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Foreign Policy

One-China Principle Hasn’t Changed

Jan 24, 2022
  • Tao Wenzhao

    Honorary Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Fellow, CASS Institute of American Studies

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Chairman Mao (third left) received President Nixon (fourth left) in his study at the Chinese government compound of Zhongnanhai on Feb 11, 1972. Also present were Zhou Enlai (first left) and U.S. Secretary of State Kissinger (first right), interpreter Nancy Tang (second left).

The ice-breaking trip of U.S. President Richard Nixon to China and the issuance of the Sino-U.S. Joint Communique (Shanghai Communique) 50 years ago are events of great significance in the history of China-U.S. relations as well the international landscape. They ended an era of confrontation and isolation and ushered in the normalization of bilateral relations. Since relations were still at the initial stage of rapprochement, the Shanghai Communique was characterized by both sides as articulating their respective views and basic positions on major international issues as well as the Taiwan question.

Issues left out of the communique were clarified and resolved in the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations on Jan.1, 1979, and the Joint Communique of Aug. 17, 1982. The three joint communiques are an integral whole, embodying the one-China principle in its entirety, which boils down to three axioms: There is only one China in the world; Taiwan is part of Chinese territory; the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government of China.

Fifty years have passed, and despite many changes in the international situation and the state of China-U.S. relations, the one-China principle remains the political foundation of the relationship.

Since Joe Biden took office, senior officials have repeatedly stated that the U.S. one-China policy has not changed. In reality, however, the U.S. side has been doing things that have impacted this policy in various ways.

First, the U.S. has elevated the status of the so-called Six Assurances. There is a tendency for pro-Taiwan forces in the United States to belittle the three China-U.S. joint communiques and emphasize the Taiwan Relations Act. In recent years, they have even elevated the Six Assurances to the level of the Taiwan Relations Act, lifting them to the status of a “cornerstone” of U.S. policy on Taiwan.

In 1982, when the United States and China negotiated the Joint Communique of Aug. 17 on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the Reagan administration drew up a list of assurances to Taiwan — known as the Six Assurances — to reduce the possible shock of the communique to Taiwan. These assurances do not amount to law; they are a promise by the Reagan administration and are at best an executive order by the president at the time. For a long time, when the U.S. government spoke of a one-China policy, it always said that it was based on the three communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act. It avoided mention of the Six Assurances, as Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly did in his statement to Congress on April 21, 2004.

But in recent years U.S. policy pronouncements —such as the one made by Donald Trump’s Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell in a speech on Aug. 31, 2020, to the Heritage Foundation — have quietly shifted to the three China-U.S. communiques, the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances as the basis of U.S. Taiwan policy.

In a December 2021 virtual meeting between the Chinese and U.S. heads of state, Biden underscored that the United States remains committed to the “One-China Policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances.” The U.S. is not only selling arms to Taiwan on a large scale, but is also sending military officers to assist with military training and direct Taiwan’s military exercises. It is sending warships and aircraft to patrol the Taiwan Strait and is helping Taiwan produce advanced weapons, in serious violation of the one-China provision of the three joint communiques.

Second, the U.S. has changed the way it references Taiwan’s strategic significance. Before the Trump administration, mainstream U.S. officials and academia avoided talking about whether Taiwan was of strategic importance. Conservatives have not shied away from saying that “China controls Taiwan and, presumably, the Taiwan Strait. It could therefore effectively deny the U.S. and its allies access to critical sea lanes during a conflict ... and significantly extend the reach of the PLA in the Asia-Pacific region.”

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When the Trump administration put forward its Indo-Pacific strategy, it included Taiwan, calling it a “reliable, capable, natural partner” and stating that Taiwan would contribute to the U.S. mission everywhere. The Biden administration actually agrees with this. Former diplomat Kurt Campbell said at a meeting in Taipei on Dec. 8, 2020, that the partnership between the U.S. and Taiwan would remain robust, as the American government valued its commitment to Taiwan. He also stated: “There is a broad group of people across the political aisle that understand the profound significance of Taiwan and our strategic interest in maintaining a strong relationship with Taiwan.”

Third, the U.S. secretary of state, the secretary of defense and the assistant secretary for national security have said that the U.S. will “remain committed to Taiwan’s ability to defend itself,” while also “maintaining our capacity to resist any resort to force that would jeopardize the security of the people in Taiwan.” That was on Dec. 6.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Dec. 9 that “[f]rom the point of view of both deterrence and diplomacy,” the U.S. is going to do all it can to ensure that the reunification of China’s mainland with the island of Taiwan by force “never happens.” Similar statements have made separatist forces in Taiwan more aggressive, for which the United States is responsible.

 Fourth, in June and twice in November, members of the U.S. Congress visited Taiwan after traveling aboard U.S. military aircraft. Recently, with the support of the United States, Lithuania publicly violated the one-China principle by allowing Taiwan to open a so-called representative office in Lithuania. Senior U.S. officials commended the Lithuanian government for its “firm policy.” And U.S. officials openly “appreciated” the Lithuanian government’s “firm policy.”

The U.S. promised “bilateral coordinated action” with Lithuania. And immediately after the downgrading of relations between China and Lithuania, Lithuania signed a $600 million export credit agreement with the Export-Import Bank of the United States. The U.S. also encouraged its European allies to support Lithuania. MPs from three Baltic countries traveled to Taiwan and met with Tsai Ing-wen.

After Nicaragua reestablished diplomatic relations with China, senior U.S. officials visited Honduras in hope that the new post-election government would maintain “diplomatic relations” with Taiwan to help the island consolidate its purported “diplomatic ties.”

For more than a year the U.S. administration under President Joe Biden has repeatedly stated that it does not seek conflict with China and does not support Taiwan independence. But the facts run counter to the verbal signals. In the many communications between China and U.S. over the past year, including virtual meetings, phone calls and high-level dialogues, the message from the Chinese side has been clear: The Taiwan question is an internal matter for China that allows no foreign interference; Taiwan has no future other than reunification with the mainland; and the Chinese nation will definitely achieve the final reunification of the motherland in its process of national rejuvenation. These principles represent the firm will of the Chinese people and their government, and it is unshakable. China is fully capable of thwarting any secessionist move for Taiwan independence and is prepared to counter all forms of interference by external forces.

For a long time, the U.S. has said it does not support independence for Taiwan, while at the same time trying to obstruct China’s reunification. It wants to keep the two sides of the Taiwan Strait separated so it can use Taiwan as a card to contain China’s development. But this card is a dangerous one. If the United States really wants to coexist peacefully with China, it should handle Taiwan-related issues with extra caution and not play with fire on the Taiwan question.

Finally, I remind the Biden administration of what President Barack Obama said at a news conference before he left office: “For China ... the idea of one China is at the heart of their conception as a nation. And so if you are going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through what the consequences are, because the Chinese will not treat that the way they'll treat some other issues. ... And their reaction on this issue could end up being very significant.”

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