Panama’s decision to shift diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has drawn attention again to the anachronistic convention under which the international community only recognizes either the PRC or the ROC as the sole official government of “China.” Although the ROC originally joined with the PRC in insisting on this “one China principle,” changing circumstances suggest that the interests of both Taiwan and the world would be better served if Taiwan, with U.S. support, encouraged its remaining diplomatic allies to pursue dual recognition of the two administrations across the Taiwan Strait.
The struggle over diplomatic recognition between the PRC and Taiwan is a vestigial legacy of the Cold War. At the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party government retreated to Taiwan but continued to claim, as the ROC, to be China’s only legitimate government. Meanwhile, on mainland China the victorious Communist Party of China asserted that the People’s Republic of China had replaced Chiang’s government as the sole authority over all of China, including Taiwan. Ultimately both sides met the conditions that might normally provide each with a basis for recognition as independent sovereign states (full control over internal affairs within a well-defined territory). Nonetheless, both governments insisted on, and in the context of the Cold War the international community accepted, the principle of exclusive recognition.
Despite its smaller territory, Chiang Kai-shek’s government, with U.S. support, initially maintained some parity in its battle with the PRC for diplomatic recognition. Taiwan’s position began to falter, though, after the PRC gained recognition in the United Nations in 1972, leading to a walk-out by ROC representatives. Taiwan’s position received a further blow in 1979 when the United States also recognized the PRC and broke official relations with Taiwan. After this, Taiwan played a costly game, using foreign aid to slow the desertion of its diplomatic allies, increasingly composed of small states in Oceania, Central America, and Africa.
This competition paused briefly following the 2008 presidential election of Ma Ying-jeou, whose Nationalist Party reconfirmed it strong commitment to the one China principle, leading the PRC to stop attempts to poach Taiwan’s few remaining allies. The 2016 presidential election on Taiwan, won by the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen, however, ended this understanding. In March 2016, Gambia established ties with the PRC, followed in mid-December by Sao Tome and Principe. Panama’s action has now reduced the number of the ROC’s diplomatic allies to 20. The PRC is clearly supporting a new battle over diplomatic recognition, which threatens to destabilize the more accommodative relations that have developed across the Taiwan Strait over the past few decades.
Instead of continuing the fight over a principle of exclusive recognition, Taiwan’s interests (and the interests of the world) would be better served by a switch to a one China, dual recognition policy. Such a policy would build on the “1992 Consensus,” whereby representatives from both sides of the Taiwan Strait concurred that there was only “one China,” but tacitly agreed to accept alternate interpretations of what this might mean to the two parties. One plausible interpretation could be the idea of two internationally recognized administrations within the single territory of “one China.”
There are international precedents for such a resolution. At the end of World War II, similar controversies arose involving several “divided” nations (Germany, Korea, and Vietnam). National unification in 1975 mooted this issue in Vietnam. Nonetheless, long before their own unification, the two Germanies reached an agreement in 1973 accepting the principle of dual recognition (by other nations and the UN). Likewise, an agreement was reached for recognition of both North and South Korea in the United Nations in 1991. Thus, the exclusive recognition convention regarding the PRC and Taiwan has only survived as a peculiar anomaly.
Interestingly, the PRC abandoned the general principle it seeks to maintain in its relations with Taiwan when in 1992 it recognized the government of South Korea alongside its continued recognition of North Korea. Meanwhile, although Taiwan’s government has officially continued to accept the principle that there can only be “one China,” it has long abandoned Chiang Kai-shek’s goal of recovering administrative authority over territory now controlled by the PRC Hence there seems to be room on both sides for a principled accommodation to the concept of dual recognition.
Achieving this solution will not be easy. Seeing itself as the inevitable victor in the battle for diplomatic recognition, the PRC is unlikely to welcome any change toward a one China, dual recognition principle. Likewise, other major countries who have accepted the current one China principle as a framework for their relations with China have no reason to court China’s displeasure by promoting such a change. This is a rare occasion, though, where small and weaker countries can lead the way.
This change should start with Taiwan’s active encouragement of its remaining diplomatic allies to declare their recognition of the PRC alongside of the ROC. Of course, the PRC could refuse to accept these offers of recognition. But in the absence of any current relations with the PRC, these countries, unlike those with established ties with the PRC, would have little to lose in taking this action. Meanwhile this could provide a precedent for other countries seeking a better framework for the management of their own relations with both Taiwan and the PRC
The United States is clearly obliged by its own agreements to recognize the PRC regime as the sole government of one China. Nonetheless, the U.S. “One China Policy” is also based on its increasingly unjustifiable “recognition” that the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait share the same understanding of the one China principle. In the end, the United States will need to adjust its policy to fit current cross-strait realities. To this end, Washington could support dialogue with the PRC toward accepting dual recognition as the most realistic way of preserving both the concept of “one China” and stability across the Taiwan Strait necessary for China’s continued development.
Edward A. McCord is Professor of History and International Affairs and Vice Dean at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.