That ‘One China’ Policy ThingBy convincing us that our Taiwan policy is the same as Beijing’s, the Chinese government has succeeded in imposing limitations on our ability to engage the island-nation that simply do not exist
It’s actually a pretty straightforward matter, but with major elections approaching and more people than usual paying attention to and writing about politics in Taiwan, it is one that is worth revisiting. Despite what Beijing, government officials worldwide, journalists and academics often argue, most countries around the world do not have a “one China” policy regarding Taiwan — Beijing does, of course, but for most countries, their policy vis-à-vis Taiwan and China is one of ambiguity. And that ambiguity makes all the difference.
The “one China” mantra isn’t the result of bad intentions toward Taiwan or special disdain for its claims to sovereign status. It is, rather, the child of institutional ignorance, intellectual laziness, over-cautiousness, and an all-too-human tendency to uncritically repeat a gospel. It goes without saying that all this is also a direct result of Beijing’s constantly conflating policy and principle, and “reminding” the international community about their purported “one China” policy, a nakedly Marxist-Leninist strategy whereby, by dint of repetition, a falsehood comes to incarnate reality.
Sadly, officials in Washington (and elsewhere) use “one China” all too frequently without providing the necessary clarification between their China policy and the “one China” principle, which is a figment of Beijing’s imagination. Time and again, especially after, say, the announcement of an arms package for Taiwan or a visit by prominent Taiwanese, the Department of State has felt it necessary to have one of its spokespersons “reaffirm” the U.S.’ “one China policy,” the three Joint Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act — as if those items were three distinct entities rather than the totality of Washington’s policy toward Taiwan and China.
Let’s be clear: the U.S. does not have a “one China” policy under which Taiwan is subsumed into China, and I would challenge anyone to find language supporting such a claim in the TRA or the Joint Communiqués. Washington’s actual policy is that it acknowledges Beijing’s claim that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China. The three Joint Communiqués:
“[…] The U.S. side declared: 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. The United States Government does not challenge that position.” [Author’s note: The notion that “all Chinese on either side” were consulted on the matter is preposterous, as the authoritarian regimes in Taipei and Beijing did not care one iota for public opinion. The term “all Chinese” is also highly problematic.]
“[…] The Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”
“[…] In the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations on January 1, 1979, issued by the Government of the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China, the United States of America recognized the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China, and it acknowledged the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”
Like the U.S., Australia, Thailand and the U.K, among others, also “acknowledge” the claim by China.
Other countries, such as Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Belgium, made their position even clearer when they established official diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China by merely “taking note” of Beijing’s “position” that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the PRC.” This is no different than “taking note” of someone’s view that God created the entire world in six days. (Translation: “Uh-huh, ok, I see your point. Now let’s return to the business at hand, shall we?”)
Taking note of or acknowledging something doesn’t mean that it’s true, let alone that the person or entity who does so agrees with the said position; it’s simply a polite way to avoid a fight with an intransigent interlocutor.
The significance of that distinction on a country’s actual policy toward Taiwan cannot be overstated. Not only does it break the constraints that an actual “one China” policy would have on a government’s ability to engage Taiwan, it also clarifies that the manner in which those governments deal with Taiwan is theirs to decide — in other words, their Taiwan policy is not dictated by Beijing, which of course is exactly what Chinese officials have repeatedly tried to do over the years. By convincing us that our policy on Taiwan is the same as Beijing’s (“there is only one China and Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the PRC”), the Chinese propaganda apparatus has framed the argument. By doing so, it has constrained our ability to deal with Taiwan by imposing limitations that simply do not exist.
If “one China,” as Beijing defines it, were an actual country’s policy, it goes without saying that failing to respect that dictate would constitute a violation of one’s national policy. And that is what Beijing has succeeded in convincing many of us is the case. However, since Washington and Ottawa, among other examples, don’t actually have a “one China” policy, doing something that is not to Beijing’s liking doesn’t mean that a government is reneging on prior binding commitments; it simply means that said country is asserting its sovereign right to engage another government and to deal with it accordingly. Once we break out of the confining environment that Beijing has created for us, we realize that governments in fact have a lot more room to maneuver with Taiwan than is usually thought.
Like other countries, the U.S. resents any allegation that foreign entities (e.g., Israel, Saudi Arabia) have hijacked their policy-making process. One simple and effective way to start undoing the view that the PRC is guiding a country’s policy on Taiwan would be for government officials, academics and the media to use the appropriate language when describing our relationship with those two countries. The foundational documents exist, and they can be accessed by all.
The Taiwan policy is ours, not China’s. And it’s time we took it back.
(Last updated: 2015.12.21, 20:19.)
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.