September 13, 1999

September 13, 1999 | Commentary on Asia

ED091399:  It Depends on What One China Means

Whenever the term "one China" is in print, it's in quotations. This is because "one China" doesn't mean the same thing in Washington it means in Taipei or in Beijing. In Washington, a "One China Policy" isn't really about one China. It simply means the United States recognizes only one country called "China" but deals with another entity - Taiwan - that is an altogether separate country under American law. Taipei's "one China" is more complicated. It is one "historical and cultural entity" called "China," but within China's traditional geography are two "sovereign, independent and non- subordinate states."

In Beijing, at least, "one China" really means "one China." As the Chinese say, "There is only one China, the People's Republic of China, and Taiwan is a province of China." From here on, the history gets complicated and only those who truly want to know what "one China" means should keep reading - the rest of you should just clip this article in case a war starts and you want to know what the fuss

is about.


The story began 27 years ago, as President Nixon and Henry Kissinger pondered wording for the famous "Shanghai Communiqué" that would weasel around China's claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, an island which, at the time, was host to more than 12,000 U.S. servicemen supporting the war effort in Southeast Asia. (And, at the
time, the exiled government of Chiang Kai-shek itself purported to be the "sole, legal government of China.")

The Nixon-Kissinger finesse was a feat of diplomatic virtuosity. They said "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." They then added noncommittally that, "The United States Government does not challenge that position." It was wording that left open the question of what U.S. policy would be in the future if, heaven forfend, "either side" ever decided Taiwan was not part of China.

In the second U.S.-China "joint communiqué" of December 1978, establishing diplomatic relations, the United States "acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China." It was a phrase that depended on the meaning of the word "acknowledges." Unless the Clinton administration has changed this policy - and it steadfastly insists it hasn't - its definition in the


House-Senate conference report on the Taiwan Relations Act (Public Law 96-8) should still be valid: "The administration . . . acknowledged the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China, but the United States has not itself agreed to this position." (Taiwan Enabling Act Report No. 96-7, March 1, 1979, page 7).


With this in mind, the Congress decided it didn't agree with the Chinese position either, and went ahead to mandate in section 4(b)(1) of the Taiwan Relations Act (22 USC 3303) that "whenever the laws of the United States refer or relate to foreign countries, nations, states, governments, or similar entities, such terms shall include and such laws shall apply with respect to Taiwan." In plain English, Taiwan is a "country" under U.S. law.


When the United States issued the third (and hopefully final) "joint communiqué" with China on Aug. 17, 1982, President Reagan also gave "Six Assurances" to Taiwan's President Chiang Ching-kuo, one of which was "we have not changed our longstanding position on the issue of sovereignty over Taiwan" (a pledge Assistant Secretary of State John H. Holdridge repeated the next day to Congress). This was interesting since Washington had studiously avoided having any public position at all on the issue of sovereignty over Taiwan.


In fact, the super-secret State Department paper prepared for the signing of the U.S.-Taiwan defense treaty in 1954 was that "Japan never ceded sovereignty over Formosa and the Pescadores to China. Japan renounced its own sovereignty but left the future title undefined." This view eventually leaked out and enraged Beijing, and in the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué, the Chinese reminded Nixon that it "firmly opposes any activities which . . . advocate that 'the status of Taiwan remains to be determined.' "


That brings us to Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's latest demand that Taiwan be treated as an equal "state" in its attempt to negotiate eventual unification with China. For the record, Taiwan's "attributes of statehood" (to use the term in international law) are infinitely more persuasive than those of, say, poor, benighted, yet soon-to-be independent, East Timor. Lee Teng-hui governs an island
of 22 million people that generates $350 billion in goods and services each year, operates one of East Asia's most vibrant democracies, maintains the third-largest armed force in non-communist East Asia, maintains the world's third-largest foreign exchange reserve holdings (more than $100 billion), and is the United States' eighth-largest trading partner (importing 60 percent more American goods than China). Finally, Taiwan has been separate politically from mainland China for more than 100 of the last 104 years.


Yet, China's position remains that Taiwan is a "subordinate" province of the People's Republic of China and that Taiwan's government has no right to represent the interests of its people in any negotiations with the Chinese government. At most, says Beijing, Taiwan's political parties are invited to negotiate "on an equal
footing" with the Chinese Communist Party.


China demands Taiwan accept unification. But unfortunately, China doesn't offer Taiwan anything in return. Beijing says it will "permit" Taipei to "keep its way of life, its governmental structure, its armed forces" without offering Taiwan any benefits - and then is surprised when Taiwan's President Lee decides his land is better off remaining separate from China. Perhaps if Beijing proposed a "confederation" or "commonwealth" model to Taiwan, they could get the ball rolling. But Beijing's insistence that Taipei simply roll over and join "one China" is unrealistic and Beijing's threats of war if Taiwan resists are downright irrational.


Clearly, the key to resolving the Taiwan-China crisis lies in Beijing, not in Taipei, nor least of all in Washington, which has yet to say what the meaning of the term "one China" is.

John Tkacik publishes the Taiwan Weekly Business Bulletin on the island's economy and politics.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia

Originally appeared in the Washington Times.