Is the Clinton Administration Still Committed to the “Six Assurances”?

February 18, 2000

 Washington's official policy toward Taiwan has been based on the "Taiwan Relations Act" – which takes precedence over the U.S.-China Communiques by virtue of its status as the "law of the land" – and by the lesser-known "Six Assurances." This paper describes the "Six Assurances" and assesses the Clinton Administration's faithfulness to these commitments made by a previous administration directly to the Taiwan government.

The "Six Assurances"

On July 14, 1982, while engaged in negotiating with the PRC the text of a communique dealing with arms sales to Taiwan, the Reagan administration conveyed to the Republic of China government in Taipei a six point explanation of American policy. These points, which have become known as “the Six Assurances,” were:

1. The U.S. has not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan.

2. The U.S. has not agreed to hold prior consultations with the Chinese government on arms sales to Taiwan.

3. The U.S. will not play any mediation role between Taiwan and China.

4. The U.S. has not agreed to revise the Taiwan Relations Act.

5. The U.S. has not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan.

6. The U.S. will not exert pressure on the Republic of China to enter into negotiations with the PRC.

The actions of the Clinton administration has raised questions about the extent, if any, that its China and Taiwan policies have operated in ways contradictory to one or more of these "Six Assurances."

Thus far, the Clinton Administration seems to have complied with those assurances that dealt specifically with arms sales, but, this could change.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott's visit to Beijing this Wednesday (February 17, 2000) will apparently deal with the matter of missile defense, and it is certain that the Chinese will raise the proposed sale of Aegis radar and fire control systems as well as the PAC-III anti-ballistic missile system to Taiwan. Should Talbott allow the Chinese protests guide U.S. policy on the sale of these systems to Taiwan, despite the clear threat Taiwan faces from China's ever-increasing M-9 and M-11 missile deployments along the China coast opposite Taiwan, the Clinton administration's adherence to the assurances – as well as its commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act itself – would be suspect.

Nor has the Clinton administration made any attempt to act as mediator between Taiwan and China. Similarly, there have been no voices in the Clinton administration suggesting revision of the Taiwan Relations Act. But two questions must be explored in considerable detail: has the Clinton administration exerted pressure on Taiwan to negotiate with the PRC; and has the Clinton administration altered the U.S. position on the status of Taiwan.

Pressure to Negotiate

In the aftermath of the crisis of March 1996, when the U.S. had felt it necessary to respond to PRC test firing of missiles in the immediate vicinity of Taiwan’s ports by sending two aircraft carrier task forces to the area, Clinton administration policy makers felt it urgently important to get the two sides of the Taiwan strait talking to each other and, as well, damp down the extreme tensions between the U.S. and the PRC. Similar views were widespread in the unofficial China policy community as well. Beginning particularly after Jiang Zemin’s state visit to Washington in October 1997, considered a success by both the U.S. and the PRC, a steady stream of former senior officials of the Clinton administration visited Taiwan (and often Beijing as well) urging Taiwan to show flexibility and resume “dialogue” with the PRC.

A list of such visitors would include: a group led by former Defense Secretary Perry in January 1998, including former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili; Kenneth Lieberthal, soon to become a member of the National Security Council staff, in February 1998; former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Joseph Nye in March 1998; former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, also in March 1998. In February 1999, Perry was back again with another group, this time including retired Admiral Joseph Prueher, soon to become Clinton’s ambassador the PRC.

"Interim Agreements"

Although all these visitors claimed to be speaking in a private capacity, it highly likely that all had discussed their visits in advance with serving administration officials, and were carefully debriefed upon their return. Lieberthal and Nye were on record as having proposed forms of agreement in which during an "interim period" – usually specified as fifty years -- Taiwan would promise not to declare formal independence in return for a PRC non-use of force pledge. In an article in the July/August 1998 issue of Foreign Affairs, another former Clinton administration Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security affairs, Charles W. Freeman, Jr., also proposed a fifty year interim agreement, one which would include sharply curtailed arms sales to Taiwan.

Whether intended as such by the Clinton administration or not, it is entirely understandable – indeed to be expected – that the government in Taipei would see these events and visits as U.S. pressure to negotiate with the PRC. This impression could only have been heightened when Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Stanley O. Roth in an address at the Woodrow Wilson Center on March 24, 1999, using the same term, called for “interim agreements, perhaps in combination with specific confidence building measures, on any number of difficult topics.” The phrases “interim agreements” and “confidence building measures” almost surely would have been as placing an official overlay on the supposedly unofficial statements by Lieberthal, Nye, Freeman, and others.

