Managing the Triangular Relationship: The U.S., China & Taiwan

Senator Dianne Feinstein (

Speech by Senator Dianne Feinstein, U.S. Senate.

Washington, D.C.
May 11, 2005

In June 1979, as a new Mayor of San Francisco, I led a delegation to Shanghai. It was sort of a race between Los Angeles and San Francisco to establish a Sister City relationship with Shanghai and of course San Francisco won – and it was the first such Sister City relationship between an American city and a Chinese city.

It turned out that Wang Daohan, who was then Mayor became the chief negotiator for the Mainland in cross-Strait talks with Taiwan during the 1990s and the second mayor who came to office during my tenure in San Francisco was Jiang Zemin, who has partnered with three American Presidents to make U.S.-China relations the best they had ever been; and the next mayor was Zhu Rongji, who I believe is the individual most responsible for China’s economic turnaround.

So I have had an opportunity to get to know three of them rather well. I went to Shanghai one year, and the Mayor of Shanghai went the next year to San Francisco. We had 50 ongoing educational, cultural, medical exchanges. It was the most active Sister City relationship in the world. And as I watched China come out of the cultural revolution and begin to change, I saw the rapidity of that change.

As early as 1979, I perceived how dedicated the leadership was to two things: stability and economic growth – both within a socialist institution. And I watched over the nine years I was Mayor and the subsequent years and have seen no large country on earth change more than China.

At the same time, we had a Sister City relationship with Taipei. You might think that might present some problems. Strangely enough it did not. I was able to make several trips to Taiwan and see various groups in Taiwan.

One of the interesting things to me since I became a U.S. Senator is to see how much the official Washington looks East. That contrasts with how little Washington looks West. Well, on the Pacific Coast, we are part of the Century of the Pacific, we are part of the largest trading basin in the world. We have a very strong belief that we can evolve into a community of trade and peace – and with the increasing developments in telecommunications shrink that vast Pacific Ocean.

During this period of time, China’s growing political, military, and economic ascension in Asia presents a major challenge to American interests in the region – and our response to this challenge will shape Sino-American relations for years to come.

In particular, more than any other issue, the “Taiwan Question” – as the Chinese call it – has the potential to rapidly erode the progress that has been made in U.S.-China relations over the past three decades and bring us into direct confrontation with a rising China. In fact, during my most recent trip to Beijing in August, Jiang Zemin told me that the Mainland was willing to give up everything, including its “economic growth” to prevent Taiwan independence.

I have never seen an issue that has so galvanized the Chinese leadership and the Chinese people as does the Taiwanese issue – it truly cannot be underestimated.

This morning, I will offer some personal thoughts on how to address the differences between the Mainland and Taiwan, along with strategies for defusing tensions – both rhetorical and real – in the Taiwan Strait.

This topic is especially timely if we consider a number of key events that have recently occurred including:

  • Visits to the Mainland by Taiwan’s opposition party leaders,
  • The passage of the Anti-Secession Law, and prior to that,
  • A series of conciliatory gestures that many hoped were a signal of cooling tensions between the two sides such as the direct charter flights that took place over the New Year’s holidays.

Protecting and Shaping the Status Quo

In my view, the most important factor in managing this triangular relationship is to protect and shape the “status quo.” From a U.S. policy standpoint, this means that China cannot use force or coercion to retake Taiwan, and that Taiwan cannot pursue outright independence or take actions that contribute to its secession from the Mainland.

As both the economic and military dynamics continue to shift across the Taiwan Strait in China’s favor, I believe it is vital that the U.S. play the role of a “balancing wheel” in the region, while shaping and defining the “status quo” accordingly.

That is why the U.S. must continue to communicate to both Beijing and Taipei on a consistent basis that it will not tolerate actions by either side which would unilaterally alter the status quo.

In particular, I have noticed the trend by some political leaders in Taiwan to use provocative rhetoric in the run-up to elections and employ the China card to secure votes. These actions risk unintended consequences, and if misinterpreted by China could quickly lead to conflict.

Cross-Strait Dialogue and One China

Until 1999, there was little disagreement between the Mainland and Taiwan over the meaning of One China. In fact, in 1992, a loose understanding was reached – essentially to allow each side to form its own definition of One China – that became the basis for the so-called 1992 consensus and also paved the way for a series of official talks in the 1990s between the two sides. This all ended in 1999 when then Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui proposed a “two-state” theory for cross-Strait relations.

And in a renewed effort to marginalize President Chen and highlight the ruling party’s rejection of One China and the 1992 consensus, Beijing recently put on a red-carpet welcome for the leaders of Taiwan’s opposition parties, Lien Chan and James Soong, who support eventual reunification.

This has put President Chen in the increasingly difficult position of trying not to be outflanked on the right by the opposition parties with regard to cross-Strait policy initiatives while not losing his pro-independence base on the left.

