Andrew J. Nathan
What’s Wrong with
American Taiwan Policy
Copyright © 2000 by The Center for Strategic and International Studies and the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Washington Quarterly • 23:2 pp. 93–106.
THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY ■ SPRING 2000
Andrew J. Nathan is professor of political science at Columbia University, co-author
with Robert S. Ross of The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress (1997), and author of
China’s Transition (1997).
From the signing of the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué until the
mid-1990s, American policy was that the United States would be satisfied
by any resolution of the status of Taiwan that was acceptable to people on
both sides of the Taiwan Strait, so long as the resolution was achieved
peacefully. American policy sought to deter each side from taking actions to
resolve the situation in a way not acceptable to the other.
This policy was frustrating to Beijing because it prevented the use of
China’s military and diplomatic advantages to preempt a resolution of the
Taiwan problem. Since 1995-1996, however, because Washington has be-
come concerned that Beijing is losing its patience, it has shifted its policy
emphasis toward reassuring Beijing. In effect, it has come to see peaceful
resolution as resolution on terms that will satisfy Beijing and has tried to
push Taiwan to start talking about solutions. The policy has failed to calm
tensions because it is based on a wishful belief that the people of Taiwan can
be made to accommodate Beijing at Washington’s behest. Instead, American
efforts to ease People’s Republic of China (PRC) anxieties have motivated
the Taiwanese to defend their interests even more assertively and thus have
made the situation more difficult rather than less.
To be sure, the Taiwan situation is a bad problem with no easy solution.
But the least worst choice is to return to the policy that served the United
States well for a quarter-century, which combines clarity about the ends of
the policy with “strategic ambiguity” about the means. Instead, recent