The Debate

How Trump Could Feasibly Move Away From the ‘One China’ Policy

The “one China” policy is outdated. What would a change actually look like?

How Trump Could Feasibly Move Away From the ‘One China’ Policy
Credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump told Fox News Sunday that the United States need not “be bound by a ‘one China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”

Just a week after shocking the foreign policy establishment by accepting a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, the remarks deepened fears that the new U.S. president will unravel the 37-year arrangement between Beijing and Washington. The ambiguous formulation, which allowed the United States and China to harbor different understandings of how Taiwan’s future would be determined, provided a mutually face-saving framework for the establishment of formal diplomatic relations. China hands in and out of government shudder at the thought that President Trump would even consider disrupting that delicate diplomatic modus vivendi.

Even those more favorably disposed toward Taiwan — particularly the Taiwanese themselves — express alarm that the democracy’s future could be treated by an American administration as a mere bargaining chip in a Sino-American grand bargain. For more than 20 years, U.S. policy has proclaimed Taiwan’s future to be an existential matter for the Taiwanese people to decide.

Before either set of critics lets its angst run too far ahead of reality, it is worth recognizing that the status quo is unsustainable. The people of Taiwan want and deserve greater international respect and participation, while China, in the name of “reunification,” increases its military threat to cut off the de facto independence and democratic achievements Taiwan already enjoys. America’s ambiguous policy sits precariously between the two inexorable forces.

To get Beijing’s attention and ease Taiwan’s (and our allies’) concerns, the declared starting point for any negotiation should be this: Any changes in America’s outmoded “one China policy” will be in the direction not of China’s even more outmoded “one China principle” but toward a new, more realistic policy of “one China, one Taiwan.”

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Some important underlying principles should guide the negotiations that could lead to a new bilateral — or trilateral — deal.

First, Washington’s one China policy is not the same as Beijing’s one China principle.

Their respective positions were laid out in the 1972 Shanghai Communique signed by President Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou En-lai.  The one China principle Beijing declared is that Taiwan is part of China, period. Both Mao Zedong’s Communist dictatorship and Chiang Kai-shek’s anti-Communist dictatorship agreed on that, with each saying it should rule the one China.

The U.S. side said it would not challenge that shared position but did not state its own view on Taiwan’s eventual status, as long as it was determined peacefully. That is America’s one China policy.

Unfortunately, under Chinese pressure, many scholars, journalists, and even former public officials have tended to meld the Chinese concept with the American title — which has pleased Beijing and disadvantaged the United States and Taiwan.

Second, the one China policy was flawed from the beginning and has become even more untenable over time.

When Washington stated it was agnostic on Taiwan’s future and left it to the two tyrannies to work things out peacefully, it did so in a curious way, saying “all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait” agreed on the one China goal.  That implied that the Chinese and Taiwanese people had somehow been consulted on the matter — which, of course, they had not been.

Since then, Taiwan’s evolved democracy has provided ample opportunity to determine the people’s will, and they have made clear in overwhelmingly numbers that they have no desire to be incorporated into a “one Communist China.” So that premise of the Communique was and is non-existent. In 2000, President Bill Clinton made it an explicit part of America’s one China policy that Taiwan’s future “must be resolved peacefully and with the assent of the people of Taiwan.”

Starting with Nixon, every U.S. administration, including President Jimmy Carter’s when he established diplomatic relations with Beijing, has emphasized Washington’s intention and expectation that Taiwan’s future will be decided peacefully.

Unfortunately, Mao, and every Chinese leader since, has proclaimed a “right” to use force to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s rule. In 1995-1996, China demonstrated its ability and intention to do just that when it fired missiles toward Taiwan (a) for sending its president to a Cornell reunion, and (b) for conducting its first presidential election. In both cases, the U.S. dispatched aircraft carriers to the region.

China has also deployed over 1,000 ballistic missiles targeting Taiwan, as well as anti-ship missiles and attack submarines to deter U.S. intervention.

In 2005, Beijing purported to provide a “legal” basis for its military threats by passing its Anti-Secession Law. The ASL said China could use force against Taiwan not only if it declared independence but also if it simply took too long to accept Beijing’s rule.

Henry Kissinger reinforced China’s position by warning Taiwan in 2007 that China “would not wait forever.” Xi Jinping said last year the Taiwan issue could not be passed to the next generation.

So, two fundamental premises of America’s one China policy have been ignored or violated: peaceful resolution and consent of the Taiwanese people. Lawyers interpreting the various legal and diplomatic documents governing U.S.-China relations could conclude that there has never been “a meeting of the minds” — a prerequisite for a formal agreement — and also, that conditions have dramatically changed over the ensuing decades. Nixon acknowledged the latter point in his memoir, stating that Taiwan and China are now “permanently separated politically.”

On those grounds, theoretically, Washington could justifiably withdraw recognition of the Chinese government until it relinquishes the use of force against Taiwan, repeals the ASL, and removes its anti-Taiwan missiles. The United States could also restore formal relations with Taiwan and reinstitute the Mutual Defense Treaty.

President Trump need not consider these drastic measures if Beijing will adopt more moderate policies of its own, not only on Taiwan, but on the South and East China Seas, and on trade and human rights — though in these other areas, Washington has separate appropriate responsive measures available.

Without itself severing relations, the United States could instead recognize Taiwan and adopt a one China, one Taiwan policy, placing on Beijing the burden for breaking U.S.-China ties. If China chose to incur the economic and other consequences and rupture relations, Washington could then invite Taipei to enter into a new defense treaty.

In the meantime, a range of other, lesser measures should certainly be explored — the Tsai-Trump phone call being a good start. Given the increasingly confrontational course China has adopted in recent years, the president-elect is right to signal some fresh new thinking on U.S.-China relations.

Joseph A. Bosco is a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest and a nonresident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served as China country desk officer in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-2006.