One China:  The Origins and Development of the "One China" Policy
Asia History

Research Report
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The relationship between People's Republic of China, the United States, and Taiwan constitutes a diplomatic challenge as complex as it is important.  Since 1972 the United States has pursued a "one-China" policy toward the region.  According to the official U.S. State Department website, the policy "acknowledges that Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is only on China and that Taiwan is a part of China."  Beijing in turn acknowledges that "the American people will continue to carry on commercial, cultural, and other unofficial contacts with the people of Taiwan."  Effectively the policies of both countries recognize that China exists as one country, yet only the U.S. acknowledges that the territories are governed by two separate and legitimate governments.  This essay will explore first the diplomatic and political origins of the "one-China" policy and secondly the reinforcement and development of the policy.  Finally, this report will look to the future of the three parties and why reunification will occur only when mainland China moves toward a truly open and democratic form of government.
Historical Background

Though the United States sided tacitly with Chiang Kai-shek before his flight to Taiwan and during his war with Mao Zedong, modern relations between China, Taiwan, and the USA have their roots in George Kennan's "Great Crescent" theory of containment of the PRC.  Upon the Chinese entry into the Korean conflict in October of 1950, the United States solidified its animosity toward the PRC and its Communist regime.  In December of 1950, president Harry Truman froze all PRC assets in the United States.  In line with the theory of containment, the U.S. increased its economic and military aid to Taiwan to nearly six billion dollars annually in a bid to strengthen the island against a possible Communist take over.  Consistent levels of aid were afforded Taiwan throughout the 1950's and Taiwan became an important base of logistical support during the United State's wars against the Communist takeover of Korea and later Vietnam.

Research Report

Not until the presidency of Richard Nixon did relations between the United States and China begin to thaw enough to address the status of Taiwan as anything other than a U.S. outpost for prevention of the spread of Communism.  In fact, relations between the countries were based partly on an agreement to treat Taiwan as a secondary issue in order to focus more intently on the strategic interests of both nations.

Though somewhat surprising given the his anti-Communist credentials, in July of 1969 Nixon took steps to open talks with China including an easement on trade and travel restrictions.  It was China, however, which sent an invitation to the United States ping-pong team to visit and compete with their Chinese counterparts.  This thaw in relations led to a secret visit by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger which led in turn to the announcement of an official state visit by Richard Nixon in early 1972.  All of this diplomatic maneuvering took place while the U.S. maintained that Taiwan was actually the Republic of China, a nation unto itself and separate from the PRC.  Neither Taiwan nor the PRC were enamored of this so called "two-Chinas" policy and the United Nations' expulsion of the ROC in 1972 ensured a quick end to the policy.

During Nixon's state visit to China in February of 1972 it became clear that Taiwan was an issue over which the nations shared little common ground.  The Chinese felt reunification absolutely essential and the U.S. maintained we could not conscionably abandon our friends and allies on Taiwan to the mercy of the PRC.  While neither side gave ground on the core disagreements over the Taiwan question, the Chinese demonstrated a willingness to allow the question to remain unsettled for an undetermined amount of time.  According to Kissinger, just before Nixon concluded his visit in 1972, PRC second in command Zhou Enlai informed him that "‘We, being so big, have already let the Taiwan issue remain for twenty-two years, and can afford to let it wait there for a time"(Lasater 25).  In this climate of disagreement over core issues, a lack of the need for immediacy on the part of China may well have allowed for the gains made on both sides of the table.

The eventual outcome of Nixon's trip to China was the 1972 Shanghai Communique which remains the foundation of Sino-American understanding on the issue of Taiwan.  This Communique was effectively an agreement to disagree in order to pursue other issues of international importance by both parties.  The Communique reads:

China: The Taiwan question is the crucial question obstructing the normalization of relations between China and the United States; The Government of the Peoples's Republic of China is the sole legal Government of China; Taiwan is a province of China which has long been returned to the motherland; the liberation of Taiwan is China's internal affair in which no other country has the right to interfere; and all U.S. forces and military installations must be withdrawn from Taiwan.  The Chinese Government firmly opposes any activities which aim at the creation of "one China", "one Taiwan", "one China, two governments", or advocate that "the status of Taiwan remains to be determined.

U.S.: The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.  The United States Government does not challenge that position.  It reaffirms its interests in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.  With this prospect in mind, it affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan.  In the meantime, it will progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes" (Lasater 26).

