President Reagan's Sixth Assurance to Taiwan

June 13, 2016
Taipei Times


The bedrock of the ‘six assurances’

By John Tkacik  / 

Mon, Jun 13, 2016 - Page 8

 On the evening of July 14, 1982, at a secret meeting at then-president Chiang Ching-kuo’s (蔣經國) spartan “Seven Seas Residence” in suburban Taipei, James R. Lilley presented Chiang with “six assurances” directly from then-US president Ronald Reagan. Lilley was the de facto US ambassador in Taipei, where he had been assigned after a year as Reagan’s top East Asia adviser on the US National Security Council.


The meeting was shrouded in secrecy — only Lilley, Chiang and his vice minister of foreign affairs Frederick Chien (錢復) were present.


The “six assurances” were the fruit of several weeks of White House deliberations on how to deal even-handedly with both Taipei and Beijing after it was disclosed that then-US secretary of state Alexander Haig had urged the US to cut off arms sales to Taiwan as the price of maintaining a strategic relationship with China.


Haig’s efforts proved disastrous to his position. he resigned on June 25, 1982, and in his memoir admits that his resignation was what ultimately made even a watered-down Taiwan arms sales communique with China possible. In fact, Reagan approved the Third Joint Communique only after he had satisfied himself that it did not compromise Taiwan’s security. Reagan wrote in his diary the day he fired Haig that “actually, the only disagreement [with Haig] was whether I made policy or the Sec. of State did.”


Haig did not approve of his president’s assurances. They were formulated by the White House and drafted by David Dean, then-chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan’s Washington office and a trusted foreign-service officer in the Department of State’s Office of Taiwan Coordination, and were presented to Taiwan three weeks after Haig’s departure.


Among the first four assurances were that the US would not allow Beijing to dictate the terms of arms supplies to Taipei; nor would the US push Taiwan to negotiate with China, much less mediate between Taipei and Beijing.


The fifth and sixth assurances were that the US would not change a “long-standing” policy regarding Taiwan’s sovereignty.


That “long-standing” policy had been concisely explained to the US Senate 12 years earlier.


As Taiwan and the Pescadores are not covered by any existing international disposition, sovereignty over the area is an unsettled question subject to future international resolution... The United States recognized the Government of the Republic of China as legitimately occupying and exercising jurisdiction over Taiwan and the Pescadores,” the 1970 restatement of US policy on Taiwan’s “unsettled” status said.


The “unsettled” status alarmed then-president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), but in 1982 it was received with relief and appreciation. Indeed, the fifth assurance, that the US had not changed its view of Taiwan’s “unsettled” status, was one which Chiang Ching-kuo had specifically sought upon learning of Washington’s secret negotiations with Beijing on arms sales to Taiwan.


However, it was the sixth of the “assurances” given by Reagan to Chiang Ching-kuo that evening which was perhaps the one that Chiang Ching-kuo valued most highly.


By 1982, Taipei was relieved, indeed delighted, by it. Then-US assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs John Holdridge said in his memoir, Crossing the Divide, that the sixth “assurance” read: “The United States would not formally recognize China’s sovereignty over Taiwan,” a point that Holdridge ultimately made public on July 24, 1982.


Chiang Ching-kuo now appreciated that Taiwan’s “unsettled” status was crucial to the endurance of his government’s international legitimacy and indeed to Taiwan’s future identity as an Asian democracy in an international system that increasingly had acquiesced to China’s claims of legal authority over the island.


That sixth “assurance,” that the US “would not formally recognize China’s sovereignty” meant that Taiwan’s democracy would instead be built upon an international identity separate from China.


This “assurance,” in turn, rested upon the statutory mandate of that other cornerstone of US policy toward Taiwan, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which stated: “Whenever the laws of the United States refer or relate to foreign countries, nations, states, governments, or similar entities, such terms shall include and such laws shall apply with respect to Taiwan.”


Thenceforth, scores of constitutional amendments and electoral reforms through the 1990s in Taiwan, and its political evolution into Asia’s most successful experiment in democratic principles, ensured that Taiwan’s future would be subject solely to the will of the Taiwanese. Reagan’s “assurances” have become the legal bedrock of the US’ continued diplomacy with Taiwan as an independent entity in world affairs.


In the 34 years since Reagan’s “six assurances,” each successive US administration has adopted them. In an April 2004 congressional hearing, then-US assistant secretary of state for East Asia James Kelly linked the sixth “assurance” to something he called our ‘one China,’” with the Delphic explanation: “In my testimony, I made the point our ‘one China,’ and I didn’t really define it, and I’m not sure I very easily could define it. I can tell you what it is not. It is not the ‘one China’ policy or the ‘one China’ principle that Beijing suggests, and it may not be the definition that some would have in Taiwan.”


Kelly, a skilled diplomatist, took pains not to disturb the “unsettled” nature of Taiwan’s status. He pleaded with Taipei to avoid it as well.


Last month, US Congress also weighed in with robust resolutions reaffirming the “six assurances.” One passed the US House of Representatives by voice vote on May 16, and a strong bipartisan companion was introduced on May 19 in the Senate. These latest endorsements by Congress are intended to reassure President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) that the US remains committed to Taiwan, and to ease domestic political pressures on her to move the needle on Taiwans status.


Reagan’s “six assurances,” and especially the sixth, that the US would “not formally recognize China’s sovereignty over Taiwan,” remain an essential buttress to Taiwan’s future, and with it, the future of East Asia.


Indeed, they are mainstays of the US’ future in a free and democratic Asia. 



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