The Buzz

What is the U.S. “One China” Policy?

In a transition process marked by no shortage of surprises, Donald Trump stirred another hornet’s nest when the president-elect stated on American television on December 11 that “I don't know why we [the United States] have to be bound by a One-China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”

Like reactions to the president-elect’s brief phone conversation with the democratically-elected president of Taiwan, most pundits’ comments ranged from fear, disbelief, and contempt. Some observers were shocked that Donald Trump had the audacity to question the sacrosanct “One China” policy. Others scornfully mocked the president-elect for waddling into a destructive change of U.S. policy that risks igniting World War III. While some expressed concern that the president-elect was using Taiwan as a bargaining chip.

Yet, the “One China” policy is neither static nor should anything in the president-elect’s statement be conclusively read as a shift in the U.S. “One China” policy in one direction or another—not yet at least. The prevailing misperceptions throws into sharp relief an increasing liability that exists within the U.S. “One China” policy: No one really knows what it is.

The overwhelming reactions to the president-elect’s comments referred to the “One China” policy as if it came from the pages of the Bible. Every U.S. president (except Teddy Roosevelt and John Quincy Adams) swore their oath of office on the holy book, and even the Bible is open to interpretation. Similarly, and yet, the “One China” policy is neither law nor ever clearly defined.

Indeed, according to then- Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly in 2004:

In my testimony, I made the point "our One China," and I didn't really define it, and I'm not sure I very easily could define it. I can tell you what it is not. It is not the One-China policy or the One-China principle that Beijing suggests, and it may not be the definition that some would have in Taiwan. But it does convey a meaning of solidarity of a kind among the people on both sides of the straits that has been our policy for a very long time.

As former State Department official and Global Taiwan Institute (GTI) Adviser John Tkacik astutely observed: “Our [US’] China policy has become an impressionistic fabric similar to Justice Potter Stewart's view of pornography; that is, ‘I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [of pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it....’”

Seemingly too taboo to even touch, the confusion is understandable because the U.S.’ “One China” policy is ambiguous at best and indecipherable at worst. That the policy continue to be shrouded in mystery creates dangerous myths that make the policy susceptible to manipulation and misapplication. The U.S. “One China” policy, at the very least, is due for a recalibration.

While highlighting the risks from a departure or abandonment of the U.S.’ current “One China” policy, expert guidance and more measured analyses such as those by Brookings scholar Richard Bush and RAND researchers Michael Chase and Derek Grossman acknowledge the elasticity of the U.S.’ “One China” policy.

Yet, even these experts tend to under emphasize the evolutionary quality of the U.S. “One China” policy and over emphasize Beijing’s reactions. An important point that Asia specialist and GTI adviser Shirley Kan highlights: “the US’ ‘One China’ policy consists of an evolution in how Washington conducts its policy, which is not bound by Beijing’s dictates to other countries.”

Amongst the partisanship that is now consuming the policy ecosystem, the current polarized political environment within the United States presents a power-play opportunity that will not be lost on the PRC. Beijing will try—as it has since 1971—to define the US’ “One China” policy in closer alignment with its own anachronistic definitions. While US’ Taiwan policy does not exist within a vacuum, conducting policy by creeping deference to how Beijing ‘sees’ “One China” is dangerous.  

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