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US Arms Sales to Taiwan Do Not Break America’s Promise to China 

Taiwan war planes are parked on a highway during an exercise to simulate a response to a Chinese attack on its airfields in Changhua in southern Taiwan. (Military News Agency via AP, File)
Mao Ning

Mao Ning

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson 

“The US arms sales to China’s Taiwan region seriously violate the one-China principle and the stipulations of the three China-US joint communiques, especially the August 17 Communique.”


On March 2, the U.S. State Department approved a $619 million arms sale to Taiwan, just as the democratically self-governing island reported a second day of Chinese air force incursions into its air defense identification zone.

China, which claims Taiwan as its territory, said it “firmly opposes” the deal and urged the United States to “stop arms sales to and military contact with Taiwan.”

“The U.S. arms sales to China’s Taiwan region seriously violate the one-China principle and the stipulations of the three China-U.S. joint communiques, especially the August 17 Communique,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said on March 2.

That is misleading.

First, Beijing’s “one-China principle” differs from the U.S. “one-China policy.”

One-China principle states that the government in Beijing is “the sole legal government representing the whole of China" and that “Taiwan is a part of China.”

The one-China policy recognizes Beijing as “the sole legal government of China,” but does not take a position on Taiwan’s status.

In fact, the one-China policy is “a distillation from key documents such as the three U.S.-China joint communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), and a series of policy statements made over the years, such as the ‘six assurances’,” wrote Richard Bush, former head of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de-facto U.S. embassy on the island.

Washington and Beijing signed the 1972 Shanghai Communique and the 1979 Normalization Communique that led to formal diplomatic ties.

However, neither communique touched on U.S arms sales to Taiwan. And while the U.S. merely “acknowledged” Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China without concurring with it, Beijing denounced U.S. arms sales to Taiwan as violating China’s sovereignty over the island.

The so-called August 17 Communique of 1982, the third of the U.S.-China joint communiques, sought to address the arms sales issue.

In that joint communique, the U.S. said it “understands and appreciates the Chinese policy of striving for a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question” and “has 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 joint communique further stated:

“[The United States] does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, and that it intends gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan, leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution.”

However, the U.S. did not specify what “a final resolution” would look like, simply stating that it “acknowledges China's consistent position regarding the thorough settlement of this issue.”

In April 1979, soon after Washington severed official ties with Taipei and recognized Beijing, the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act. It stipulated that the U.S. would “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern.”

It also said the U.S. would “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”

Moreover, before the signing the August 17, 1982 communique, the administration of then-President Ronald Reagan secretly provided Taipei with “Six Assurances.” They guaranteed, among other things, that the U.S. “would not set a date for termination of arms sales” to Taiwan and “would not consult with the PRC in advance before making decisions about U.S. arms sales” to Taiwan.

Reagan also wrote an internal presidential memorandum stating that “the U.S. willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of the Taiwan-PRC differences,” adding that “it is essential that the quantity and quality of the arms provided Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC.”

In recent decades, China has been ramping up both its rhetorical and military aggression against Taiwan.

Chinese leaders have said the Taiwan question should not be postponed indefinitely. Meanwhile, as the Asia Society, a New York-based think tank, put it, China has been “building up the military capability to make credible the military threat to Taiwan and to any U.S. forces that might intervene in Taiwan’s defense.”

Last October, President Xi Jinping opened the ruling Chinese Communist Party's 20th party congress with a speech stating that China “will never promise to give up the use of force and reserve the option to take all necessary measures," but will strive for “the prospect of peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and best efforts.”