September 5, 2002

September 5, 2002 | Commentary on Asia

ED090502a:  Don't Change One China Policy, Explain It

America has had a "one China" policy for as long as I can remember - and - being a historian, I claim a long memory. But the problem with bumper-sticker diplomacy is that it encourages sloppy thinking. And sloppy thinking in foreign policy leads to dangerous misperceptions. The latest dust-up over Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's assertion that there are, in fact, two China's - "one country on each side [of the Taiwan Strait]" - is a case in point.

"One China" does not mean that the United States accepts Beijing's claims to sovereignty over Taiwan. It simply means that the United States recognizes one Chinese government at a time. The State Department understands this and is very careful about the phraseology. But the concept is recondite and the oft-repeated phrase "one China policy" breeds intellectual laziness outside Foggy Bottom. In May, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, speaking off-brief went so far as to say that the United States' non-support of Taiwan independence was "another of saying we're opposed to" Taiwan independence. Worried telegrams from Taipei flooded the State Department and a few days later Wolfowitz, responding to virtually the same question, admitted that he should not have improvised his response.

"Sometimes," he explained, "the Russians say that repetition is the mother of learning (and) it's better to say the same thing over and over again than to improvise and I think I even had a lesson a few days ago."


Wolfowitz was obviously suffering from "one China" syndrome, the most visible symptom of which is thinking that "one China" means Taiwan is part of China. It doesn't and it isn't.


This was reaffirmed by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage recently in Beijing when he said "by saying we do not support (Taiwan Independence), it's one thing, it's different from saying we oppose it." Of course, Deputy Secretary Armitage may have been frustrated by the Chinese invitation to the Iraqi Foreign Minister to visit Beijing the day after Armitage's visit. Armitage, well-versed in the nuance of Taiwan policy, no doubt has his own slings and arrows to send Beijing's way in a guerrilla campaign of nuance. No - "one China" does not mean Taiwan is part of China.


The American view of "one China" is that there is only one legal government of China at a time. It is a guilt-ridden remnant of the 1920s when paying lip-service to China's "territorial integrity" had become an international pass time which permitted no less than nine world powers and semi-powers to claim extra-territorial rights in the vast collection of warlordies that was China.


On July 25, 1928, driven by a legalistic concern (but not necessarily a practical respect) for the integrity of China's landmass, the United States concluded that Chiang Kai-shek's "Republic of China" was about as close as anyone would get to a viable Chinese regime and decided Chiang could represent all of China. Through the 1930s, World War II and the Chinese Civil War, Washington continued to view the "R.O.C." as the sole legal government of China. The R.O.C., however, was defeated by the Communists in 1949 and for all practical purposes, it was replaced by the "People's Republic of China."


This is where "one China" broke down. The exiled R.O.C. authorities had decamped to the former Japanese colony of Taiwan where they continued to call themselves the government of China. Rather than having official ties with two Chinas (as Great Britain did until 1972), the Americans continued a "one China" policy and in May 1950 prepared to abandon the R.O.C. in Taipei and accept the PRC in Peking. But in June 1950, the outbreak of the Korean War made that impossible, and the Americans resigned themselves to continuing the fiction that Chiang Kai-shek was the legal ruler of the mainland. But Washington never acknowledged him as the sovereign ruler of Taiwan.


The corruption of the Chiang regime in mainland China through the War and after left Washington with a bad taste in its mouth. Washington was unmoved when Chiang's troops were finally defeated by the communists. But the brutality of Chiang's army in Taiwan led Secretary of State Dean Acheson to report in April 1947 in a letter to Senator Ball, that the transfer of sovereignty over Formosa to China "has not yet been formalized." It is a little-noted fact of diplomatic history that since March 1947, Washington has repeatedly and explicitly NOT recognized R.O.C. sovereignty over Taiwan, and has less repeatedly and not so explicitly refrained from commenting on Beijing's claims to Taiwan - except to "acknowledge" that Beijing has such claims.


Which is why Washington is in the delicate position vis-à-vis Beijing over Taiwan now.


In Nixon's landmark "Shanghai Communiqué" of February 1972, 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."


Fair enough. As long as both sides claimed to be China, that was their business. But the Chinese side of the Shanghai Communiqué insisted that China "firmly opposes any activities which aim at the creation of 'one China, one Taiwan', 'one China, two governments', 'two Chinas', an 'independent Taiwan' or advocate that 'the status of Taiwan remains to be determined'. In short, China demanded free rein to impose its will on Taiwan.

In the following decade, the United States joined in two more communiqués with China, each carefully noncommittal on the matter of Taiwan. In August 1982, exactly twenty years ago, President Ronald Reagan approved the last such communiqué which rhetorically reassured Beijing that the U.S. "has no intention of infringing on Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity, or interfering in China's internal affairs, or pursuing a policy of 'two Chinas' or 'one China, one Taiwan.'" Yet just one month earlier, Reagan had communicated to Taiwan president Chiang Ching-kuo "six assurances" on the meaning of the upcoming communiqué and averred that "the U.S. has not altered its long-standing position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan." Shortly afterward, the Department of State assured the U.S. Senate that "the United States takes no position on the question of Taiwan's sovereignty."


One month ago, when Taiwan's president had the temerity to say "Taiwan is our country, and our country cannot be bullied, downgraded, marginalized, nor treated as a local government," was he wrong? When he insisted that "Taiwan is not a part of any other country, nor is it a local government or province of another country. Taiwan can never be another Hong Kong or Macau, because Taiwan has always been a sovereign state," he was stating a historical fact. But when he said "in short, Taiwan and China standing on opposite sides of the Strait, there is one country on each side," distracted policy-makers in Washington had the uneasy feeling that the Taiwan leader was violating some tenet of the "one China" policy. He wasn't.


Washington should have learned its lesson in June 1990 when the U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad told the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein that " . . . we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. Our only concern is that they be resolved peacefully." This is unsettlingly close to our Taiwan policy: "we take no position, we only want it solved peacefully."


Taiwan is truly the most dynamic and vibrant democracy in Asia, its human rights record is exemplary, it is one of America's top ten export markets. The United States has a security commitment to the island embodied in U.S. domestic law, the Taiwan Relations Act. And, finally, U.S. law treats Taiwan as an independent state. But the misuse of the term "one China" policy has persuaded policy-makers in Washington that somehow we must humor China into thinking that we accept its claims to Taiwan. This is dangerous. When he was Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger asked his top China hands "if Taiwan is recognized by us as part of China, then it may become irresistible to them, our saying we want a peaceful solution has no force, it is Chinese territory, what are we going to do about it?" To which Arthur Hummel, then assistant secretary and later ambassador to Beijing responded, "down the road, perhaps the only solution would be an independent Taiwan." Hummel understood the nuance of "one China." But the term has lost its meaning. It is time we were rid of it. Maybe the policy should be called "one China at a time."

About the Author

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

Related Issues: Asia

Originally appeared in Taiwan News.