Clearly neither side of the disagreement stands ready to give ground.  The Chinese remain adamant that Taiwan is their territory and the United States has no right to be there.  The U.S. on the other hand acknowledges the rights of China to remain as one, yet insist on remaining in Taiwan until the tensions in the region are resolved.  Employing this communique as baseline for their relations regarding Taiwan, the two sides agreed that moving toward normalization between the U.S. and PRC lay in the best interests of everyone in the region and neither has sought to severely destabilize relations over the question since.

Following the issuance of the Shanghai Communique, President Nixon sought the normalization of relations with China only to discover the PRC strategic decision to use the Communique as basis for demanding three diplomatic concessions without which they would refuse normalization.  This strategy of basing demands on previous agreements has since been re-employed.  These demands included: 1) the severing of official U.S. ties with the ROC, 2) the elimination of the 1954 U.S.-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty, and 3) the complete dismantling of all U.S. military operations and bases on the island of Taiwan.  The U.S. decided against conceding to the Chinese demands, all of which centered on the question of Taiwan.
 In 1975, following the removal of Richard Nixon from office due to the Watergate scandal, Gerald Ford made a trip to China.  Ford went with the intent of somehow reaching normalization between the U.S. and China while maintaining strong ties to Taipei, but little or no progress was made.

It remains important to note that preceding Gerald Ford's visit to China the government of the People's Republic of China was weathering political storms at the highest levels.  The power wielded by the radical "Gang of Four" composed of Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao, Jiang Qing, and Yao Wenyuan was on the rise.  As Mao Zedong's control of national affairs became increasingly tenuous because of serious illness, a power struggle ensued between the Gang of Four and more moderate voices such as Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping.  The Gang of Four remained convinced that China needed to be able to fend off an attack from either the Soviet Union or the United States or both and as such needed to concentrate on military rather than diplomatic solutions.  Following the deaths of Zhou and Mao in January and September of 1976 respectively, the Gang of Four took power and set the nation on a much more radical course.

Fortunately for Sino-U.S. diplomatic relations, in 1977 the Gang of Four was deposed and Deng Xiaoping and other moderates regained power.  With the radicals deposed and President Jimmy Carter in the White House the stage was set for normalization between the two nations to progress.  Carter sent his National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to China in May of 1978 in order to set a course for mutual recognition.  During his visit, Carter instructed Brzezinski to reiterate U.S. adherence to the "one-China" policy with the addition of our intention to continue selling arms to Taiwan.  He also allowed for the removal of U.S. troops from Taiwan and the withdrawal of official relations with the ROC.  Carter instructed Brzezinski not to press the Chinese for a pledge to avoid employing military force to regain Taiwan, but rather ask that the Chinese not contradict U.S. assertions that the issue would best be settled peacefully.  The Chinese agreed to tone down their rhetoric, calling for a "reunification" rather than a "liberation" of Taiwan, but remained tightly adherent to their calls for such a reunification.    These concessions and slight modifications to the established bedrock of the Shanghai Communique proved adequate to lay the groundwork for mutual diplomatic recognition.  It was finally agreed that the nations would exchange diplomatic recognition on 1 January, 1979.  In the Communique on Establishing Diplomatic Relations the U.S. stated "as of January 1, 1979, the United States of America recognizes the People's Republic of China as the sole legal government of China" (Lasater 30).  Coupled with the acknowledgments of the "one-China" policy it would appear the U.S. stood prepared to sever ties with Taiwan.  The complete disengagement of the United States from Taiwan, however, remained far from finished.

Despite diplomatic recognition and the U.S. acknowledgment of the existence of "one-China", the United States still felt a responsibility to support Taiwan should it decide to resist reunification with the Chinese mainland.  To this effect the Taiwan Relations Act was coupled with the opening of official diplomatic relations with China.  The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 stated U.S. intentions to maintain close cultural and economic ties with Taiwan.  It also made clear that the U.S.'s acknowledgment of the PRC depended on the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question.  Most importantly, the TRA set forth specific provisions for the sale of defensive weapons to Taiwan.  Once again employing previous agreements as basis for new gains, the government of the PRC sought assurances of the U.S.'s peaceful intentions by demanding Carter's promise to employ the TRA only when it was consistent with policy as stated in the Communique on Establishing Diplomatic Relations.

