Amid Taiwan Tensions, Airline Spat Shows Sino-US Failure to Communicate

Publication: China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 9

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen addresses the press following Burkina Faso's shift in diplomatic representation.

On May 25, while the United States passed a weekend of rest and remembrance in commemoration of Memorial Day, Taiwan’s air force scrambled fighters to trail two H-6 heavy bombers, sent by the PLA Air Force to trace a half-circle around the island’s south and east (ROC Ministry of Defense, May 25). The flight came a day after Burkina Faso switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC, leaving Taiwan with only one official relationship in Africa, the tiny nation of Swaziland (SCMP, May 25).

These were the latest manifestations of an intensifying PRC pressure campaign against Taiwan. Another such recent incident—a written PRC government order sent to more than 40 foreign airlines, demanding that they stop listing Taiwan as a separate country on their websites—illustrates the spillover risks of a dangerous Sino-US communications gap on cross-Strait issues. Put simply, the United States’ policy towards Taiwan’s status is not what many people in the PRC believe it to be, a misperception that helps foster confusion and outrage within China.

PRC domestic media coverage framed the demand to foreign airlines as falling well within the PRC’s diplomatic rights, since the carriers’ home countries recognize Taiwan as a part of China, a claim which included American carriers. “This being the case,” as one widely reprinted article put it, “what exactly is wrong with the mainland requiring American airlines to delete any content that [portrays] Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao as countries independent of China?” (TaiwanNet, May 8).

This is a misrepresentation of the United States’s One China Policy. Although the US’s position on the status of Taiwan is intentionally ambiguous—which has given both the US and China room to maneuver in the years since Nixon met Mao—it has never included explicit written agreement that the PRC exercises sovereignty over Taiwan. [1]

Both the US and the PRC bear responsibility for this misrepresentation’s existence. Its origins are complex, and rooted in the delicate negotiations that led to official US recognition of the PRC in 1979. Nothing represents the perception gap better than the two sides’ interpretation of a key line on Taiwan from the 1978 joint communique normalizing Sino-US relations.

In English, the text reads:

“The Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” [2]

The word “acknowledge” in English connotes understanding and awareness, but not necessarily agreement. The official Chinese version of the same line uses the verb chengren (承认). Chengren’s meaning is very different than “acknowledge”. It connotes recognition or agreement. It can also mean “confess” or “admit”. In this case, chengren implies that the US is admitting the correctness of the PRC’s position, rather than simply signaling an awareness of it, as is implied by the English text.

Among other possible explanations, Richard Bush, a scholar and former US diplomat, speculates that this ambiguity may have been introduced as a way for both sides to sell the agreement to their respective domestic constituencies, in the hopes that with time, the Taiwan issue would fix itself.

That has not been the case. And as the cross-Strait power differential has shifted increasingly in the PRC’s favor, the gap in understanding has only become more glaring. Neither the US nor the PRC seem in a hurry to correct it. Partially as a result, online conversations expressing sentiments like “even America recognizes (the PRC’s) One China Policy, why is it we still can’t get Taiwan back?” are not difficult to find on the PRC internet (Douban, January 8 2017). [3]

Nor is the misperception limited to internet and media commentary. It is held even among specialists. In a recent conversation with the author, when told the US’s One China Policy does not admit that Taiwan is a part of the PRC, a young scholar of international relations from the PRC said “[that] is not the perception of China”, adding that the US’s position was “deceptive”.

This communication misalignment has been exacerbated by recent events. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders famously described China’s threats towards foreign airline corporations as “Orwellian nonsense” (SCMP, May 22). A statement using the same language was posted to the official Weibo account of the US Embassy in Beijing (The News Lens, May 8). As of this writing, the statement remains viewable by PRC internet users.

Although many foreign carriers have complied with Beijing’s demand to recategorize Taiwan, most American carriers have applied for and received one-month extensions to the compliance deadline (Bloomberg, May 27). It remains unclear whether they will comply, or what discussions, if any, are happening between the companies and the US government. [4]

Sanders’ remark also comes at a time when the US Congress is also signaling its consideration of a more assertive approach on Taiwan, exemplified by its recent passage of the Taiwan Travel Act (Focus Taiwan, May 28). The bill, which obligates the US executive branch to send high-level officials to Taiwan (Lawfare, March 20), was met with a furious response in PRC official media.

Some of the outrage was probably manufactured. But some of it was undoubtedly genuine, the product of a widely held belief that the United States has long said one thing about its position on Taiwan, while it does another.

For many years the deliberate ambiguity, even vagueness, of the US’s position has been useful. It has allowed both sides to sidestep the thorny question of Taiwan’s status as economic ties have flourished. But as the PRC’s relationships with both Taiwan and the US grow more tense, and the US moves towards a firmer stance, such a large degree of ambiguity may no longer be beneficial.

Paradoxically, addressing the problem and placing US-PRC relations on a clearer footing might not require a shift in the substance of the US’s position. It would simply require the US to begin pointing out, more frequently and more publicly, that its One China Policy is not what the PRC imagines it to be.

Matt Schrader is the editor of the Jamestown Foundation China Brief. Follow him on Twitter at @tombschrader.


[1] For a more complete description of what the US’s One China Policy is and isn’t, and how it has changed over time, see this useful primer by Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution. At Cross Purposes: U.S.-Taiwan Relations Since 1942, also by Bush, is excellent for understanding how changing US policy goals shaped the negotiation of the foundational documents of US-PRC-Taiwan relations, including the Three Communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act.

[2] Both the English and Chinese joint declaration texts referred to are drawn from the website of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America. The English version is accessible here, the Chinese version here.

[3] In the conversation linked above, despite responses from a number of commenters, none pointed out the discrepancy in the US and PRC positions.

[4] Several Japanese carriers have also applied for and received extensions.