President-elect Donald Trump sparked a brushfire of commentary a few days ago when he took a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, known officially in her home country as “the president of the Republic of China.”
Talking heads in the mainstream media chided Mr. Trump: Does he not know that the only “president of China” the United States officially recognizes is Xi Jinping, “president of the People’s Republic of China.” Had Mr. Trump violated Washington’s long-held “one-China policy”?
Well, no. A fun diplomatic fact is that the “one-China policy” is mostly myth, and the “un-myth” part doesn’t mean what “experts” think it means. Let’s explore more fun facts about the “one-China policy.”
Myth No. 1: The “one-China policy” means “Taiwan is part of China.”
The United States has never recognized Taiwan (or “Formosa,” as it used to be called) as part of “China.” It still doesn’t. On Dec. 16, 1978, President Jimmy Carter formally derecognized the “Chinese” government in Taipei and recognized the Beijing regime. An accompanying U.S.-China communique phrased it carefully: “The U.S. side acknowledges the Chinese position that there is one China and Taiwan is part of China.” This diplomatic subtlety was explained in Senate hearings two months later by Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher: “[The U.S.] has acknowledged the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China, but the United States has not itself agreed to this position.”
Fun fact: Because of post-World War II peace treaty complications, along with the Communist Chinese war against the United Nations in Korea, the United States refused to recognize that Taiwan was even part of the “Republic of China.” In 1982, President Ronald Reagan reassured Taiwan in policy known as the “Six Assurances,” “that the United States would not alter its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan,” and that the “United States would not formally recognize China’s sovereignty over Taiwan.” Every administration since supported Reagan’s “Six Assurances.”
Myth No. 2: China and Taiwan agreed to “one China” in 1992.
Representatives from Taipei’s Nationalist regime and Beijing’s Communists met in Hong Kong in November 1992 and without written record, agreed that they could proceed with official business on a vague premise that there was “one China,” and each side could define “one China” as it wished. In August 1993, however, Beijing issued a formal white paper declaring Taiwan to be under the sovereignty of the People’s Republic, that ” ‘self-determination’ for Taiwan is out of the question,” and that Taiwan’s airspace was Chinese and, therefore, all foreign airlines needed Beijing’s permission to fly to Taiwan.
Three months later, Taipei issued its own statement that ” ‘China’ is not ‘the People’s Republic of China [PRC],’ nor is Taiwan a part or a province thereof. Accordingly … the ROC [Republic of China] and the PRC are two independent and mutually nonsubordinate sovereign nations.” Since then, the only “consensus” on “one China” between Taipei and Beijing has been that the word “China” is in the dictionary.
Myth No. 3: The United States has a “one-China policy.”
Frequently, U.S. officials invoke something called “one China,” the definition of which eludes their powers of articulation. In 2004, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian affairs James Kelly invented the neologism “our one-China” policy in congressional testimony. He said, “The definition of ‘one China’ is something that we could go on for much too long for this event. In my testimony, I made the point [of] ‘our one China,’ and I didn’t really define it, and I’m not sure I very easily could define it. [But] I can tell you what it is not. It is not the ‘one-China policy’ … that Beijing suggests.” Beyond that, the “one-China policy” only means that the U.S. recognizes one government of “China” at a time.
Myth No. 4: The U.S. never had a “two-Chinas policy.”
Although the United States always preferred the aspirational goal of “one China,” Washington chose to maintain ties with the Nationalist Chinese on Taiwan after the Communist Peking regime entered the Korean War, and supported Taiwan in the United Nations. The U.S. adopted a “two-Chinas” policy as it struggled to keep Taiwan from losing its U.N. seat.
Fun fact: Ultimately, in October 1971, the United States and its allies voted against China’s U.N. membership because the resolution would also expel Taiwan. The resolution passed over American objections. But the United States continued to maintain diplomatic missions in both Taipei and Beijing until 1979. This “two-Chinas” policy lasted from 1969 to 1979.
Myth No. 5: The United States does not recognize Taiwan’s independence.
The U.S. “does not support” Taiwan’s independence, except in law. When the United States derecognized Taipei in 1979, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (22 USC 48, Sections 3301-3316), which states: “Whenever the laws of the United States refer or relate to foreign countries, nations, states, governments, or similar entities, such terms shall include and such laws shall apply with respect to Taiwan.” Congress also declared it U.S. policy (Section 3301(b)(6)) “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”
• John J. Tkacik is the director of the Future Asia Project at the International Strategy and Assessment Center. He is a retired U.S. diplomat who served tours at U.S. embassies in both Taipei and Beijing, and was chief of China analysis in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the Clinton administration.