One-China policy: fewer word games, more clarity needed from Washington and Beijing

Since the early 1970s, the US and China have skirted the specifics of ‘one China’, but as relations between the two deteriorate, the lack of real agreement on the issue could become explosive

Increasingly, ‘strategic ambiguity’ only serves as a cover for the US’ ‘one China, one Taiwan’ policy

The US-China haggling over the one-China policy is a red herring. The clash of the US and Chinese defence chiefs at the Shangri-La Dialogue indicates how dangerous the situation is when a confusing word game could end in war.

The US insists China has shifted the foundation of the policy with its sabre-rattling military actions. China believes the US is adopting a “salami-slice” approach to abandon the “one-China principle” and push for Taiwan independence.

Confusingly, both sides claim to agree that there is only one China. So why the fuss? The reality is that they actually do not agree on what “one China” is.

From the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 up to 1971, the US pursued a “two-China” policy that delegitimised the international status of the People’s Republic. Taiwan’s leadership under General Chiang Kai-shek represented China.

Since the Sino-US rapprochement in the early 1970s, the two sides have consistently skirted the specifics of what comprises “one China”.

When the United States moved to recognise the People’s Republic of China and de-recognise the Republic of China in 1979, it stated that the government of the People’s Republic of China was “the sole legal Government of China”. This means that the People’s Republic was and is the only China, and that the Republic of China could not be considered a separate sovereign entity.

But does China own Taiwan? In the Shanghai Communique of 1972, the US did not give in to Chinese demands that it must recognise Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. Instead, Washington acknowledged the Chinese position that Taiwan was part of China.

When China changed the Chinese text from “acknowledge” to “recognise”, deputy secretary of state Warren Christopher stated at a Senate hearing, “[W]e regard the English text as being the binding text. We regard the word ‘acknowledge’ as being the word that is determinative for us”.

In the 1982 US-China joint communique, the US went one step further, stating that it had no intention of pursuing a policy of “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan”.

To this day, the US claims its one-China position stands: recognising the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China but only acknowledging the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China. Thus, the US maintains formal relations with the People’s Republic and has unofficial relations with Taiwan. This one-China policy has been reaffirmed by every new US administration.

In the good old days, when China and the US shared the same geopolitical goals against the Soviet Union and economic interests were converging, both sides were willing to de-emphasise this fundamental difference, at least in key policy strategies.

Serious problems have arisen now that relations have deteriorated. The US has designated China as its main rival and its policies look like a new cold war containment strategy.

Word games between great powers are dangerous when neither side is willing to recognise the validity of interpretations offered by the other side.

From the Chinese point of view, the one-China policy should automatically include Taiwan as part of China, not just in the abstract sense, but also in terms of sovereign rights. It calls this the “one-China principle”. But the US has never really “recognised” this “policy” as a “principle”.

“Principle”, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption”, more specifically “a rule or code of conduct”. “Policy” means “prudence or wisdom in the management of affairs” or “management or procedure based primarily on material interest”.

China is always pushed into a corner when the US actively mobilises its allies and resources to carry out its salami-slice approach to elevating Taiwan’s defence capabilities and international status. Because China has only one argument – that the US is violating the one-China principle (which Washington never recognised) – its rhetoric appears repetitive and stale.

What China should focus on is the hidden subtext and real purpose of the US one-China policy. In today’s hostile geopolitical context, it is clear the US one-China policy, which has always been adaptable to new conditions, has been transformed by the Biden administration into an unambiguous, hence less flexible, “one China, one Taiwan” policy.

It is no longer possible for China to believe the US statement that it does “not support Taiwan independence” because “one China, one Taiwan” was precisely initiated by the Taiwan independence movement, which clamours for a “special country to country relationship” between Taiwan and the People’s Republic, but not necessarily de jure status as a sovereign state.

China rightly dismisses this idea as a violation of the one-China principle, but it should also realise that the idea is not in conflict with the ultimate goal of the US one-China policy, perpetuating the separation of the two regimes for its long- term geopolitical strategy.

It seems that the Biden administration is rapidly moving into a non-ambiguous position of perpetuating Taiwan’s de facto, though not de jure, independence. But the US cannot openly announce this position, for it publicly opposed the idea in 1982.

“Strategic ambiguity” is over, but it is still useful to the US as a cover for its “one China, one Taiwan” policy. This provides the ingredients for explosions caused by miscalculations on both sides. Thus, it is time for China and the US to bring the “one China, one Taiwan” policy question to the table, instead of engaging in word games over the one-China principle or policy.

When mutual trust of half a century has almost disappeared between two global powers, a single spark could start a prairie fire.

Author: Lanxin Xiang, SCMP

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