Given this palpable pressure on Taiwan, it seems doubtful that the "Six Assurances" has had an inhibiting effect on the Clinton Administration's Taiwan policy formulation processes. This, despite the Clinton Administration's professed commitment to the "Six Assurances"

However, whether this was Washington’s intention or not, the Taipei government would certainly have interpreted the pattern of visits by former senior Clinton Administration officials as Clinton administration pressure to negotiate, and therefore as contradicting the Six Assurances. One Taipei reaction was to explicitly disown the so-called “Track II” concept and insist that dialogue across the Strait must to be carried out in the established Straits Exchange Foundation – Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait channel, and that as far as Taiwan was concerned, the ball rested in the PRC court.
by Assistant Secretary Roth in writing to Senator Helms at his confirmation hearings in 1997, and again by Roth at a press briefing on the eve of President Clinton's 1998 visit to China. When asked "do those six assurances remain valid?", replied "I think I've been as clear as I could be that there will be no change in U.S. policy towards Taiwan as a result of this visit."

Changes in the U.S. View of Taiwan’s Status

Before the Shanghai Communique

Following the Formosa Straits Crisis of 1954, the United States sought the support of European allies in defending the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu (Jinmen and Mazu) from Chinese Communist attack, but met with resistance from the United Kingdom and others which recognized the islands as Chinese territory. In order to differentiate Taiwan proper and the Pescadores (Penghu) Islands, the Eisenhower Administration took the view that "Japan never ceded sovereignty over Formosa and the Pescadores to China. Japan renounced all sovereignty but left the future title undefined. Thus, the United States as the principal victor of Japan has an unsatisfied interest in these former Japanese islands." This was a key legal point which restricted the U.S. defense commitment to Taiwan and the Pescadores, but not to the offshores, and it remained U.S. policy on Taiwan, despite the recognition of the Nationalist government in Taipei, until the Shanghai Communique.

Indeed, as late as 1964, a secret "National Policy Paper" on Taiwan declared that the United States "should pursue economic, political and security policies which will in fact facilitate the survival of Taiwan as an independent national entity if, as now seems possible, this proves to be the ultimate consequence of further prolonged isolation of the island from the mainland of China."

After the Shanghai Communique

But, from the time of the Shanghai Communique in February 1972 onward, there was a well-calibrated agnosticism in official U.S. statements as to Taiwan’s status. In the Shanghai Communique, the U.S. said it “acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States does not challenge that position.” Neither did the U.S. state any position of its own.

The risks of this agnosticism, however, were clearly apparent to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in October 1976 when he convened his top China policy advisors to discuss, among other things, the danger of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or other "lower range" activities. Kissinger asked "if Taiwan is recognized by us as part of China, then it may become irresistible for them [to invade]. Our saying we want a peaceful solution has no force, it is Chinese territory. What are we going to do about it?" He mused "for us to go to war with a recognized country where we have an ambassador over a part of what we would recognize as their country would be preposterous." To which, Kissinger's Assistant Secretary for East Asia (later Ambassador to China) Arthur Hummell suggested, "Down the road, perhaps the only solution would be an independent Taiwan." Kissinger didn't like this either. "The ideal solution," he said, "would be if Taiwan decided to rejoin Beijing. If they worked something out between themselves . . . " But his advisors glumly commented, "the likelihood is small."

After Normalization

By the January 1, 1979 communique announcing the shift in diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, the U.S. had “acknowledged the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is a part of China,” but as before stated no U.S. position on the matter.

This agnosticism was shaded slightly when, in the August 17, 1982 communique, the Reagan administration said the U.S. had no intention of “infringing on Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity, or interfering in China’s internal affairs, or pursuing a policy of ‘two Chinas’ or ‘one China, one Taiwan.’” (But, again, top U.S. diplomats insisted that Washington's view of the status of Taiwan hadn't changed.) The PRC doubtless would have interpreted this phrase in keeping with its contention that the relationship between the mainland and Taiwan was an internal, domestic, Chinese matter. But in this as in the two earlier communiques, the U.S. made no direct statement of its own as to Taiwan’s status. Meanwhile, the Taiwan Relations Act (PL 96-8) had stated that peace and stability in the Taiwan straits area “are matters of international concern.”
After the Clinton Administration

According to Los Angeles Times correspondent James Mann, in August 1995, at an ASEAN meeting in Brunei, then Secretary of State Warren Christopher delivered to Jiang Zemin a letter from President Clinton which stated that the U.S. would "oppose" Taiwan independence; would not support “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan”; and would not support Taiwan’s admission to the United Nations.

This was an attempt to smooth Washington-Beijing relations in the aftermath of the decision to grant Lee Teng-hui a visa to attend an alumni meeting at Cornell University. Interestingly, the delivery of the letter took place after China had begun firing missiles into waters near Taiwan’s two major ports.

