Explaining ‘One China’ Policy

trump-on-calUS President Donald Trump changed tack and agreed to honour the “one China” policy during a phone call with China’s leader Xi Jinping, a major diplomatic boost for Beijing which brooks no criticism of its claim to self-ruled Taiwan. The US and Chinese leaders had not spoken by telephone since Trump took office on January 20. Diplomatic sources in Beijing say China had been nervous about Xi being left humiliated in the event a call with Trump went wrong and the details were leaked to the media.


What is the ‘One China’ policy?

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The One-China policy refers to the policy or view that there is only one state called “China”, despite the existence of two governments that claim to be “China”. As a policy, this means that countries seeking diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC, Mainland China) must break official relations with the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) and vice versa.

In Simple Words: 

  • It is the diplomatic acknowledgement of China’s position that there is only one Chinese government. Under the policy, the US recognises and has formal ties with China rather than the island of Taiwan, which China sees as a breakaway province to be reunified with the mainland one day.
  • The One China policy is a key cornerstone of Sino-US relations. It is also a fundamental bedrock of Chinese policy-making and diplomacy. However, it is distinct from the One China principle, whereby China insists Taiwan is an inalienable part of one China to be reunified one day.

Difference b/w ‘One China’ and ‘One China principle’

The One China policy is also different from the “One China principle“, which is the principle that insists both Taiwan and mainland China are inalienable parts of a single “China”. A modified form of the “One China” principle known as the “1992 Consensus” is the current policy of the PRC government, and at times, the policy of the ROC government, depending on which major political party is in power. Under this “consensus”, both governments “agree” that there is only one sovereign state encompassing both mainland China and Taiwan, but disagree about which of the two governments is the legitimate government of this state.

How did it come about?

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The policy can be traced back to 1949 and the end of the Chinese civil war. The defeated Nationalists, also known as the Kuomintang, retreated to Taiwan and made it their seat of government while the victorious Communists began ruling the mainland as the People’s Republic of China. Both sides said they represented all of China.

Since then China’s ruling Communist Party has threatened to use force if Taiwan ever formally declares independence, but it has also pursued a softer diplomatic track with the island in recent years.

Initially, many governments including the US recognised Taiwan as they shied away from Communist China. But the diplomatic winds shifted as China and the United States saw a mutual need to develop relations beginning in the 1970s, with the US and other countries cutting ties with Taipei in favour of Beijing.

Many however still maintain informal relations with Taiwan through trade offices or cultural institutes, and the US remains Taiwan’s most important security ally.

Taiwan’s Claim

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  • The One-China principle faces opposition from supporters of the Taiwan independence movement, which pushes to establish the “Republic of Taiwan” and cultivate a separate identity apart from China called “Taiwanization”.
  • Taiwanization’s influence on the government of the ROC has caused instability: after the Communist Party of China expelled the ROC in the Chinese Civil War from most of Chinese territory in 1949 and founded the PRC, the ROC’s Chinese Nationalist government, which still held Taiwan, continued to claim legitimacy as the government of all of China.
  • Under former President Lee Teng-hui, additional articles were appended to the ROC constitution in 1991 so that it applied effectively only to the Taiwan Area prior to national unification.
  • However, recent ROC President Ma Ying-jeou has re-asserted claims on mainland China as late as October 8, 2008.
  • President-elect Trump also congratulated President Tsai on becoming President of Taiwan earlier this year.” No U.S. president has spoken directly to a Taiwanese leaders since 1979, when President Jimmy Carter announced full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China and ended relations with Taiwan.
  • Although Taiwan’s government claims it is an independent country officially called the “Republic of China”, any country that wants diplomatic relations with mainland China must break official ties with Taipei. This has resulted in Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation from the international community.

When did the US subscribe to it?

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After years of warming relations, the US established formal diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1979 under President Jimmy Carter. As a result the US had to sever ties with Taiwan and closed its Taipei embassy.

But that same year it also passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which guarantees support for the island. Crucially, this act states that the US must help Taiwan defend itself – which is why the US continues to sell arms to Taiwan. The US has also said it insists on the peaceful resolution of differences between the two sides and encourages both sides to pursue “constructive dialogue”.

It maintains an unofficial presence in Taipei via the American Institute in Taiwan, a private corporation through which it carries out diplomatic activities.

Who are the winners and losers?

Beijing has obviously benefited the most from the policy, which has cast Taiwan out into the diplomatic wilderness.

Taiwan is not recognised as an independent country by much of the world nor even the United Nations. It undergoes extraordinary naming contortions just to participate in events and institutions like the Olympic Games and the World Trade Organization.

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But even in its isolation, Taiwan has not entirely lost out. It maintains vibrant economic and cultural ties with neighbours, and leverages on its long-term emotional relationship with the US to extract concessions.

It employs a small group of powerful lobbyists in Washington DC including former senator Bob Dole, who US media reported helped to arrange contacts that culminated in a controversial phone call between Mr Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.

As for the US, it can benefit from formal relations with China – its biggest foreign lender and a top trade partner – while quietly continuing to maintain strong ties with Taiwan.

The One China policy is a delicate balancing act that the US has perfected over the decades. How Washington can continue doing that under Mr Trump remains to be seen.

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