Splitting Hairs on “One China”

Aug 11, 2022

The predictable blowback on my latest FT opinion piece fixated on misdirected efforts to provide justification for Nancy Pelosi’s pro-independence stance on Taiwan.  I cited the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué as providing the bedrock foundation for US acceptance of the “One China” principle.  I was criticized for not referring to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act passed by the US Congress and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter shortly after Deng Xiaoping’s historic 8-day visit to the United States in late January and early February 1979.

It doesn’t really matter. In both 1972 and again in 1979, the United States officially acknowledged Beijing’s “One China” policy. While that is hardly a resounding endorsement of the PRC’s hardened position on this key issue, the 1979 reaffirmation was accompanied by the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the US and the People’s Republic of China as the “sole legal government of China” — with emphasis on the word, sole. At the same time the US severed its formal diplomatic ties and mutual defense treaty with Taiwan. The rest of the world has followed suit; only 13 of 193 members in the United Nations currently have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.  No ambiguity on that key point: The PRC is the “one” in the One China policy.

Yes, this relationship structure does allow for wiggle room — the so-called “strategic ambiguity” of artful diplomacy — for the US to still provide support for Taiwan, including periodic arms sales. It should be pointed out, however, that in a follow-up 1982 communiqué, the US agreed to gradually “reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan.”   That, of course, has yet to occur.

In her August 3 press conference in Taiwan, Speaker Pelosi was unequivocal in underscoring that “America’s determination to preserve democracy in Taiwan … remains ironclad.” My take was simply to draw the obvious contrast between democracy and autocracy — a point also stressed by Pelosi in her press conference.  While strategic ambiguity offers great diplomatic latitude on a number of issues, can “One China” really encompass two diametrically opposed systems of governance?  Hard to split hairs on that key point. Beijing, of course, has left little doubt of its answer to this question.  And a deeply troubled relationship has quickly gone from bad to worse.

You can follow me on Twitter @SRoach_econ

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