What Is the One-China Policy?

The People’s Republic of China reiterated Sunday that it won’t discuss diplomatic or trade issues with Taiwan until new Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian recognizes the one-China policy. What is the one-China policy?

The one-China policy holds that there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China. The leaders of both countries have long subscribed to the one-China policy–each insisting on their own government’s legitimacy–but the Taiwanese position has eroded over the past few decades as the People’s Republic has gained international prominence. Taiwan’s softened position is spelled out in its 1991 Guidelines for National Unification, which insists only that a unified China must be “democratic” and “free,” not necessarily led by Taiwan. The People’s Republic position remains fundamentally unchanged.

The controversy dates back to 1949, when the victorious Communists established the People’s Republic of China on the mainland, and the defeated Nationalists fled to Taiwan where they continued to claim sovereignty over all of China.

Following talks between President Nixon and Chairman Mao Tse-tung in 1972, the U.S. endorsed the one-China policy in the Shanghai communiqué, issued jointly with the People’s Republic. The communiqué stated that “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and Taiwan is a part of China. The United States does not challenge that position.” While the U.S. endorsement did not specify which government was legitimate, President Carter formally recognized Beijing as the sole government of China in 1978 and closed its embassy in Taiwan the next year.

While the U.S. officially adheres to the one-China policy, it practices a de facto two-China policy. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. sells Taiwan military weapons, and the language of the act warns the People’s Republic that any coercive unification efforts would be “of grave concern to the United States.”

Beginning in the late 1980s, the two Chinas flouted their one-China policies by establishing economic and cultural but not political ties. Last summer Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui upset this delicate balance by referring to the “state to state relations” between Taipei and Beijing. Chen Shui-bian, elected Taiwan’s president in March on a pro-independence platform, has continued to pay lip service to independence–two Chinas–but, out of fear of provoking China, has refrained from explicitly repudiating the one-China policy.

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