The “One China” Policy Revisited

                                                        Eisuke Suzuki

     Donald Trump stunned the world by suggesting that the “One China” policy be questioned. He spoke to Ms. Tsai Ing-wen and referred to her as “the President of Taiwan.” She called him on December 3, 2016 to wish him congratulations on winning the Presidency. His suggestion as President-elect came out of the blue and was a radical departure from the long-held US position. Since 1979, the position was there was only one China, and Taiwan was part of China, and that the People’s Republic of China was the sole legitimate government of only that China.

    A reaction from Beijing was swift and threatening. That was expected as the repudiation of the “One-China” policy would deconstruct the carefully crafted fiction on which China’s entire foreign relations have been built since 1949.

    Unhappily, President Trump backed away from his original right position. During a lengthy and “extremely cordial” conversation with President Xi Jinping on February 9, 2017, “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our one-China policy.”   

    Mr. Trump’s turn around surely helps ease tensions that could have grown to be a serious confrontation between the United States and China; however, the correct question, once raised, won’t go away unless it is properly answered. Mr. Trump’s remark on the “One-China” policy questions anew the appropriateness of the “One China” policy. You cannot put the genie back in the bottle. It is high time we re-examined the root of the policy itself and why the policy has been accepted.    



In the dawn of the Cold War, countries and regions began to be divided reflecting the prevailing ideological boundaries between the free world of the Allies in the West and the communist world of the Soviets in the East. Most notably the Cold War divided Germany between the Federal Republic of Germany, commonly known as West Germany and the German Democratic Republic or East Germany. Eastern European and Central Asian countries either became “union republics” as part of the Soviet Union or were reconstituted as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

    In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in January 1991, the divided Germany was unified and all these Eastern European and Central Asian countries became separate independent states. The collapse of the Soviet Union also brought about the disintegration of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia into discrete ethnicity-based states, most recent of which was the independence of Kosovo in 2008 from Serbia which itself became independent from Yugoslavia in 2006.

    In East Asia, too, there were divided states such as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam or North Vietnam and the Republic of Vietnam or South Vietnam until 1975. After the Vietnam War ended, the country was unified under the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976.

    Still, there are other separate and divided countries in East Asia. The Republic of Korea or South Korea was established in August 1948, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or North Korea was founded in September 1948. Both South Korea and North Korea became members of the United Nations at the same time in 1991 just like East Germany and West Germany in 1973 before the unification in 1990.

    None of these divided countries insisted on the adoption of a mutually exclusive manner of recognition of a divided country, i.e., a recognizing state is forced to choose one part of the divided country to recognize in denial of the other half. China is the exception to this practice. The Republic of China (ROC) which was one of the major powers at the time of World War II became a permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations, but the ruling Nationalist Party of the ROC lost war in its internal contest for power against the Chinese Communist Party and fled to the island of Taiwan while the latter proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.         

    Though the government of the PRC effectively ruled mainland China, it was not widely recognized as the legitimate government of China since the Nationalist Chinese government of the ROC was still functioning and claimed that it represented a whole of China as its legitimate government even though the territorial domain of government was confined to the island of Taiwan. That situation was the beginning of the two-China problem, from which the PRC developed the “One China” principle. It is distinct from the “One China” policy as China insists Taiwan is an inalienable part of one China to be reunified one day

    What is extraordinary about the “One China” policy is that the Communist government of the PRC, a new government of China, has dictated any other countries to accept, and comply with, the “One China” principle when it establishes diplomatic relations with them. Thus, any country desirous of establishing diplomatic relations with the PRC must sever its diplomatic relations hitherto enjoyed with the ROC.

    Unhappily, the October 25, 1971 resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations expelled the ROC and recognized the PRC as the legitimate and sole representative of China and restored all the lawful rights of the PRC in the United Nations. Thus, the ROC lost its membership status in all specialized agencies of the United Nations. That would not have happened without Henry Kissinger’s visit to Beijing in July 1971 and his acknowledgement of Zhou Enlai’s conditions for the establishment of the U.S.-China relations: the United States must recognize that the PRC government ''is the sole legitimate government in China'' and that Taiwan is ''an inalienable part of Chinese territory that must be restored to the motherland.''

    In the February 28, 1972 Shanghai Communique, the United States acknowledged that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintained there was but one China and that Taiwan was a part of China. The United States understood that the PRC government firmly opposed any activities to create "one China, one Taiwan," "one China, two governments," "two Chinas," or an "independent Taiwan."

    On January 1, 1979, the United States, in officially establishing diplomatic relations with the PRC, declared that it “recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China.” With it, the United States de-recognized the ROC by severing all official dealings with it. Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that US recognition of the PRC as “the sole legal government of China” is one thing and the question whether Taiwan is part of China is an entirely separate matter. The Shanghai Communique of January 1, 1979 itself left the question ambiguous: the United States merely acknowledged “the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” One must ask, what was the US position, then?