Still, these statements were not placed on the public record until October 1997, on the occasion of Jiang Zemin’s first state visit to the United States, when State Department briefer James Rubin stated: “We certainly made clear that we have a one-China policy; that we don’t support a one-China, one-Taiwan policy. We don’t support a two-China policy. We don’t support Taiwan independence, and we don’t support Taiwanese membership in organizations that require you to be a member state. We certainly made that clear to the Chinese.”

Over the succeeding months, similar statements were made by Assistant Secretary Roth and by Secretary of State Albright. Finally, in June 1998 in Shanghai, it was President Clinton himself who made what has since come to be taken as the definitive “Three Noes” statement: “I had a chance to reiterate our Taiwan policy, which is that we don’t support independence for Taiwan, or two Chinas, or one Taiwan, one China. And we don’t believe that Taiwan should be a member in any organization for which statehood is a requirement.”

Although the Clinton administration had become noteworthy for a certain sloppiness of language in a policy area requiring the utmost in precision, that does not appear to have been true in the case of the Three No's, which had gone through several repetitions between the Rubin and Clinton statements. During those eight months, quite a lot of press attention had been given to reported Beijing demands for a “fourth communique”, which would go beyond the old “acknowledges” formula in treating PRC claims to Taiwan. As the date of the President’s trip to China grew closer, administration sources had attempted to reassure Taiwan and its supporters in Congress that there would be no “fourth communique.” Later, some administration officials hinted that the President’s Three No's statement was considered to be a less damaging substitute for a “fourth communique.”

But in fact, the President’s Three No's statement took the U.S. to a place it had never before been with regard to the status of Taiwan. Even the January 1, 1979 communique stripping diplomatic recognition from Taipei and transferring it to Beijing did not deny that the Republic of China was a state. Now the President had said that United States "does not believe" Taiwan had the status necessary for membership in any international organization which made statehood a requirement. As PRC representatives were quick to point out, lacking these qualities, what could Taiwan be other than a province of the government which the United States had recognized as the sole legal government of China?

Advertently or inadvertently, the President of the United States had unilaterally altered the traditional U.S. view of Taiwan’s status, and in so doing had contradicted the fifth of the "Six Assurances." Moreover, his statement about membership in international organizations stood in glaring contrast with the language of Section 4(d) of the Taiwan Relations Act: “Nothing in this Act may be construed as a basis for supporting the exclusion or expulsion of Taiwan from continued membership in any international financial institution or any other international organization” (emphasis added). The legislative history of the Taiwan Relations Act makes plain that Congress intended successive American administrations to preserve Taiwan’s membership in the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and any other international bodies in and out of the United Nations system of which it was a member.


Of the Six Assurances given the Taipei government in July 1982, it is clear that the Clinton administration has not contradicted four. It has not set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan; does not appear to have consulted with Beijing with respect to specific arms to be sold to Taiwan; has not requested changes in the Taiwan Relations Act; and has not attempted a formal mediating role between Taipei and Beijing.

Whether it intended to or not, actions taken by Clinton administration officials, both present and former, could easily be seen as contradicting the assurance that the United States would not exert pressure on Taiwan to enter into negotiations with the PRC. In fact, they probably were so seen by the Taipei government.

Most importantly, the Three Noes statements of the administration, and especially that given by President Clinton himself in Shanghai in June 1998, do in fact represent a change in the U.S. position as to Taiwan’s status and future. Moreover, the statement about membership in international organizations is also in contradiction with United States law as contained in the Taiwan Relations Act.




The Joint U.S.-PRC Communique was issued on August 17, 1982.  In its key sections, the United States asserts that it will not pursue a two Chinas, or a one China one Taiwan policy.  Taking note of the PRC’s “fundamental policy to strive for a peaceful solution to the Taiwan question,” the U.S. stated “it does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, and that it intends to reduce gradually its sales of arms to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to a final resolution.”

 The U.S. government never formally issued the "Six Assurances" but permitted Taiwan's President, Chiang Ching-kuo to release the text of the assurances on the day of the Announcement of the "August 17, 1982 Communique" with China. That same day, Assistant Secretary of State John H. Holdridge repeated these assurances to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and later, Holdridge's successor, Paul Wolfowitz repeated the substance of the "Six Assurances" to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary: see Taiwan Communique and Separation of Powers, Hearing before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, March 10, 1983. Wolfowitz said," it is important to bear in mind some things that we did not agree to in the communique. We have not agreed to consult in advance with the PRC on arms sales to Taiwan, nor shall wee do so. We have not changed our position that the Taiwan question is a matter for the Chinese on both sides of the strait to resolve, and we will not interfere in this matter or pressure Taiwan to inter into negotiations. We have not changed our longstanding position on the issue of sovereignty over Taiwan. We do not seek any of these changes nor sould we seek to change the protection of the Taiwan Relations Act itself."


