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Did Obama’s transportation secretary alter the One China policy?

In U.S.-China relations, semantics are everything. It’s no coincidence that the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué that paved the way for diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing specified that, "The United States 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," ...

Getty Images North America
Getty Images North America
Getty Images North America

In U.S.-China relations, semantics are everything. It's no coincidence that the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué that paved the way for diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing specified that, "The United States 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," and that "The United States Government does not challenge that position."

That wording, part of then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's Cold War strategy of exploiting rifts between Mao Zedong's communist government and the Soviet Union, was carefully crafted to allow the U.S. to move forward with engaging Red China by creating "constructive ambiguity" around the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, while still upholding U.S. responsibilities to defend the island.

Those responsibilities were more explicitly outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act, which Congress passed in 1979 after Jimmy Carter's administration formally switched official recognition to mainland China. But U.S. administrations have hewed carefully to Kissinger's ambiguous line, and the fruits of that effort are being seen in this week's Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

In U.S.-China relations, semantics are everything. It’s no coincidence that the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué that paved the way for diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing specified that, "The United States 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," and that "The United States Government does not challenge that position."

That wording, part of then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s Cold War strategy of exploiting rifts between Mao Zedong’s communist government and the Soviet Union, was carefully crafted to allow the U.S. to move forward with engaging Red China by creating "constructive ambiguity" around the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, while still upholding U.S. responsibilities to defend the island.

Those responsibilities were more explicitly outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act, which Congress passed in 1979 after Jimmy Carter‘s administration formally switched official recognition to mainland China. But U.S. administrations have hewed carefully to Kissinger’s ambiguous line, and the fruits of that effort are being seen in this week’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

That’s why any perceived deviation from that policy can carry the risk of upsetting relations. Taiwanese and Chinese sources tell The Cable they noticed last week when U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood seemed to go off script at a U.N. press conference by listing Taiwan as a "country" while talking about his new initiative to stop people from texting while driving.

"Many other governments are also moving to put an end to distracted driving. To date, 32 countries — including Russia, Brazil, France, Japan, Jordan, Spain, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom — have passed laws that restrict drivers’ use of handheld devices," Lahood said.

Matthew Lee’s U.N.-focus blog at Inner City Press caught the reference and linked to a video clip of the remarks here.

The Cable followed up with DOT spokeswoman Olivia Alair, who explained, "The secretary was acknowledging Taiwan’s good work in passing anti-distracted driving laws, and obviously this does not signal any shift in U.S. policy."

Leading experts saw the comment as a gaffe by a cabinet secretary who accidentally waded into the U.S.-Taiwan semantical minefield.

"Secretary LaHood has no history of pushing Taiwan-related issues, so I would assume this was an inadvertant slip," said Douglas Paal, former director of the American Institute of Taiwan, which serves as America’s diplomatic presence in Taipei. "Years of service in the Congress don’t necessarily make someone prepared to whisper the correct chatechismic answers on the midrash of Taiwan-China-US relations."

"LaHood probably didn’t realize he was driving recklessly with his Taiwan wording," another China hand joked. "When at the U.N., he should probably keep both eyes on the diplomatic road."

The Chinese Embassy did not respond to requests for comment, and Taiwan’s "economic and cultural office" in Washington declined to weigh in.

UPDATE: Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong writes in with the following, very critical comment:

"There’s only one China in the world, Taiwan is part of China. This is a universally accepted fact by the international community, and a principle enshrined in the three joint communiques between China and the US. The erronious point made by the US government official in question obviously violates the commitment made by the consecutive US governments since the Carter Administration and the US side’s One China policy. The Chinese Embassy has made representations with the US State Department regarding this, requesting the US side to take steps to correct the mistake, eradicate the negtive effect and avoid repetition of such mistakes in the future."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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