    Nothing is more fitting now to recall George Kennan’s sage advice on the treatment of Taiwan, given in his Foreign Affairs article, “Japanese Security and American Policy” in October 1964. His wisdom and foresight was proven by accurately predicting that “[a]n admission of Communist China to membership in the United Nations . . . would almost certainly be followed at once, as things now stand, by full-fledged Japanese diplomatic recognition, whatever the American feeling.” We should take heed of his advice that the United States “take a less doctrinaire position” on its assumption that “the only possible future for the island of Taiwan was as an integral part of China.”  In his view, such rigid assumption stems from the circumstances of Cairo meetings in 1943, and that is the fundamental problem. Instead, he suggested the United States “recognize that the final status of this island, in the light of all that has occurred since 1943, is something which ought ultimately to be determined with due regard to the feelings of the inhabitants and to the needs of peace and stability in the Pacific area generally”.

    As the United States may change its position over time, so will other countries. Remember the United States, after refusing to recognize the PRC for 30 years, suddenly changed its policy. It is entirely possible for the United States to say that its new position is that Taiwan is not a part of China.



What separates the Middle Kingdom from the rest of the world is its worldview that China is the center of the world, and that the rest of the world is uncivilized, and that all other uncivilized nations are allowed to exist in the benevolent protection of, and the enjoyment of the largeness of, the Middle Kingdom so long as such nations accept the authority and power of the Middle Kingdom. As Edward N. Luttwak explains in The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy,

      "Indeed, the greatest benefit extended by the empire to its subjected tributary   neighbors was their inclusion within its ethical as well as political sphere, or rather within the concentric circles of the Tianxia(天下), the “all under heaven” that radiated outwardly from the emperor himself, elevating those nations above outer barbarians living in unrelieved savagery. The tributaries in turn confirmed the ethical as well as the political supremacy of the emperor by their deferential obeisance."


    In short, China dictates that any country wishing to deal with China accepts the definitions given by China and comply with the rules established by China and behave according to the gospel played by the Central Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. 

    The fundamental international law principle today is the equality of sovereign states, be they powerful or small. The sovereign equality principle is the foundation for the conduct of international relations and for the establishment of the United Nations, but the tributary system that has been deeply embedded in the Chinese worldview rules out such international dealings on the basis of sovereign equality. Thus, many aspects of China’s conduct in international relations do not conform to the general practice accepted as international standards. Worse, China openly rejects international decisions, the most recent of which was the 2016 judgment of the South China Sea arbitration case filed by the Philippines about the unlawfulness of the “Nine-dash Line” claimed by China. Beijing called the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration as an “ill-founded” ruling that was “naturally null and void,” and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi called it as a “political farce under the pretext of law.”             

    China’s most preferred mode of negotiation is “bi-lateral negotiation” between the two parties directly concerned with the issue at stake, rejecting the involvement of any outside parties. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi declared in 2010: “Turning the bilateral issue into an international, or multilateral one would only worsen the situation and add difficulties to solving the issue.” China has always insisted that disputes should be “peacefully resolved through negotiations between the countries directly concerned.” China thus deals with one country at a time from the position of strength, in Luttwak’s words, in “[t]he inherently uneven bilateralism of the tributary system.”

    Beijing’s leadership holds that the traditional Chinese vision of world order, i.e., the tributary system under tianxia underpins “a universal authority in the moral, ritualistic, and aesthetic framework of a secular high culture, while providing social and moral criteria for assessing fair, humanitarian governance and proper social relations.” Such conviction has led Beijing’s leadership to form self-righteous and arrogant predispositions about the conduct of international relations, and it has, in turn, ingrained the Chinese public in general the sense of infallibility in the carrying out of the official policies pronounced by the government. Examples both in international relations and domestic affairs abound. The former is epitomized by China’s building of the artificial islands and the installation of military facilities on them in the South China Sea in utter defiance of international law, not to mention China’s voracious appetite for all kinds of maritime resources wherever they are located―high seas, or territorial seas and the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of other states. The latter is attested to by the numerous cases of not only environmental degradation in air, river, lake, and soil of and around residential areas, but also, more shockingly, of the prevalent circulation of toxic manufactured products and processed food which people use and consume daily.



China engages in its outward expansion nonchalantly in pursuit of “the great national renewal” with impunity and in defiance of international norms and practice. Take the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), for example. The idea of establishing the AIIB was not born in the course of multilateral cooperation or consultation process in which the purpose and objectives of the proposed international institution were discussed and deliberated by all the parties concerned. But it came about as the policy decision and directive of the Standing Committee of the Central Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. 