In his memoirs, Holdridge claimed that Taipei was alerted to the August communique negotiations and suggested the six points as "guidelines in conducting [U.S.] relations with Taiwan." My own memory is that the "six assurances" were drafted by Dr. Gaston Sigur, then at the National Security Council. Holdridge also claims that the fifth point regarding the U.S. position on sovereignty was that the U.S. "would continue to regard Taiwan as part of China, the question of reunification would be left to the Chinese themselves." See John H. Holdridge, Crossing the Divide, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 1997, pp.231-2. In fact, the fifth point read "we have not agreed to take any position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan" when presented to President Chiang on July 14, 1982, a position that was modified for public consumption later to read "The U.S. has not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan." A Congressional Research Service compilation of key Taiwan policy documents prepared by Kerry Dumbaugh bases its record of the "Six Assurances" on Holdridge's book. See Kerry Dumbaugh, Taiwan: Texts of the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S.-China Communiques, and the "Six Assurances," dated May 21, 1998.  

 Section 3(b) of the Taiwan Relations Act (P.L. 96-8, 22USC 3301) mandates that the U.S. shall determine the nature and quantity of defense articles to be made available to Taiwan "bases solely upon their judgement of the needs of Taiwan." 


Stanley O. Roth, “The Taiwan Relations Act at Twenty – and Beyond,” address to the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington DC, March 24, 1999.

5  by Assistant Secretary Roth in writing to Senator Helms at his confirmation hearings in 1997, and again by Roth at a press briefing on the eve of President Clinton's 1998 visit to China. When asked "do those six assurances remain valid?", replied "I think I've been as clear as I could be that there will be no change in U.S. policy towards Taiwan as a result of this visit." See


 See, for example, Myra Lu, “ROC downplays ‘Track Two’ idea,” Free China Journal, March 17, 1999, which contained the following statement: “The government’s policy is that communication between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait should be conducted through the existing channel, a mechanism which Taiwan and the Chinese mainland have already instituted……Track one – contacts between the SEF and ARATS – is the only legitimate communication channel across the Strait.”


Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-54 Vol. XIV, p. 811.

 Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-68 Vol. XXX, pp 93-94


William Burr ed. The Kissinger Transcripts, The New Press 1999, pp 416-7

The Senate Committee Report The Taiwan Enabling Act S.245, March 1, 1979, page 7, states: "The Administration has stated that it recognizes the People's Republic of China (PRC) as the sole legal government of China. It has also acknowledged the Chinese position that Taiwan is a part of China, but the United States has not itself agreed to that position. The bill submitted by the Administration takes no position on the status of Taiwan under international law, but it does regard Taiwan as a country for the purposes of U.S. domestic law." (Emphasis in the original).

The Chinese text of the recognition communique differs and uses the two character phrase that ordinarily would be translated as “recognizes.”  When this was pointed out to then Deputy Secretary Warren Christopher at a Senate hearing in February 1979, Mr. Christopher replied: “We regard the English text as binding.  We regard the word acknowledge as being the word that is determinative for the United States.”  See Lester L. Woff and David L. Simon, Legislative History of the Taiwan Relations Act (New York, American Association for Chinese Studies, 1982) pp310 and 311.

  On August 17, 1982, John Holdridge told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "I would also call to your attention to the fact that there has been no change in our longstanding position on the issue of sovereignty over Taiwan. The communique [paragraph 1] in its opening paragraph simply cited that portion of the joint communique on the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China in which the United States "acknowledged the Chinese position on this issue" . . . " see China-Taiwan United States Policy, Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Ninety-Seventh Congress, Second Session, August 18, 1982, page 7.

In President Reagan's Presidential Statement on the Issuance of Communique, August 17, 1982, the President reiterated "The Taiwan question is a matter for the Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, to resolve.  We will not interfere in this matter or prejudice the free choice of, or put pressure on, the people of Taiwan in this matter.  At the same time, we have an abiding interest and concern that any resolution be peaceful."

 TRA Section 2(b)(2).

 See James Mann, About Face:  a History of America’s Curious Relationship with China from Nixon to Clinton (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999) p.330. Mann cites John W. Garver, Face Off, China, the United States, and Taiwan's Democratization, which cited Hong Kong Ta Kung Pao, August 3, 1995.  It should be noted that the Chinese Communist press routinely translates "does not support Taiwan independence" into Chinese as "opposes Taiwan Independence."  An important point is that "does not support" is not the same as "oppose."  For example, U.S. State Department spokesman, James Foley, when asked on February 11, 1999, whether the Administration "opposes independence for Kosovo under any circumstance," Foley replied "we have made it clear that we do not support Kosovo independence, I don't care to elaborate on that."  

 State Department briefing by James Rubin, October 31, 1997.

 White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "Remarks by the President and the First Lady in Discussion on Shaping China for the 21st Century," Shanghai, June 30, 1998.

See Wolff and Simon, pp. 207, 208/










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