Unfortunately, as long as policy setters on both sides remain rigid in their views on the One China issue, the chances for a resumption of dialogue seem remote.

Nevertheless, I believe a compromise could be found that would allow both Beijing and Taipei to return to the table under no preconditions if talks could be arranged at the lower-levels between interlocutors in the Communist and DPP parties.

I actually offered to facilitate similar, discreet discussions between then Deputy Director of the Taiwan Affairs Office Zhou Mingwei and his counterpart Dr. Tsai Ing-wen from the Mainland Affairs Council after meeting with them in April 2002. While Taiwan agreed to the offer, the Mainland chose to demur.

Hopefully, at some point, the new leadership on the Mainland will be willing to come to the table without any preset conditions – possibly in exchange for a tacit agreement by President Chen to hold discussions based in principle on 1992 consensus framework and the Chen-Soong 10-point agreement.

Starting with the Three Links

On a more practical level, one of the first ways to build mutual trust and establish confidence-building measures would be to actively pursue implementation of the Three Links (direct trade, transportation, and postal ties.) Both sides have frequently said they support moving forward with implementation, but have too often gotten bogged down in semantics – arguing over the classification of these exchanges.

Despite repeated setbacks, in January 2005, both sides were able to cooperate in organizing charter flights between Taiwan and the Mainland that for the first time in 55 years did not stop over in either Hong Kong or Macao. I believe this step could provide a positive foundation to build upon in the future, especially if both sides could make this an economic issue, and implement the links under the “cross-Strait” label, or some other neutral term.

The Anti-Secession Law

After nearly three years on the job, China’s new leadership under President Hu Jintao remains enigmatic. Particularly in the area of Taiwan policy, Hu seems at times to have taken both hardline and seemingly flexible positions. Most indicative of this, in opinion, is the passage of the Anti-Secession Law.

I believe that the Anti-Secession Law was clearly a mistake and was particularly poorly-timed, considering that there had been an unmistakable easing of tensions across the Strait immediately prior to its promulgation.

However, despite the legal imperative of using “non-peaceful means” in Article 8 of the law, it is notable that the law fails to mention “One Country, Two Systems,” and seems to encourage “consultations and negotiations” at the lower-levels of the two governments.

While I am troubled by the law’s legal imperative to use force, I believe that these more “conciliatory” provisions must not be ignored, and in fact should be used to press China to show more flexibility and compromise in its attitude toward Taiwan and its future status.

Long-term Peace Framework

At this stage, I believe the most constructive approach to ensuring cross-Strait peace may be for the U.S. to assist in brokering a long-term peace agreement between the Mainland and Taiwan that would codify a “mutually agreed-upon” status quo.

This concept, which has been circulating in academic circles for some time, provides, in my view, the most realistic and viable opportunity to prevent a cross-Strait conflict and allow for a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan issue. Even Beijing has begun to admit that the time and circumstances are not right for reunification. And notably, this model would comply with Article 7 of the Anti-Secession Law which calls for “officially ending the state of hostility between the two sides.”

In my view, the Mainland’s willingness to wait on Taiwan as long as the island does not pursue independence provides a golden opportunity to push for a long-term détente. Presumably, this would be based upon promises by Taiwan not to declare independence, while the Mainland would, in turn, foreswear the use of force.

For its part, the U.S. could promise not to sell any additional weaponry to Taipei if China begin dismantling the 700 ballistic missiles now facing Taiwan, along with the 200 or so cruise missiles that it soon plans to deploy. The cessation of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan would also remove one of the greatest points of contention in the Sino-American relationship.

Hopefully, after several decades under this “peace framework,” the political and economic systems of both sides would become better aligned so that it would be possible for the Mainland and Taiwan to reconcile their differences and unify if they so wished, whether it be as a confederation, state, or commonwealth.


Like everyone else, I look forward to seeing if the recent visits by Taiwan’s opposition leaders to the Mainland will lead to a breakthrough in cross-Strait relations. However, China must also talk with President Chen.

I believe Chen has now begun to see the remoteness of establishing an independent Taiwan state before his term ends in 2008. Consequently, now is the time for him to show statesmanship and work across party lines to develop a cross-Strait policy that is in the best interests of all the Taiwan people. This also would provide him an opportunity to cement his legacy.

As the rising power in the region, China should show confidence from its position of strength by reaching out to the Taiwan people through actions such as supporting the island’s observer status at the World Health Organization, brokering a free-trade agreement, or removing its weaponry targeting the island.

In closing, I want to say again that the U.S.-China relationship will be the most important bilateral relationship of the future, and we must not let confrontation over Taiwan derail the progress that has already been achieved over the past 30 years. If indeed, the U.S. and China are to be the dominant powers of the 21 st Century, we must find a way to live together amicably.

Thank you. And I’ll be happy to take any questions.