37. Memorandum From Secretary of State Vance to President Carter1


  • The Consequences and Likelihood of Taiwan Independence

This memorandum responds to your question on the subject.

Consequences of Taiwan Independence

The People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China share the basic principle that Taiwan is a province of China. Taiwan independence as viewed from both Peking and Taipei would entail changing Taiwan’s juridical status into a sovereign entity no longer acknowledging ties to China.

Taiwan’s declaration of independence would be a serious blow to our China policy. Although the PRC is realistic about actual re-unification, international acceptance of the principle of one China of which Taiwan is a part has been a cardinal PRC foreign policy goal since its founding. Our Shanghai Communique acknowledgment of this principle was an essential element in getting normalization under way, and Peking’s belief that we will remain a major influence on Taiwan’s future contributes to its interest in its relationship with us.

Peking would hold us responsible for a declaration of independence regardless of the facts. It would insist that we not recognize Taiwan’s changed status. Peking’s reaction would go beyond Sino-US relations. It would pressure others to cut economic and any other relations they have with Taiwan, particularly troublesome for Japan. It might undertake threatening military moves—the offshore islands are a convenient hostage for this—or declare a naval blockade of the island.

Likelihood of Such Action

A ROC declaration of independence in the near term is not likely. At a minimum, Taipei will want to see how normalization is further played out before even contemplating such a drastic move. We are fairly optimistic that this undesirable scenario will not develop if, as planned, we take into account Taiwan’s requirements in carrying out normalization. Moreover, the ROC leadership is cautious and prudent, [Page 116] traits particularly noticeable in Premier Chiang Ching-kuo. The ROC realizes that in declaring independence it would face a provoked and determined PRC without assurance of support from the US. As long as the leadership is left with some hope for the future, it will seek to preserve as many elements of the status quo as possible. Its inclination toward prudence would be reinforced by the absence of any meaningful domestic pressures for independence and by the Premier’s reluctance to abandon his father’s (Chiang Kai-shek) legacy of one China.

We cannot completely rule out the possibility of the ROC’s declaring Taiwan independent. Desperation engendered by the feeling that we were completely abandoning Taiwan in proceeding with normalization might provoke such a course. However, as long as we continue by words and deeds to avoid such an impression, the ROC’s reaction to completion of normalization is likely to be confined to a formula designed to comfort Taiwan’s public by reference to its continued firm control of Taiwan while avoiding raising Taiwan’s status in a manner which might create problems with the US or PRC.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Presidential Advisory Board, Box 74, Agency: Box 3. Secret; Nodis. A handwritten “C” at the top of the page indicates Carter saw the memorandum. Above that, someone wrote, “Obviously, no action.”