Above Photo: Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters
US President Joe Biden left reporters puzzled on Tuesday after mentioning a supposed “Taiwan Agreement” with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), since no such agreement by that name exists.
“China has…I’ve spoken with Xi about Taiwan. We agree, we will abide by the Taiwan agreement,” Biden said outside the White House on Tuesday evening, when asked about the recent flight of several dozen Chinese aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
“That’s where we are and I made it clear that I don’t think he should be doing anything other than abiding by the agreement,” he added.
— 黄耀毅 (@VOAYYH) October 5, 2021
It’s unclear to which agreement Biden is referring, as there is no such pact called the “Taiwan Agreement.” There are a few possibilities, however, although none of them make Biden’s statement make any more sense.
During a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on September 10, Biden said he had no intention of changing the US’ “One-China Policy.” That policy, a foundation for every nation’s bilateral relationship with Beijing, holds to the principle that the PRC is the legitimate representative of the Chinese people and not the Republic of China (ROC), the formal name of the government in Taipei.
The ROC was formed in 1912 after the last Chinese emperor abdicated the throne. However, by 1949, it had lost control of all of China except for Taiwan and a handful of islands off the coast, with the entire mainland being captured by the communist Red Army, which declared the PRC’s foundation in Beijing. The PRC regards Taiwan as a province in rebellion from the central government that is destined to be reunited with the rest of China. The US continued to recognize the ROC as the Chinese government until the 1970s, when talks began on shifting that recognition.
The shift was underpinned by three joint communiques between Washington and Beijing, made in 1972, 1979, and 1982, in which the US and PRC agreed on a set of principles. Most important among these was that the US would end its political and military relationship with the ROC and acknowledge “there is but one China.”
However, the US didn’t really do that. The Taiwan Relations Act, passed by Congress in 1979, outlined how the US would continue to provide support to what it now termed the “governing authorities on Taiwan.” That support has included pushing for Taiwan to be admitted to international organizations such as the World Health Organization, as well as regular arms sales to Taiwan, including advanced fighter jets, cruise missiles, and torpedoes.
The US also performs regular transits of the Taiwan Strait, which separates the island from the mainland, in defiance of a Chinese policy regarding the waterway as internal waters.
When the US announces these moves, Beijing typically follows up by urging the US to abide by the three joint communiques, and it’s very clear what that means. However, Biden’s comment has only made things more opaque than before.