The One China Policy: The Cornerstone For The Contemporary Sino-American Relationship And Regional Security


Over the past few weeks, major international issues happened regarding Trump’s position on the Taiwan issue. The first incident happened at the beginning of December 2016. On December 2nd, 2016, the President-elect Donald Trump had a phone conversation with Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen. According to Trump’s Twitter, Mrs. Tsai’s main conversation with him on the phone call was Mrs. Tsai’s congratulations to Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential election. However, the Trump-Tsai phone call has broken the US diplomatic protocol towards China since either the US President or the President-elect has not spoken directly to Taiwan’s leader for around four decades. The phone call clearly raised concerns on the Chinese side. China has lodged complaints towards the US and some major Chinese medias, such as the Global Times and Xinhua, have warned Trump not to damage the contemporary Sino-US relationship.

Nevertheless, the issue has not been solved. Mr. Trump expressed his willingness to confront the long-standing ‘‘One China Policy’’ in an interview with Fox News. He suggested that the US should no longer bound by the ‘‘One China Policy’’ until China is willing to negotiate with the US on trade and the North Korean nuclear issues. The White House, after Trump’s statement, reaffirmed that the US will uphold the ‘‘One China Policy’’ and argued that the ‘‘One China Policy’’ should not be used as a bargaining chip.

So, what is the ‘‘One China Policy’’ and why is it so important to the contemporary world?

The One China Policy

Different parties have different explanations regarding the ‘‘One China Policy.’’ Generally speaking, the ‘‘One China Policy’’ is the policy that views there is only one state called ‘‘China’’, even if there are two states claimed to be ‘‘China’’, the People’s Republic of China (the mainland China) and the Republic of China (the government on the Island of Taiwan). By exercising the ‘‘One China Policy’’ while conducting diplomacy, the country holds diplomatic ties with either China must break its diplomatic ties with the other China.

What should be acknowledged is that the ‘‘One China Policy’’ is different from the ‘‘One China Principle.’’ As referred above, the ‘‘One China Policy’’ allows countries to have diplomatic ties with only either the People’s Republic of China (PRC) or the Republic of China (ROC). However, the ‘‘One China Principle’’ acknowledges that both China and Taiwan belongs one ‘‘China.’’ Thus, the ‘‘One China Principle’’ insists that both China and the Island of Taiwan are inseparable parts of China, either the PRC or the ROC.

The current policy upheld by the PRC is based on the known ‘‘1992 Consensus.’’ According to the ‘‘1992 Consensus’’, both the governments in the mainland China and on the Island of Taiwan acknowledge that there is only one sovereign state that has the sovereign control over the mainland China and Taiwan. Nevertheless, the two governments have different interpretations toward the consensus. The government of the PRC regards the PRC the sovereign state that legitimately controls the mainland China and Taiwan whereas the ROC government regards the ROC as the legitimate state.

However, the ‘‘One China Policy’’, the ‘‘One China Principle’’ and the ‘‘1992 Consensus’’ are all opposite from the principle that inspired the Taiwan Independence movement. Different from all the policy mentioned above, the Taiwan Independence movement upholds the idea that Taiwan should be an independent country named the ‘‘Republic of Taiwan.’’

Why is the ‘‘One China Policy’’ important?

The ‘‘One China Policy’’ is widely regarded as the cornerstone of the contemporary Sino-American relationship. In the 1970s, the US started to acknowledge the ‘‘One China Policy’’ and started to conduct diplomacy accordingly. In the Shanghai Communiqué of 1972, the US stated that there is only one China and both the mainland China and Taiwan belong to that one China. More importantly, the communiqué stated that the US ‘‘does not challenge that position.’’

In light of the establishment of the formal diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1979, the US stopped its formal, official ties with the ROC. However, the Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act that allows the US to maintain an unofficial tie with the ROC. The Taiwan Relations Act does not only allow the US to maintain ties with the ROC but also allows the US to sell armaments to Taiwan.

Although the US acknowledges that both the mainland China and Taiwan belong to one sovereign entity, the US still maintains a certain level of strategic ambiguity over the Taiwan issue. Firstly, and perhaps the most importantly, the US has not explicitly clarified which ‘‘China’’ it acknowledges. Therefore, depends on different parties’ interpretations, the ‘‘China’’ that the US acknowledges can be either the PRC or the ROC.

This strategic ambiguity has largely contributed to the maintenance of the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. On the one hand, the policy has allowed the US to maintain formal diplomatic relations with China, the second largest economy in the contemporary world as well as maintaining ties with Taiwan. One the other hand, the strategic ambiguity allows the US to deter either the PRC or the ROC’s aggressiveness towards the other government.

The status quo across the Taiwan Strait is beneficial for China, Taiwan, and the US. As argued by Professor C. Cindy Fan in her article for the New York Times, the ‘‘One China Policy’’ removes the pressure on the US on explicitly explaining which ‘‘China’’ does it acknowledges, as long as the US upholds the policy. For China, China does not have to worry about Taiwan to declare independence because of the US double assurance. For Taiwan, the policy is also beneficial because it allows Taiwan to maintain its self-governance without worrying about the process of reunification. According to Professor Fan, the status quo also allows the PRC and the ROC to have a healthy interactive relation. More than 2 million people from Taiwan are living in China now and the healthy interaction between the mainland China and Taiwan can also minimize the possibility of military exchanges between the two parties.

What would possibly happen if Trump abolish the ‘‘One China Policy’’

Trump’s comments on the ‘‘One China Policy’’ have raised a certain level of concerns among both international and domestic observers in China, Taiwan, and the US. For Taiwan, as commented by Trump, Taiwan might be used merely as a bargaining chip for Trump to negotiate with China. Although the fate of Taiwan is largely dependent on the Sino-American relations, the Taiwanese government, still possible, to feel betrayed by the US and may adopt a bolder policy towards the cross-strait relationship. To declare independence is not entirely impossible given Trump’s comments on Taiwan and the current government in Taiwan is naturally pro-independent as well. However, if Taiwan declares independence, China would response with military means as China has never given up military means to reunify the country.

For the US, Trump’s comments are not beneficial for it to maintain a healthy relationship with the PRC. The Sino-American relations are important economically and strategically. Regarding the economic perspective, the PRC is the second largest economy in the contemporary world and the economic ties between the PRC and the US are crucial for the world economy. Strategically speaking, the PRC and the US are the two most capable states that can construct the regional or even the global strategic order. Cooperation between the two would be appreciated as the intensified strategic competition between the two may lead to a military exchange between the two. The potential military exchange between the two is dangerous for the contemporary world given the existing nuclear arsenals of China and the US.


Trump’s comments on the ‘‘One China Policy’’ cast doubts on how the upcoming US President will handle the contemporary Sino-US relations. Argued by Professor Fan, all the parties involved in the Taiwan issue are not prepared for the potentially dramatic changes in the US diplomatic conduct regarding the Taiwan issue. Trump has not shown his willingness to conduct diplomacy accordingly through his comments on the ”One China Policy.” For him, diplomacy may merely be a tool in bargaining for business interests. To avoid further escalation over the Taiwan issue, the relevant parties in the US political realm should check the upcoming Trump administration to make sure that the new government will conduct international relations accordingly.