David Elber is a China Studies MA student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and an intern at GTI.
While still President-elect, Donald Trump suggested that the United States need not be bound by the “One-China” policy. In response, various experts worked to explain why it was necessary to reaffirm the policy for the stability of US-China relations. This advice did not go unheard: according to a White House statement, when President Trump spoke with People’s Republic of China (PRC) President Xi Jinping on the phone in February, he “agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our ‘One-China’ policy.”
The specific formulation of Trump’s phrasing is significant in several ways, but of particular note is his use of the word “our” to refer to the “One-China” policy. This forces people to consider not only what exactly “our” policy is relative to China’s, but also the implications of China’s willingness to accept variance on a core issue for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The US “One-China” policy may be considered to be “a distillation from key documents such as the three US-China Joint Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), and a series of policy statements made over the years, such as the ‘Six Assurances.’” Specifically, according to the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America: “The United States of America recognizes the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China … [and] acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” The word “acknowledges” was chosen carefully to give the US a degree of flexibility.
The US “One-China” policy is also distinctly different from China’s “One-China” principle. According to the PRC, “there is only one China in the world, Taiwan is a part of China and the government of the PRC is the sole legal government representing the whole of China.” In contrast, the US “One-China” policy is distinct in several ways. For one, the United States has taken a deliberately ambiguous approach to the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty. Additionally, framing it as a “policy” rather than a “principle” renders it more of a course of action than a fundamental, incontrovertible truth, as the PRC has framed it.
Often, this is where the conversation ends when people discuss what is meant by the word “our” in the context of the “One-China” policy. In reality, however, there is another important element to this classification. The United States is not the only nation to have a “One-China” policy—that President Trump chose the language of “our policy” not only differentiates it from the PRC’s principle, but also distinguishes it from the policies of other nations.
On March 7, at his talk at the Brookings Institution, Ma Ying-Jeou noted that, while 173 nation states maintain diplomatic ties with the PRC, only 137 countries signed joint communiqués when establishing diplomatic relations. These communiqués include the country’s recognition of the PRC and also the country’s stance—or lack thereof—on Taiwan’s sovereignty. Ma focused on the latter consideration, further noting three categories of statements. He said that 52 states recognize the PRC’s sovereignty over Taiwan; 29 states use vague language on the issue (as the United States does with “acknowledges”); and 56 states do not mention Taiwan.
The potential implications of these figures as Ma presented them are significant—more than half of the countries that signed joint communiqués with the PRC have not taken a clear stance on the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty. Ma emphasized the perspectives of the foreign countries involved, remarking that “121 states prefer to keep some flexibility and reservations as regards the PRC’s claims to Taiwan.”
More interesting, though, is the PRC’s willingness to accept this state of affairs. The PRC has been surprisingly flexible when it comes to the semantics of how other nations view one of its core interests. The issue of territorial sovereignty is not one that the CCP takes lightly; rather, it is an issue that China has actively striven to uphold. Why, then, would it acquiesce on such a visible stage?
The most logical answer is that the PRC wanted to establish formal relations with as many nations as possible, and that it prioritized this goal. To that end, in order to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC, a country must “show its readiness to sever all diplomatic relations with the Taiwan authorities and recognize the government of the PRC as the sole legal government of China.”
So long as a foreign nation accepts that the PRC is the sole legitimate government of China and is willing to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan, it would seem that the PRC can be satisfied. In other words, the explicit, direct, and unambiguous statement that Taiwan is a part of China is not deemed entirely necessary. If the PRC’s goal has been to establish formal relations with as many nations as possible, then this makes sense, pragmatically. Adhering to this standard expedites the establishment of diplomatic ties because, even if a foreign government were reluctant to take a hard stance on the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty, it could still agree to the PRC’s terms. The CCP would also not need to fear nationalistic public outcry, because it could show its domestic audience that the nations in question were not denying their claims. For their purposes, an implied recognition of sovereignty—insofar as the contrary is not being directly stated—is good enough.
The PRC’s willingness to accept ambiguity in certain cases implies that there may be more wiggle room when negotiating with Beijing than the dominant narrative would suggest. While this does not mean that countries wishing to have diplomatic relations with China will be providing arms to Taiwan anytime soon or countries wanting to have better relations with Taiwan may do so without the expectation of protest, it does mean that rhetorically, there could be flexibility depending on the specifics of a given situation.
The main point: The PRC’s willingness to accept different formulations of “One-China” implies that Beijing might be more flexible in negotiations than might be expected.