My last post in this series ended with a video of President George W. Bush reiterating the U.S. commitment to a set of bilateral agreements known as “the three communiques.” Yesterday, two Asia experts advising the Trump transition, Randall Schriver and Dan Blumenthal, suggested the president-elect should scrap them. Both men are being considered for senior positions in the Trump administration. It now seems clear that Mr. Trump’s controversial outreach to Republic of China (ROC) President Tsai Ing-wen was not a simple “courtesy call,” but the first step in a coordinated effort by the Asia advisors on the Trump transition team to bring the Nixon-Kissinger era in US-China relations to a close.
What are the “Three Communiques”?
The “three communiques” are a set of formal statements jointly issued by the governments of the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The first communique, also known as the Shanghai Communique, was issued in February of 1972 during US President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China. The second communique, also known as the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations, was issued on December 15, 1978 and became effective on January 1, 1979. The third communique, also known as the Joint Communique on Arms Sales to Taiwan, was issued on August 17, 1982.
All three communiques addressed US and PRC views on the sovereign status of Taiwan and their respective relations with the ROC government. In the Shanghai Communique China stated that the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government of China, that Taiwan is part of China and that unification was an internal affair. The US acknowledged “that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China” and reaffirmed the US interest in “a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.”
In the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations the United States formally recognized that the government of the PRC is the sole legitimate government of China and that US relations with Taiwan would be “unofficial” and conducted “within this context.” In The Joint Communique on Arms Sales to Taiwan, negotiated by President Ronald Reagan and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang, the United States declared it would not pursue a policy of “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan.”
Schriver and Blumenthal questioned whether these three documents should still continue to govern US-China relations:
“There is, of course, a deeper and more complicated set of questions regarding the utility of communiqués drafted during the Cold War when an authoritarian Taiwan still claimed to rule “all of China.” A democratic Taiwan has long abandoned the claim that it represents “all Chinese across the Strait.” It is hard to think of another set of relationships still governed by joint communiqués from the Cold War era.”
The two prospective members of the Trump administration noted that the president-elect did not raise these questions during his call with ROC President Tsai. But should Mr. Schriver and Mr. Blumenthal be appointed to senior Asia-related positions in the US government, this “deeper and more complicated set of questions” is likely to be discussed.
The Cold War roots of the three communiques are so tangled that even a cursory explanation demands a future post, or posts, dedicated to uncovering them. Taiwan’s political evolution in the post-Cold War period is another consideration. Both are relevant to the future of the relationships between the three parties; relationships that would lack clear definition if the three communiques suddenly became dead letters.
Peter Navarro is another Asia expert advising the Trump transition who is being discussed as a nominee for a senior Asia-related position in the new administration. Like Schriver and Blumenthal, he also views the communiques pioneered by Nixon and Kissinger—and reinforced by every US president since—as a relic of the Cold War. Moreover, he argues China is the now the most serious security challenge facing the United States, which must redefine its relationship with Taiwan in order to prevent the Chinese navy from gaining more open access to the Pacific Ocean.
Role for the Senate
The outlines of President-elect Trump’s China policy are taking shape under the direction of a new team of Asia experts who believe the United States needs a radical break with the past. The call to ROC President Tsai Ing-wen is just the first step in a series of significant changes these experts intend to make as senior officials in a new administration. Given the importance of the US-China relationship, and the potential consequences of a unilateral abrogation of official diplomatic agreements that have defined US-China relations for decades, Congress needs to exercise due diligence.
One of the most important powers Congress has over the conduct of US foreign and military policy is the power to examine, accept or reject executive appointments to key posts. Sub-cabinet nominations often move through the Senate on a voice vote. Congress needs to think seriously about the implications of the changes being proposed across a range of US interests, and must give President Trump’s nominees for Asia-related posts more careful scrutiny.
UCS’s “China Transition Watch” is a series of occasional posts that discusses how actions and statements during the Trump transition may affect US-China relations. While not intended to be comprehensive, the goal of the series is to provide insight on key issues.