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What the 'One China Policy' Really Means


September 19, 2002

By John Tkacik and Arthur Waldron

We constantly hear that America has a "One China" policy, most recently during the dust-up over Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's Aug. 3 suggestion that two sovereign entities exist on either side of the Taiwan Strait. The "One China" phrase was immediately invoked in Washington, and seems to have calmed things down by reassuring Beijing that the United States was not aiding and abetting a "Taiwan independence" move. But legally, in fact, it had nothing to do with the issue at hand.

"One China" most emphatically does not mean that the United States accepts Beijing's claims to sovereignty over Taiwan. What it means is that the U.S. recognizes no more than one Chinese government at a time -- and not multiple regimes -- according to the territory they control. That is what the U.S. did with the two Germanys and may ultimately do with the two Koreas. West Germany used to insist on this approach for itself: the "Hallstein doctrine" forbade recognition of the German Democratic Republic as well as Bonn, a counterproductive approach that was dropped by Chancellor Willy Brandt, a major positive step towards peace in Cold War Europe.

In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon "acknowledged" the view, then held by governments on both sides of the strait (Taiwan being a mainlander-run dictatorship), that Taiwan was part of China -- but he did not accept it or agree to it. Then in 1979, President Jimmy Carter cut all official ties with Taiwan and embraced Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China, something Mr. Nixon had not done. But while the U.S. recognized Beijing as the sole government of China, Washington was agnostic about the status of Taiwan and who, if anybody, might be its legitimate government. In fact, even when the government of Chiang Kai-shek's Republic of China moved to Taiwan after losing the mainland in 1949, the U.S. did not recognize its sovereignty over the island itself -- only its administrative control -- even while America continued to recognize Chiang's regime, until 1979, as the legitimate government of China.

Confusing? Indeed it is. But here is the bottom line. As U.S. President Reagan put it in his six assurances to Taiwan in 1982 and as has been reaffirmed by every subsequent administration, the U.S. "takes no position on the sovereignty of Taiwan." The status of Taiwan under international law, as the U.S. State Department lawyers put it, "remains to be determined." Nothing the U.S. said to China has changed that. Thus, Washington has behaved very responsibly, as custodian of the ultimate rights of the people of Taiwan, the formerly Japanese-controlled island surrendered to the U.S. at the end of the Second World War, and never transferred by America to anyone else.

Now for the final and massively ironic twist. In 1979 when President Carter cut all official relations with Taipei and ended the defense alliance, the U.S. intention was to aid and abet the island's incorporation by China. Taiwan was considered an American client state like the unfortunate South Vietnam, and the near universal expectation at the time was that the diplomatic and military break was a blow it could not bear. After a decent interval, so ran the common wisdom, Taiwan's mainlander leadership would make a deal for incorporation into China under "one country, two systems" -- proposed for that purpose by Deng Xiaoping. That would have rendered the sovereignty issue moot, and no other outcome was seriously considered.

But that was more than 20 years ago and we all know what happened. Far from collapsing, Taiwan rose to the occasion and legitimized its own government by freeing the press and political prisoners, and carrying out repeated and fully democratic elections. By international standards, today its government has a far more legitimate claim to Taiwan than the government of the People's Republic of China, which has avoided the remotest approaches to freedom and democracy, does to China itself.

Hence the anomalous present situation which finds the U.S. closely tied to a dictatorship but bereft of official connections to a path-breaking democracy, while professing to hope that Taiwan the democracy, whose status it considers undetermined, will nevertheless join China, the dictatorship, with which it pursues close ties. Stranger things have been seen in international politics, and this one is not about to change -- until and unless someone appears on the Chinese side with the qualities of a Willy Brandt.

Meanwhile the U.S. must work with the ambiguity, insist on non-use of force, and press both sides to avoid rocking the boat -- even while grasping that despite Washington's intent since the 1970s to somehow resolve the issue, it has far from succeeded in doing so and in some respects rendered it more volatile. Genuine resolution is of course possible, but the U.S. lacks the power to deliver it.

Resolution will come, however, and as long as deterrence is maintained, most likely not with the rain of rockets that some in Beijing threaten. Beijing has abruptly switched course before when its interests demanded, so let us not be overly astonished when the day dawns when Beijing drops its hardline and militaristic rhetoric and deals realistically and equitably with its democratic neighbor Taiwan. Its interests require that sooner or later it must.

Mr. Tkacik, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., is a retired officer in the U.S. foreign service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei. Mr. Waldron is the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania.