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‘One China,’ 5 Interpretations

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China Power

‘One China,’ 5 Interpretations

The various ways different stakeholders in Beijing, Taipei, and Washington interpret “one China.”

‘One China,’ 5 Interpretations
Credit: Taiwan Presidential Office

“One China” is the framework guiding relations between China, Taiwan, and the United States. The recent and pending leadership changes in Taiwan and the United States, respectively; the support in the U.S. Congress to promote the Six Assurances which do not formally recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan; as well as the changes in leadership approaches in China all indicate the triangular relationship is entering a new phase. The recent elections in Taiwan in particular have sparked tensions between the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Communist Party of China (CPC) over the concept of “One China,” specifically regarding the attendant “1992 Consensus” that saw each side agree on “One China, Respective Interpretations” (一个中国各自表述).

In light of these developments, I examine the five readings of “One China” in order to identify key similarities as well as major differences that create common ground and conflicts. I conclude that several battlegrounds will emerge, in particular a central battleground between China and Taiwan in the political and economic arenas. The incoming American administration, as well as the U.S. Congress, needs to understand the emerging trends in cross-strait affairs in order to maintain a balanced approach toward both sides.

Mainland China

The Communist Party of China (CPC) designed the “One China Principle” ” (一个中国原则) as its strategy toward Taiwan. The foundation of the Principle is the official position of the CPC that the “government of the PRC is the sole legitimate government of China and there is only one China and Taiwan is part of China.” On this basis, it created the formula of “peaceful reunification; one country, two systems” (和平统一、一国两制). The formula contains the process, such as people-to-people exchanges and economic integration, as well as the final outcome of reunification, namely the implementation of a modified version of “one country, two systems” in which the CPC demotes Taiwan to a special administrative region of China. It also incorporates the method of reunification: through means of peace or force, with an emphasis on the former. The leadership’s commitment to a peaceful settlement is evidenced by its restraint in not ‘liberating’ Taiwan by force for decades. The “One China Principle” is the CPC’s long-standing version of “One China” and its interpretation of the “1992 Consensus.”

In 2014 the Xi administration proposed the “One China Framework” to move forward the Chinese Principle, in particular to advance political negotiations within the “1992 Consensus.” The Sunflower Movement – a major protest in Taiwan against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, negotiated in secret – derailed the administration’s efforts to not only implement the framework but also further economic integration. The Xi leadership, under pressure due to ongoing changes in the internal and external environments, will press the DPP administration to maintain the trajectory of the KMT administration’s “One China” policies, which resulted in economic integration between the two sides as well as increased political talks (though no established framework for political reunification talks) that culminated in the 2015 historic Xi-Ma meeting in Singapore.


The KMT and the DPP both reject the Chinese Principle but also have different interpretations of the concept of “One China.” The KMT authorities interpret it as “One China (Republic of China)” (一個中國[中華民國]). This interpretation is based on the 1947 ROC Constitution and the Act Governing Relations Between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area that define the national boundaries (see: ROC Constitution Article 4 of the General Provisions and Article 4 of the Additional Articles, as well as Article 2 of the Act Governing Relations). It denies the existence of “two Chinas,” “one China, one Taiwan,” or “Taiwan independence.”

The boundaries of the KMT’s “One China” are the Taiwan Area (Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, Matsu and other areas under the control of the Government) and the Mainland Area (all the territory of the ROC outside of the Taiwan area). Additional claims include the South China Sea and, because the PRC’s claims are based on the KMT’s, the two sides have similar claims. For the KMT, “One China” refers to the ROC founded in 1911 with de jure sovereignty over all of China but with jurisdiction over only Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu. Although the “One China ROC” and “One China Principle” contain overlapping claims of sovereignty and jurisdiction, the KMT and CPC accepted the “1992 Consensus” as the framework to deepen economic integration as well as initiate political talks (which the Taiwanese side perceives as “unification” talks, whereas the Chinese side classifies them as “reunification” talks).


The DPP’s previous position of “ROC equals Taiwan” never gained traction and based on President Tsai Ing-wen’s inaugural address and victory speech a new position might emerge. Tsai stated the basis of cross-strait relations consists of the constitutional order, democratic principles, and the will of the Taiwanese people (who generally support the status quo of “no unification, no independence.” The constitutional order defines the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the ROC. To date the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has issued no new statements on the former and the latter.

