China and US avert Taiwan collision during Mattis visit

July 03, 2018 11:38
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had a number of tough conversations during his visit to China, but both sides viewed the visit positively. Photo: Reuters

The first visit by an American defense secretary to China in four years went off relatively well last week, with Jim Mattis making clear that he was approaching talks with an open mind and that he wanted to “do a lot of listening” and then “have a conversation”.

Mattis evidently had a number of tough conversations, including with President Xi Jinping and his official host, the defense minister, Gen. Wei Fenghe. While the Americans were more interested in discussing what they see as Chinese militarization of the South China Sea and North Korea, Chinese officials focused on Taiwan, where the United States opened new offices June 12 for its unofficial embassy, the American Institute in Taiwan.

China’s firmness on its territorial claims was made clear by President Xi, who told Mattis in defense of Chinese activities in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits: “Not a single inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors must be lost, while we are not seeking to take any bit of what belongs to others.”

China is unhappy that the US Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act earlier this year to encourage high-level visits between Taiwan and the US, and there was concern in China that Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, would attend the opening of the new AIT office. However, on that day, Bolton was in Singapore for Trump’s meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

The Senate recently passed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2019, which encourages the US military to participate in exercises with the Taiwan military.

There have also been reports that the State Department has, for the first time, requested that marine guards be assigned to protect the AIT, which is technically not a diplomatic mission.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, asked for comment, said last Friday: “The one-China principle is the political foundation for China-US relations. The US should honor its commitment to the one-China principle and refrain from any official ties or military exchanges with Taiwan.”

From China’s standpoint, the holding of joint military exercises with Taiwan or the dispatch of marine guards would be inconsistent with the one-China principle, under which the US and China established diplomatic relations in 1979. The US at the same time broke relations with Taiwan.

A joint communiqué was issued in which the US and China recognized each other’s government. It included the following words: “The Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”

In the communiqué, the US also says that it would continue to maintain “unofficial relations” with the people of Taiwan.

Thus, in China’s view, any American action that suggests recognition of Taiwan as a state would be contrary to its acknowledgement of the one-China principle.

China has made it clear that while its preference is for a peaceful union between itself and Taiwan, it reserves the right to use force to achieve this end. This directly contradicts the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by the US Congress in 1979 to authorize the “continuation of commercial, cultural and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan, and for other purposes”.

These other purposes very much include ensuring that Taiwan’s fate should not be resolved by China through the use of force. Thus, the act says, “It is the policy of the United States to make clear that the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.”

This would appear to suggest that Chinese use of force would nullify the American expectation that only peaceful means could be used, and that the maintenance of diplomatic relations would be thrown into doubt.

Indeed, the possibility of a US-China collision is real as China heightens threats of force and the US tightens ties with Taiwan.

Such an outcome is unlikely to have been discussed during the Mattis visit. Both sides assessed the visit positively, with the Chinese defense ministry describing the visit as having been "positive and constructive".

The US decision to disinvite China from the Rim of the Pacific naval exercises this year as a result of its militarization of the South China Sea was played down.

Instead, at the farewell banquet for Mattis, the emphasis was on Sino-American friendship, with a Chinese performer singing Edelweiss, from the Sound of Music. Mattis refrained from joining in but other members of his entourage did, and there was an impressive display of camaraderie.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.