Dear President-elect Trump:
You told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday that you “fully understand the One-China policy.” I have no reason to doubt you. But because you may not have received a briefing from the State Department on this matter, I’d like to fill you in on a few aspects of a complicated policy that has not always been well-understood—even by experts on China—through the years. I won’t go over all the history and theology of U.S.-China relations and the Taiwan issue. Just the basics.
First, the One-China policy is something the United States adopted and has upheld for itself. Beijing did not impose it. And it dates back decades, to before our establishment of relations with the People’s Republic of China.
Second, the core of the United States’ One-China policy is that we don’t pursue a Two-China policy. The government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing and the government of the Republic of China in Taiwan (ROC) each insisted during the Cold War that it was the sole, legal government of China. We would have been perfectly happy to have diplomatic relations with both, but they insisted that we had to choose sides. So, in 1972 the Nixon administration began a process to transfer recognition and diplomatic relations from the ROC (Taiwan) to the PRC, and the Carter administration completed that process in 1979 in return for statements of China’s “fundamental policy” to pursue reunification by peaceful means. In a 1982 communique with China, the Reagan administration formalized this position by saying that the United States does not pursue a policy of two Chinas, or one China-one Taiwan.
Third, because we gave up any hope of a Two-China policy, one consequence of recognizing the PRC was that we could no longer have diplomatic relations with the ROC (no country in the world has diplomatic relations with both). But the Carter administration and Congress created a mechanism to preserve the substance of our relations with Taiwan by working through a nominally unofficial organization, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT; point of transparency: I was a senior officer of AIT from 1997 to 2002). In fact, AIT is a wholly owned subsidiary of the U.S. government. Its personnel are government personnel, and the business it conducts is government business. The United States does a lot with and for Taiwan, and as long as we do it behind the facade of unofficial relations, China does not complain.
The mechanism isn’t the equivalent of diplomatic relations: Taiwan’s president has not had face-to-face meetings with the U.S. president, but through the years numerous channels have been created to facilitate communications between the two on political, security, economic, cultural, and people-to-people issues. There are some limitations on the conduct of relations, but many of these have been relaxed over time and can probably—but quietly—be relaxed further. Would Taiwan prefer the dignity of something closer to diplomatic relations? Of course it would. But it also understands that the hand it holds is the hand it was dealt and that, at the end of the day, its substantive achievements with Washington through the unofficial relationship are much more important. When bilateral communication has deteriorated, it’s not because of mechanism defects, but because American and Taiwan leaders have adopted conflicting goals.
Fourth, there is the issue of the U.S.-Taiwan security relationship. Washington sells a variety of weapons systems to Taiwan. The George W. Bush and Obama administrations each sold over $12 billion in arms to Taiwan. There is robust interaction between our two defense establishments, including on the fundamentals of Taiwan’s defense strategy. The United States warns Beijing about using force against Taiwan, the unstated implication being that we would come to Taiwan’s defense. It’s ironic: We have defense cooperation with a government that we do not recognize, to help it ensure its security vis-à-vis a government that we do recognize.
The PRC military threat to Taiwan arises because it has always asserted that the island is part of the sovereign territory of China. It has stated its fundamental policy to seek to resolve its dispute with Taiwan peacefully, yet Beijing has never renounced the use of force—and the People’s Liberation Army continues to acquire capabilities that would be useful in a war against Taiwan. Hence the need for U.S.-Taiwan security cooperation to ensure Beijing does not resort to force.
One of the PRC’s stated reasons for its military build-up is to deter a movement on the island to create a Republic of Taiwan, totally separate from China. Beijing is particularly anxious, for historical reasons, that the Democratic Progressive Party—which President Tsai Ing-wen chairs and which is now in power in Taiwan—will move toward independence. But that’s highly unlikely: Taiwan’s core problems are domestic, the great majority of the island’s population and President Tsai want to preserve the status quo, and Taiwan people pragmatically understand that a move to independence would lead to an attack from China.
As part of the U.S. One-China policy, American officials have long said that the differences between Taiwan and China should be resolved by peaceful means. That should remain the cornerstone of American policy. Bill Clinton stated an important supplement to the One-China policy in May 2000 when he said: “the issues between Beijing and Taiwan must be resolved peacefully and with the assent of the people of Taiwan.”
That last phrase was a welcome recognition that during the 1990s, Taiwan had become a democracy. That meant that Washington believed that the people of Taiwan should now have a seat at the table whenever leaders in Taipei and Beijing argued about the island’s future, and that Beijing had to tailor its unification proposals to accommodate their wishes. It also meant that the people of Taiwan have a stake in any discussions between the United States and China about Taiwan. Taiwan people know that there were times in Taiwan’s history when Washington ignored their wishes when conducting its China policy, and this statement was meant to reassure them that such days had passed.
This leads to two important takeaways regarding the state of the U.S. One-China policy:
- Washington and Beijing decided to establish diplomatic relations in 1979 to facilitate cooperation between the two countries on a whole range of issues. How we interact with Taiwan was a consequence of the decision and a part of a packaged deal. Whatever the current problems in the U.S.-China relationship today, our reneging on the Taiwan part of the packaged deal would not provide leverage on trade, North Korea, the South China Sea, or any of the other issues that roil the relationship. More likely, it would rattle the entire framework of the relationship, and cause Beijing to rethink its policy of seeking reunification by peaceful means. To make matters worse, Taiwan could suffer collateral damage as a result.
-Not only would it not work as a practical matter to try to use the One-China policy to leverage U.S. objectives on other issues, it would be immoral to do so. Taiwan is not a “tradeable good.” It is an island composed of 23 million people who have created a prosperous, stable, and democratic society—a society, by the way, that China might emulate. They are good friends of the United States. They don’t deserve to be treated as a bargaining chip.
To enter into negotiations with China on the One-China policy is to create a zone of uncertainty that puts Taiwan at risk.
This first appeared on the Brookings Institute website here. It is reprinted with the author's permission.
Image Credit: Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)