That ‘One China’ Policy Thing

By 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
Photo: NASA
J. Michael Cole

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.

4 Responses to “That ‘One China’ Policy Thing”

December 21, 2015 at 6:13 pm, Steven Painter said:

This article is guilty of doing exactly what it seems to be bemoaning among the international community, namely: the conflation of a one-China policy with the PRC’s one-China principle.

All nations that recognize either the PRC or ROC as the sole legitimate government of China effectively have a one-China POLICY; it is the policy of only recognizing one state named China.

This does not imply that a given country accepts the PRC’s one-China principle, i.e. that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of China. While some countries have gone so far as to state this as part of their acknowledgement of the PRC’s legitimacy, the US and a number of other nations have not.

It is therefore wrong to say that the US doesn’t have a one-China policy. It clearly does have such a policy, as shown by at first only recognizing the ROC as China’s legitimate government, and later in 1979, when this recognition was switched to the PRC. At the same time, it is also clear that the US does not subscribe to the one-China principle, as demonstrated by the “acknowledgement” (but not acceptance) of China’s position on the matter that the author quoted.

Before we start worrying that “our” Taiwan policy is the same as Beijing’s, “we” need to get our labels in order by recognizing the difference between a one-China policy and the one-China principle. Once this is clear, it’s even easier to see that a one-China policy doesn’t dictate Taiwan policy at all.


December 21, 2015 at 11:49 pm, Jack Chien said:

Most people (not China experts) are not familiar with all the political jargon. Policy, principle, they look all the same, unless the United States starts to clarify and declare that “One China Policy” is different from “One China principle”, and “One China Policy” does not imply Taiwan is part of China. Though I think that is unlikely.


December 22, 2015 at 9:48 am, Mike Fagan said:

“It is, rather, the child of institutional ignorance, intellectual laziness, over-cautiousness, and an all-too-human tendency to uncritically repeat a gospel.”

You can probably add to that: officials in foreign governments are far too busy thinking up new mistakes elsewhere in their domestic and foreign policy (e.g. schemes to reduce carbon emissions) to pay more than cursory attention to China and Taiwan. If only they had less nonsense to distract them, maybe your suggestions would get a hearing.


December 22, 2015 at 11:02 am, Steven Painter said:

Jack, for sure there is unfamiliarity with the political jargon. That was mostly why I made my comment.
Incidentally, the comment I made above was addressing an earlier version of this article. The article has since been updated and now incorporates changes that render my original comment redundant. Many thanks to the author for making those changes and better clarifying things for the readers.


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