    The principal aim of the AIIB is, I suspect, to use it as a financial vehicle to achieve a grandiose project referred to as “The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21stCentury Maritime Silk Road” or otherwise known as “the Belt and Road Initiative” which was originally announced in its outline form by President Xi Jinping in September 2013. It is to create a vast economic zone embracing a new Eurasian economic belt in the north and a new maritime route in the south starting from the eastern seaboard of China through the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and Middle Eastern and East African countries to the EU. The AIIB is a vehicle to realize that Chinese dream.    

    Of course, there are countries which will benefit from it. The lure of China’s massive market is irresistible. Every country is dazzled by the sheer size of the landmass and population of China just the way the major powers flocked to Qing in 19th century. It is the same natural expectations that prompted the United States to demand the “Open Door Policy” toward China in 1899. But today’s China is not the same as Qing, but is on its course of “the realization of Chinese dream of the great national renewal.”

    Let us recall Richard Nixon’s basic rationale of accepting the “One-China” policy. He wrote in his 1967 Foreign Affairs article, “Asia After Viet Nam”:

     "The world cannot be safe until China changes. Thus our aim, to the extent that we can influence events, should be to induce change. The way to do this is to persuade China that it must change: that it cannot satisfy its imperial ambitions, and that its own national interest requires a turning away from foreign adventuring . . . . ”

    Nixon knew that he was undertaking a huge strategic gamble in suggesting, for the short run, a policy of persuading Beijing “that its interests can be served only by accepting the basic rules of international civility” and, for the long run, of “pulling China back into the world community---but as a great and progressing nation, not as the world epicenter of world revolution.” Regrettably, the strategic gamble in engaging with, and cultivating and developing, China by accommodating Chinese demands has not yielded the intended results as detailed in Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred-Year Marathon. The Tiananmen Square Incident of 1989 was an awakening call to realize that industrialized and liberal democratic countries’ engaging and strengthening China did not bring about any improvement in political freedom. The rationale for accepting the “One China” policy has long lost its raison d’être.

    China demands respect and a place in the world community commensurate to its economic and military power, as in demanding a “new type of major power relations” with the United States, but when it comes to the promotion of, and compliance with, internationally accepted standards of conduct, not only does China conveniently present itself as a developing country, but it defies international norms.

    The ultimate purpose of the AIIB is to promote a China-centric worldview in the form of authoritarian capitalism in defiance of liberal economic and democratic principles. China knows that its phenomenal rise has nothing to do with democracy. It has offered an alternative model by successfully promoting its brand of Chinese authoritarian capitalism as part of its mercantilist foreign policy.

    It is not only utter folly, but an oxymoron for liberal and democratic countries to support China’s authoritarian and undemocratic capitalism promoted by its mercantilist foreign policy by accepting China’s definitions and rules. It is the time of reckoning to decide whether there are more important values and principles at stake than economic and commercial gains.



Taiwan is a de facto state simply because it was de-recognized by the same governments that used to have normal international relations with the ROC, due to the “One-China” policy. Taiwan has a democratic government and a thriving economy. It engages in a wide range of international activities with other states, albeit “unofficially,” and is contributing to the peace and prosperity of the world.

   The “One China” policy is bound to become an historical relic. It is an eventual consequence of “the paradoxical logic of strategy,” to use Luttwak’s concept, that is being activated “through the reactions of all other powers large and small that have started to monitor, resist, deflect, or counter Chinese power.” Recent developments in Hong Kong clearly indicate the so-called “peaceful reunification” of Taiwan with China envisaged at the time of accepting the “One China” policy will not happen. The time is on Taiwan’s side: history has long passed reunification by. The Taiwan Strait is a symbol of the permanent separation of Taiwan from China. China’s sending of its aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, through the Taiwan Strait in January 2017 has made the separation permanent.

    What should Taiwan do to legitimatize the separation of Taiwan from China, short of declaring the independence of Taiwan? President Tsai said she would continue to maintain the status quo policy. It means Taiwan should continue building up a de facto reality incrementally on the status quo which is developing. It should begin with establishing a new national identity by not referring to the country as “the Republic of China” that does not exist under international law, but using “Taiwan” and “Taiwanese.” And quietly ask other countries to do the same. No formal instruction or decree is needed for this de facto practice. Such quiet approach steadily building a de facto reality would not, as suggested by Kennan’s formula, “preclude a permanent association with China but would also not assure it or attempt to define what it might conceivably be.” Such approach will allow the possible development of the “one China, one Taiwan” solution more constructively.

    International prescriptions and expectations are all on Taiwan’s side: the right of self-determination and the principle of the prohibition of the use of force in the settlement of international disputes. Donald Trump’s fresh thinking, not bound by orthodox conventions, may help other countries to break away from the “One China” policy many have considered catholic. ###