central government’s management over Hong Kong.”

That document guaranteed the people of Hong Kong the same rights and freedoms they had enjoyed during the last stage of British rule, to last “at least” until 2047. Given the erosion that has already taken place under Beijing’s control, the People’s Republic seems intent on ending those rights and freedoms 30 years earlier than the date they committed to. Xi Jinping’s tough warning about Chinese sovereignty during this week’s visit to the territory reinforced that message.

Beijing’s willingness to scrap what the British Foreign Office considers “a legally binding treaty, registered with the UN [which] continues to be in force” demonstrates China’s opportunistic, ever-shifting view of history.

Beijing has also dredged up a sketchy map of the South China Sea, drawn by China’s Nationalist government in 1947, and used it to claim Chinese control over the waters and land features of virtually the entire region.

Last summer, an international arbitral tribunal convened under the Permanent Court of Arbitration concluded that China’s claims are purely fanciful and entirely invalid under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which the PRC has signed and ratified. Beijing simply rejected the ruling as null and void and proceeded to defy it by continuing to dredge and build artificial islands, destroying coral reefs in the process. Then it constructed airfields and missile sites to enforce its spurious claims by military means. All that activity violated the environmental and peaceful purpose provisions of UNCLOS.

Trump, no fanatic adherent to official tradition and the practices and commitments of his predecessors to start with, may well be advised to return the favor and apply some of Beijing’s logic to the unjustifiably revered document that opened U.S.-China relations — the 1972 Shanghai Communique.

That document, negotiated on behalf of President Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong by Henry Kissinger and Zhou En-lai, can fairly be considered the original sin of the U.S.-China relationship.

The presumed obstacle to Nixon’s overture to China was the status of Taiwan. Beijing insisted that Washington concede the territorial sovereignty of a unitary, theoretically integrated China. That China would include the mainland ruled by Mao’s Communist Party and the island of Taiwan, controlled by the fiercely anti-communist Chiang Kai-shek.

Domestic American politics and international public opinion precluded explicit U.S. acquiescence to that outcome at that time. So the two sides agreed to draft a joint communique in which each would state its position on Taiwan in ways that could be interpreted as having the semblance of agreement.

China’s statement was direct and clear: Taiwan is part of China, period — this became known as the one-China principle. Beijing declared further that if that result could not be reached peacefully, it would simply use force to achieve it.

The United States position expressed in the Shanghai Communique was more nuanced, and more ambiguous:

The United States 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. The United States Government does not challenge that position (emphasis added).

That became known as America’s one China policy.

At the time, no one actually knew, of course, what “all Chinese” wanted since there were no polls, let alone elections, under either the communist or anti-communist dictatorships.

At least as importantly, the views of the native Taiwanese population were completely ignored. There was ample evidence that, having experienced the Chinese influx to the island that occurred when the Communists won China’s Civil War, they would hardly relish absorption by the rulers of the mainland.

As to how Taiwan’s future would be decided, the U.S. side stated, “It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.” But it did not reaffirm the commitment to defend Taiwan under the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty signed when Nixon was vice president under President Dwight Eisenhower. Instead, the United States unilaterally removed forces from Taiwan and withdrew the Seventh Fleet from the Taiwan Strait.

As the decades passed, Taiwan discarded its Nationalist dictatorship and moved to a democratic political system.

In his 1994 memoir, Nixon, who had conceived and implemented the China opening, recognized that the situation on Taiwan had changed so dramatically that now, “while they are in bed together economically, they are permanently separated politically” (emphasis added).

Trump has already cast doubt on the viability of the one China concept in today’s world, and shattered 40 years of precedent by speaking directly on the telephone with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen. He has suggested further conversations are possible depending on the state of U.S.-China relations, especially with regard to the North Korea nuclear and missile threat.

China’s abrogation of the U.K.-PRC agreement on Hong Kong gives Trump ample opportunity to adjust U.S. policy on Taiwan in a more realistic way. Indeed, the case for declared obsolescence and a fresh start is more compelling for the Shanghai Communique than for the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

For one thing, unlike the formal, UN-approved Sino-U.K. treaty, the Shanghai Communique is merely a bilateral pairing of divergent views by two states agreeing to disagree.

Second, the 1972 communique is 12 years more out of date than the 1984 Hong Kong treaty, which Beijing apparently believes is no longer relevant.

Third, the Nixon-Kissinger understanding that China would help the United States extricate itself honorably from Vietnam was cynically betrayed as Beijing provided arms, men, and other material and diplomatic support to the communist regime in Hanoi until the North Vietnamese army massively invaded and subjugated South Vietnam.

Finally, the officially stated American intention that China allow the Taiwan situation to evolve peacefully has been frustrated from the outset as Beijing has built an overwhelming military force to conquer Taiwan at a time of its choosing — and to engage in conflict with the United States if it tries to stand in the way.

China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law states unequivocally that Beijing will attack Taiwan not only if it declares independence, but also if it just takes too long to accept Chinese rule. (Unfortunately, Kissinger, unlike Nixon, goes along with the Chinese threat, telling Taiwan that China “will not wait forever for unification.”)

So, Trump, by virtue of his own demonstrated instincts and predilections and the changed political situation on Taiwan, and reinforced by Beijing’s unilateral shredding of the Hong Kong treaty, is on solid ground to revisit the Shanghai Communique.

He can start by removing the ambiguity and declaring forthrightly that the United States will defend Taiwan as surely it would have when the mutual defense treaty was in effect.

He can put an exclamation point on it by pledging to conduct arms sales talks with Taiwan on a regular basis, announcing arms packages as an annual routine, and ensuring that the systems provided are of a nature, quality, and quantity — including submarines and F-35s — that, together with the U.S. defense commitment, can actually deter a Chinese attack.

That straight-from-the-shoulder Trump message would actually be a favor to Xi by preventing a tragic miscalculation regarding Taiwan’s capabilities and American resolve.

Joseph Bosco is a former China country director in the office of the secretary of defense, 2005-2006.