A Careful Reading of the Joint Declaration
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
November 19, 2009
U.S. President Barack Obama may have left Beijing. But the Joint Declaration he and Mainland Chinese President Hu Jintao signed has shaken Washington, Beijing, and Taipei. The aftershocks are still being felt. This Joint Declaration may be the most important document in Sino-US relations since the Three Communiques. To refer to it as the Fourth Communique may be an overstatement. But the Joint Declaration will surely guide Beijing-Washington relations during the Barack Obama administration.
Beijing and Washington have signed communiques and agreements in the past. But the Joint Declaration issued by Obama and Hu differs from previous documents. The portion pertaining to Taiwan contains several clear differences.
First of all, it specified and emphasized core interests. In particular, it emphasized that the key to healthy bilateral relations is for Beijing and Washington to respect each other's core interests. Leave aside for the moment the core interests of Washington, and concentrate on the core interests of Beijing. Consider their relation to China's national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Whatever the reasons might be for not making these core interests explicit, President Hu Jintao made clear at a press conference that "on the issue of Taiwan, the US must respect China's national sovereignty and territorial integrity." Obama said he respected the fact that "Tibet is a part of China." These made Beijing's core interests explicit. The United States must respect the fact that it is not entitled to intervene in matters concerning Taiwan and Tibet.
Secondly, there was no mention of Taiwan's security. Whenever the United States issued any statement or conducted any conversation concerning cross-Strait issues in the past, it always mentioned the Taiwan Relations Act, or its "security commitment to Taiwan." It mentioned them in the same breath as the Three Communiques. Yet it was not mentioned at all in this current, official document. The United States may mention them later. But the overall impact will be less than the impact of the Joint Declaration by the two heads of state.
The day before yesterday Barack Obama met with students in Shanghai. He did not mention the Taiwan Relations Act. That was a warning sign. After the Joint Declaration was signed, Obama mentioned it belatedly at a press conference. He seemed to be attempting to strike a balance. But Mainland Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei immediately rebutted Obama's statement. He said the Joint Declaration is the document that supplies the guiding principles for bilateral relations. Beijing firmly opposes the Taiwan Relations Act and arms sales to Taipei. "On this point, there is no ambiguity."
Third, Washington's expectations in political negotiations are gradually converging with Beijing's. In the past, Washington would merely say that it looked forward to cross-Strait dialogue and a reduction in tensions. By contrast, the Joint Declaration clearly states that Washington and Beijing "look forward to increased bilateral (Taipei and Beijing) dialogue and interaction in economic, political, and other areas," consistent wtih Beijing's latest policies vis a vis Taipei.
Recently President Hu Jintao met with Lien Chan in Singapore. Zheng Bijian lead a mission to Taiwan. Both times Beijing raised the issue of political dialogue or negotiations. But the Ma administration has always insisted upon "economics first, politics last." Scholars with close ties to agencies responsible for national security have suggested three conditions for the initiation of political dialogue. One of these conditions is that "they must be acceptable to the international community." But now that Washington's attitude is consistent with Beijing's, it may violate its past six assurances not to pressure Taipei to negotiate with Beijing.
That Obama has tilted this far is part of a larger pattern. The Financial Times invoked a metaphor. When a debtor visits a creditor, he cannot possibly adopt a tough attitude. Mainland China holds 600 billion in U.S. government debt. Besides, Washington needs Beijing's cooperation on issues such as climate change, the economic crisis, and even global security. It must acknowledge China's rise, and accept the reality of shared global leadership.
The United States can no longer dominate the world. But it is unwilling to allow Mainland China to eject it from the Western Pacific. On the contrary, it wants even more active participation. During a speech in Tokyo, Barack Obama openly declared that "The United States is a Pacific nation." U.S. forces will stay in Okinawa. The United States will become an ASEAN partner. It will not be absent from any new Asia-Pacific free trade bodies.
Under the influence of these factors, Washington has made concessions regarding Beijing's core interests, in exchange for Beijing's agreement not to oppose a continued U.S. presence in the Western Pacific, and for active cooperation with Washington in global affairs. This is regarded as a cost-effective transaction. Washington is satisfied, Beijing is happy, and Asia-Pacific nations are at ease. The only ones sacrificed have been Taiwan and Tibet.
The Joint Declaration amounts to a major change in Washington-Beijing-Taipei relations. Although international power arrangements are a factor, the Ma administration's national security team has a responsibility to understand the circumstances surrounding this development. First of all, if Washington informed the Ma administration in advance, but the agencies responsible for national security failed to react prudently, solemnly, then they were derelict in their duty. If on the other hand, Washington did not even bother to give us a heads-up, or if our side failed to catch wind of these developments, that is cause for even greater concern.
According to reports Washington will send someone to Taipei next week to explain the situation. Our side should take the opportunity to let Washington know we do not agree with its position. We would like high-ranking U.S. officials to make a public statement, or reaffirm its commitment to Taiwan's security through concrete actions such as arms sales, gradually amending the gist of the Joint Declaration. Following the Joint Declaration Beijing soon began demanding peace talks. Beijing, as one can imagine, will surely link ECFA with peace negotiations. Handled improperly, ECFA could run aground. Or it could trigger a confrontation between the government and the opposition. At the very least it could influence the elections. At worst it could divide the country. Those in authority must respond prudently.