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US-China tensions

Declassified cables show US assurances of arms sales to Taiwan

Hostile stance by China will invalidate arrangements with Beijing, Reagan promised

An F-16 fighter jet over an air force base in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. The island recently unveiled an F-16 maintenance hub backed by the U.S., signaling an open military cooperation between Taipei and Washington.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- The U.S. on Monday declassified documents detailing the security assurances it made to Taiwan in 1982, in a step aimed at warning Beijing against acting militarily against the island.

The declassification, which serves to shed light on and reaffirm Washington's historical stance on the Taiwan issue, comes amid U.S. suspicion that China might take an aggressive turn in its approach to what it sees as a runaway province, following its clampdown on Hong Kong this past year.

The so-called six assurances documented in the declassified cables, published by the de facto American Embassy in Taiwan, were offered to Taipei under the authorization of President Ronald Reagan. 

The declassified cables provide "the U.S. interpretation" of the Aug. 17, 1982, joint communique between Washington and Beijing, where the U.S. recognized Beijing as the sole legal government of China, but stated that the people of America will continue to maintain cultural, commercial and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.

In the negotiations leading up to the communique, the question of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan was not settled. But the U.S., in the communique, stated that it "does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan," and that its arms sales to Taiwan will "not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China."

The U.S. also said it intends to gradually reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan.

In one of the declassified cables, sent to Taipei the same day as the joint communique, Washington assured that it has not set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan nor agreed to consult with Beijing regarding such sales. The U.S. also said it has not altered its position on the island's sovereignty, and will not play a mediation role between the two sides of the strait or exert pressure on Taiwan to enter into negotiations with the mainland.

The Reagan administration also told Taipei that it will uphold its 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which is committed to peace and stability in the area and promoting relations between the U.S. and Taiwan, among other things.

"Any significant change in PRC actions in the direction of a more hostile stance toward Taiwan will invalidate any understanding we may reach with Beijing regarding our future arms sales to Taiwan," read another declassified document, sent to the U.S. outpost in Taipei from the State Department a month prior to the joint communique.

The release of these cables, which signals the U.S. could ramp up arms sales to Taiwan, follows other recent moves reaffirming Washington's commitment to the island, including a visit to Taipei last month by Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar -- the highest level meeting between the two governments since 1979.

David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, on Monday said that "it is important to review history like this because Beijing has a habit of distorting it."

"Looking at Hong Kong, it is clear that Beijing is willing to disregard the international obligations to extend its authoritarian system," Stilwell said when announcing the declassification at a virtual event held by the Heritage Foundation.

"We no longer have the luxury of assuming that Beijing will live up to its commitment to peacefully resolve its differences with Taipei," he said, adding that the U.S. intends to strengthen exchanges with Taiwan, including on trade.

The move "would be interpreted in Beijing as a tacit warning from Washington, especially given recent events," said Melissa Newcomb of the National Bureau of Asian Research, a Seattle-based think tank.

Combined with earlier moves, including a Friday announcement by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on lowering import restrictions on U.S. beef and pork, the release looks like a warning to Beijing that retribution could lead to increased arms sales to Taiwan, Newcomb said.

But at the same time, the declassification of these documents serves more as a clue to decision makers and those monitoring the situation closely, without overtly promising any action at this point. "It kind of puts the ball in Beijing's court," Newcomb said. "How they respond to these recent events will determine how the U.S. responds."

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