The Tsai administration did isue a new statement on the South China Sea, reaffirming the government’s standing position – however it makes no mention of the “dashed line” claim (and the Tsai administration recently ruled out cooperating with China in the South China Sea). So Tsai’s administration might promote a framework retaining the national boundary claims made by the KMT in its “One China ROC” but implementing a modified interpretation of the South China Sea claims.

It also might construct a second framework consisting of political and economic dimensions. The political realm could promote a form of the “Broad One China Framework”(大一中原則), which includes the right of each side of the strait to continue to govern separately. The economic realm most likely will uphold existing cross-strait economic interactions, while diversifying the country’s economic portfolio through the promotion of the “New Southbound Policy.” The DPP might introduce a “One China ROC 2.0” that incorporates the KMT’s “One China ROC” with modifications to the South China Sea claims but that presents new initiatives in the political and economic planes.

The United States

The American government follows the “One China Policy” ” (一个中国的政策). The policy, as interpreted by Washington, is based on informal and formal institutions that serve as the basis for U.S.-China relations and U.S.-Taiwan relations. The “three communiqués” framework (1972; 1979; 1982) undergirds ties with the PRC, while U.S.-Taiwan relations are based on a second framework consisting of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the Six Assurances (1982), and Reagan’s Secret Memorandum on the 1982 Communiqué. Both frameworks support the peaceful settlement of the cross-strait issue but contain contradictions.

The communiqué framework is the foundation of U.S.-China relations. The American position states there is but “one China and Taiwan is part of China,” and it has no intention to pursue “a policy of “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan.” The second framework, however, provides political and military recognition to the Taiwanese authorities through a defense arrangement as well as weapon sales. The second framework, especially the Six Assurances (which previously were a verbal pledge but have now passed the House and the Senate as a concurrent resolution), does not recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. It implies the sovereignty of Taiwan remains to be formalized. The second framework also advocates for the creation of international space for Taiwan. Even though the U.S. government has consistently implemented the “One China Policy,” the Policy contains contradictions because of the two competing frameworks that separately support U.S. relations with China and with Taiwan.

Beijing’s “One China Policy”

The Chinese leadership wants the American government to follow a “One China Policy” consisting of only the communiqué framework and the Three Non-supports (三不支持). The Three Non-supports or Three Nos are: no support for “two Chinas,” “one China, one Taiwan,” or Taiwan’s membership to international organizations that require statehood. The Chinese government actively opposes the second framework that directs U.S.-Taiwan relations in large part because the TRA and the Six Assurances grant recognition to the Taiwanese authorities while denying Chinese de facto sovereignty over Taiwan. Furthermore, Beijing is against the U.S. government’s campaign to create international space for Taiwan. Thus two interpretations of the United States’ “One China Policy” exist, with the Chinese leadership’s version promoting only the communiqué framework and the Three Non-supports, while actively opposing the second framework that guides U.S.-Taiwan ties.

The Chinese Principle and the American Policy have two similarities. Both sides support the peaceful settlement of issues with Taiwan. And both sides object to an overt move toward de jure independence by Taiwan. Even though the two nuclear powers share common ground, their versions of “One China” contain divergences.

The Chinese and American leaders disagree over the use of force as well as the status of Taiwan. The “One China Principle” reserves the CPC’s right to resort to the use of force to resolve matters with Taiwan, whereas the Policy objects to the use of force and other coercive measures. Second, the Principle establishes the terms for the reunification process as well as the formula for post-reunification (a loose version of the “one country, two system” model). In contrast, the U.S. “One China Policy” asserts the Chinese on both sides of the strait need to determine the final settlement, indicating the American side perceives that Taiwan’s sovereignty remains to be determined — and the resolution must consider the will of the Taiwanese people. Both the American and Taiwanese sides are in agreement regarding the aforementioned condition. The differences contain a mix that could trigger some form of conflict among all players.


“One China” is a long-established concept framing relations between China, Taiwan, and the United States, which has five separate interpretations. The changing chemistry between all sides indicates the emergence of central battlegrounds: for the China and U.S., it might take place in the sovereignty arena; for the CPC and the DPP, it will take place in the political and economic arenas; and for the DPP and the KMT it will take place in the political arena. The incoming U.S. administration, and the standing Congress, needs to understand the changing dynamics in order to ensure U.S. policies reflect the emerging realities in cross-strait affairs.

JM Norton, PhD, is a 2016 Taiwan Fellow and managing editor of The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China (Taiwan).