Home 'One China' Policy : Should Trump Let Sleeping Dogs Lie?

'One China' Policy : Should Trump Let Sleeping Dogs Lie?

United States President-elect Donald Trump chose to receive a phone call from the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, congratulating him on his victory. This conversation broke decades of diplomatic protocol as there has been no contact between the leaders of the two countries since the US switched recognition to the People’s Republic of China in 1979. It resulted in an expected diplomatic protest from the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Both the Taiwanese administration and the Obama administration were quick to clarify that this does not change the status of US’s policy towards China or Taiwan. The US continues to respect the carefully negotiated ‘One China’ policy and this contact between the leaders does not imply extension beyond the existing de facto recognition to the Taiwanese government.

Unfortunately, this was followed by an interview on Fox News where Trump went one step further. “I fully understand the ‘One China’ policy, but I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘One China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade,”[i] he explained when asked about the phone call that had sent the diplomatic world into a frenzy.  

Misreading China

Trump believes he has identified China’s Achilles heel and wants to use this advantage for the limited purpose of negotiating more favourable agreements on trade or on the South China Sea. However, he has missed that challenging the existing ‘One China’ policy means questioning the root of China’s sovereignty and its very identity. This has predictably antagonized China. The Chinese Foreign Minister said, “I can clearly say that no matter whether the Tsai Ing-wen authority, any other person in the world, or any other force, if they try and damage the one China principle and harm China’s core interests, in the end they are lifting a rock only to drop it on their feet.”[ii] Local Chinese news reports in the Global Times called Trump “as ignorant as a child in terms of foreign policy because the “One China” policy is never open to negotiation”.[iii] This reflects the dominant nationalistic outlook in China.

US, One China and Taiwan

Ping pong diplomacy and the 1972 joint communique in Shanghai paved the way for the eventual formalization of diplomatic relations between the US and People’s Republic of China in 1979. Full diplomatic engagement with China came at the cost of US-Taiwan relations. US had to withdraw all military troops from the island and withdraw diplomatic recognition from the government of the Republic of China. The US–Republic of China military treaty was terminated. Apart from the political advantage of standing by an ally in the Cold War era, extensive private interest spurred the US to enter into a unique relationship with Taiwan.

This was given a legal footing when the US passed the Taiwan Relationship Act, 1979. The provisions protect the people to people relations between the two nations, falling just short of de jure recognition of the government of Taiwan. The region enjoys unprecedented rights and advantages. These includes aspects like mutual recognition of laws, ability of one state to sue another state, recognition of property rights etc which are usually associated with the recognition of a state. For instance, Section 4(1) of the Taiwan Relations Act states that “The absence of diplomatic relations or recognition shall not affect the application of the laws of the United States with respect to Taiwan, and the laws of the United States shall apply with respect to Taiwan in the manner that the laws of the United States applied with respect to Taiwan prior to January 1, 1979.[iv] Under the Act, the US also undertakes the responsibility to maintain cross Straits peace and will consider any act of aggression as a breach of peace in the Western Pacific.

The Taiwanese government was also provided with “Six Assurances” which guaranteed that the US “would not revise the Taiwan Relations Act, would not set a date for termination of arms sales to the Republic of China, would not consult with the People’s Republic of China in advance before making decisions about US arms sales to the Republic of China” among others.[v]

Citizen and consular services are carried out by the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) which is a private, non-profit corporation. Taiwan similarly maintains a maintains the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in the United States.[vi] In 2015, AIT and TECRO established the Global Cooperation and Training Framework, to increase U.S.-Taiwan cooperation on global and regional issues such as public health, economic development, energy, women’s rights, and disaster relief.[vii] This is merely a legal veil since the bodies are controlled and run by the governments but it is important to note that the façade is strictly maintained.

Potential Ramifications of a Policy Shift

As the President-elect, Trump is still not acting for the United States government but this phase of testing waters could have grave consequences. While the phone call alone does not constitute de jure recognition of the Taiwanese government under international law, the symbolic value of the act coupled with questioning “One China’ could heighten tensions in the region.

Forcing China’s Hand. Questioning the utility of the One China policy will force the Chinese to militarize the Taiwan Strait even further. As long as China believes that there is a chance of unification, it is unlikely to use force against Taiwan.[viii] China will also seek to deter US intervention in what it considers an internal conflict. Undermining ‘One China’ can upset the status quo in the region, putting the option of armed conflict on the table since it directly challenges the Chinese Dream of becoming a great power which enjoys regional pre-eminence. China might rely on Article 8 of the Anti-Secession Law, 2005 to rely on force if it believes that options for peaceful reunification are exhausted. Despite mercurial growth in recent times, the Chinese navy is still playing catch up with the US navy. While China would prefer to avoid a clash unless it can be on an equal footing, any action on Taiwan might force their hand.

Harakiri.  The acceptance of ‘One China’ has also allowed US-China ties to become closer on the economic and even military front. This progress in US-China relationship has been gradual and hard won. Upending the ‘One China policy’ would undermine the very foundation of this delicate agreement. Heightened tensions across the Taiwan Strait would force the US to increase military support to Taiwan since it is legally obligated to maintain cross-Straits peace. The degree of assistance leaves such actions open to interpretation by China. If viewed as moves towards independence, it will take strong action. The potential ramifications of the two largest economies which are heavily inter-related coming to war would be a global disaster.

When Two Elephants Clash, the Ant gets Crushed. Any conflict would be most harmful for Taiwan which has taken advantage of its uncertain position to build relationships with both China and the US. It has heavily invested in mainland China and there is close coordination in various fields. Meanwhile, its democratic credentials and de facto recognition allow it to work closely with the Western world. While the Taiwanese military is heavily funded by the US, it relies more on the ocean separating it from China and the threat of US support as deterrence. Although there have been no statements from the Taiwanese side after the statements by Trump, an open push for independence is not in Taiwan’s best interests.

All Quiet on the Western Front. India stands to lose in any potential rebalancing as well. Concentrated military energies on China’s eastern front ensure relative peace on the Indo-China border. Apart from limited shelling to establish continued occupation, an uneasy status quo is maintained on the China border. This allows India time to build its capabilities, especially infrastructural which lag behind considerably when compared to the Chinese side. India’s unique geographical location, increasing naval footprint and larger role in global alliances might mean that India gets involved militarily in a limited manner in case of conflict.

It would be wise to proceed with caution when considering any change in the existing ‘One China’ policy.




[i]Trump: 'I Don't Know Why' US Is Bound by 'One China' Policy, The Diplomat, December 12, 2016,  http://thediplomat.com/2016/12/trump-i-dont-know-why-us-is-bound-by-one-china-policy/ 

[ii] China 'seriously concerned' after Trump questions Taiwan policy, The Guardian, December 12, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/dec/12/donald-trump-questions-us-commitment-to-one-china-policy

[iii] If Trump abandons “One China,” Beijing could arm the US’s enemies and invade Taiwan, a state paper claims, The Quartz, December 12, 2016 http://qz.com/860423/if-donald-trump-abandons-the-one-china-policy-beijing-may-arm-the-uss-enemies-and-invade-taiwan-a-state-paper-says/

[iv] Taiwan Relations Act, 1979.

[v] Harvey Feldman, President Reagan’s Six Assurances to Taiwan and Their Meaning Today, The Heritage Foundation Web Memo, October 2, 2007  http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2007/10/president-reagans-six-assurances-to-taiwan-and-their-meaning-today

[vi] U.S. Relations With Taiwan, US Department of State, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/35855.htm

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] US Department of Defense’s  Annual Report to the US Congress on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China, April 26, 2016.

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