With the ascent of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, the "one-China" policy was shaken slightly because of Reagan's campaign rhetoric calling for the sale of high-tech fighter planes to Taiwan.  According to Face Off author John Garver, however, once in office Reagan changed his tone.  Reagan issued the 1982 communique that the U.S. "‘does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan' and that arms sales to Taiwan ‘will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms' the level supplied in recent years" (Garver 35).  Despite earlier calls for increased arms sales to Taiwan, this communique mollified Beijing, and relations continued to operate along the lines of established policy.

Other more recent incidents such as George Bush's 1992 decision to sell F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan and the younger Bush's labeling of China as a Strategic Competitor have had  similarly mild destabilizing effects on U.S.-Taiwan-China relations.  During President George W. Bush's most recent state visit to China his reference to the TRA and U.S. obligations to sell weapons had the PRC in an uproar.  The Chinese pointed to the "one-China" policy in order to elicit a softer Bush response, which was forthcoming.  Such political maneuvering and fencing continue, yet the foundations of the "one-China" policy remain steadfast.

For the foreseeable future the U.S. will employ its form of limited brinksmanship, supplying weapons to Taiwan and using an occasional show of force, to deter any military action from China toward Taiwan.  With changes in Washington, different administrations may make greater or lesser reactionary or inflammatory arms sales to Taiwan.  On the diplomatic scene the U.S. will maintain our close ties to Taipei and give as little ground as possible at the negotiating table.  Eventually, the U.S. will seek a peaceful resolution to the question of Taiwan which may take many more years to develop.

The Chinese course will likely follow historical lines as well, proclaiming the legitimacy of their claim to Taiwan and demanding U.S. disengagement.  The PRC will likely employ the strategy of demanding new concessions based on previous agreements while occasionally staging menacing military exercises in limited brinksmanship of its own.  The fear they may hope to inspire through shows of force, however, will likely be tempered by more aggressive U.S. rhetoric and support of Taiwan.

Prior to the movement toward democracy taking firm hold in Taiwan in 1987, the governments of Taipei and Beijing were actually converging.  If Taiwan had continued on its authoritarian path and Beijing maintained its focus on economics rather than politics, the two countries might have made significant advances toward reunification.  However, Taiwan has advanced to a significantly more democratic and capitalist form of government.  This shift toward democracy coupled with the economic downturn and one candidate "elections" in Hong Kong after the PRC implementation of the "one country, two systems" doctrine makes reunification appear a handicap.  Moreover, should the people of Taiwan opt for reunification while Communism reigns in China, there are no guarantees the PRC would not crack down once in power.  People in Taiwan see no benefits in reunification under such a system and the PRC has done little to convince them.

Historical Significance

Barring massive military conflict, the people of Taiwan themselves must decide the question of reunification.  Given the failure of the PRC to entice the island back to the fold through their treatment of Hong Kong and the increasingly democratic and open society in Taiwan, reunification in the near future seems unlikely.  The level of commitment of the United States to Taiwan remains at a high level precluding military action by the PRC.  The people of Taiwan will not embrace a government which limits their democratization or jeopardizes their commerce.  Therefore, it falls to the Chinese mainland to bring their country toward a level of democracy and economic freedom more in step with that of Taiwan.  Without fundamental changes in the people and government of mainland China, PRC dreams of reunification will never be realized.


Garver, John W. Face Off: China, the United States, and Taiwan's Democratization.  University of Washington Press.
     Seattle, WA.  1997.

 Koehn, Peter.  The Outlook for U.S.-China Relations Following the 1997-1998 Summits.  The Chinese
     University Press.  Hong Kong.  1999.

 Kaufman, Victor S.  Confronting Communism: U.S. and British Policies toward China.  University of
     Missouri Press.  Columbia, MO.  2001.

 Lasater, Martin L.  Policy in Evolution: The U.S. Role in China's Reunification.  Westview Press. London.  1989.

 Metzger, Thomas A.  Greater China and U.S. Foreign Policy: The Choice Between Confrontation and
     Mutual Respect.  Hoover Institution Press.  Sanford, CA.  1996.

Nixon, Richard M.  The Memoirs of Richard Nixon.  Grosset & Dunlap.  New York, NY.  1978.

To, Lee L.  China and the South China Sea Dialogues.  Praeger Publishing.  London.  1999.

Yang, Jian.  Congress and U.S. China Policy.  Nova Science Publishers Inc.. Huntington, NY.  2000.

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