North Carolina Journal of International Law

"Connecting North Carolina to the World of International Law"

Why the “One China” Policy Still Matters

By: Alexis McGee

On December 2, 2016, a short phone call between the president-elect of the United States and the president of Taiwan took place.[1]  A call that many suspect could shatter decades’ worth of U.S. policy regarding China relations and also put the diplomatic relationship on shaky ground.[2]  The China-U.S. relationship would then turn hostile when president-elect Donald Trump tweeted “I fully understand the one-china policy, but I don’t know why we have to be bound by a one-china policy.”[3]

China’s Foreign Ministry responded to president-elect’s comments by stating “[t]he Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government representing China. This is a fact recognized by the International Community, no one can change.”[4]  Many Americans, throughout the duration of the controversy, were confused as to why it was such a big deal for the U.S. to recognize Taiwan as an individual country apart from China.  Many are likely unaware that by attacking the “One-China” policy, a signal is sent to China that their government and the sovereignty of China is being challenged. Worldwide, countries and international organizations have accepted the policy set forth by China.  In particular, the United Nations stopped recognizing Taiwan as its own country in 1971 and chose to only recognize the People’s Republic of China.[5]  In fact, only 22 nations currently disregard the One-China policy.[6] When a country decides not to abide by the policy, China refuses to have any diplomatic relations with that country until they comply with their terms.[7]  In summation, within the international community the One-China policy is accepted and has been for several decades.

Despite the widespread acceptance of the One-China policy, there is an ongoing debate as to what the policy actually means.  To some, the One-China policy is synonymous with the terminology of the One-China principle.  Under this interpretation, the policy carries with it the legal status of a principle and thus carries legal standing amongst the international community, rather than a mere up and coming norm or principle.  On the other side of the spectrum, some countries, like the U.S., view the One-China policy as a concept separate from the One-China principle.  Under this interpretation, there is more room for deviations from the policy that would not be tolerated as well if it was a principle.  Viewing the principle and the policy as two separate concepts permitted the U.S. to defy China’s wishes and provide arms to Taiwan while also maintaining diplomatic relations with China.[8]

Although the U.S. was able to sell arms to Taiwan and maintain diplomatic relations with China, it is undisputed that doing so was an extremely risky move by the U.S.[9]  It is highly unlikely, and to many, straight out refuted, that the same treatment would be given to the U.S if they were to disregard the One-China policy altogether.  As China has already announced, the One-China policy is not something open for negotiation.[10]

The Chinese government maintains that the One-China policy is necessary to the “peaceful reunification” of China and Taiwan.[11]  Moreover, China avers that a failure to go forth with this peaceful reunification and not abide by the policy would shatter the Asia-Pacific region.[12]  This would sever diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China while also putting Taiwan in danger since China has stated that they will use force as a last resort in order to maintain Taiwanese compliance.[13]  The resort to force will likely be enough to provoke other countries to get involved in the dispute if they had not already.  Interfering with the most sensitive issue to China, even throughout the history of China, could spark a war.[14]

For now, President Trump U.S. has backed down from his comments concerning any potential deviations from the One-China Policy.[15]  However, if the administration changes its mind, the world should prepare for the worst and get ready for involvement in a global conflict and the possibility of a shattered Asia-Pacific region.[16]


[1] Amy Wang et al., Why people are making such a big deal about the Trump-Taiwan call, The Washington Post (Dec. 5, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/12/05/why-people-are-making-such-a-big-deal-about-the-trump-taiwan-call/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.2bd1fe7fc15a  [https://perma.cc/R3NH-GEDC].

[2] Id.

[3] Emily Rauhala, Trump draws rebuke after saying U.S. isn’t bound by the one-China policy, The Huffington Post (Dec. 12, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/chinese-paper-calls-trump-as-ignorant-as-a-childafter-taiwan-comment/2016/12/12/d91fbaea-c02c-11e6-b20d-3075b273feeb_story.html [https://perma.cc/NV4M-9YBH].

[4] Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang Answered a reporter’s question, Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China.gov (Jan. 14, 2016), http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/web/fyrbt_673021/t1430633.shtml [https://perma.cc/GWA6-SN55].

[5] Wang et al., supra note 1. [https://perma.cc/8AXN-2AGV].

[6] Andre Jacobs, Side-lined as the U.N., a frustrated Taiwan pressed on, NY Times (Sept. 22, 2016) https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/23/world/asia/taiwan-china-united-nations-un.html?module=ArrowsNav&contentCollection=Asia%20Pacific&action=keypress&region=FixedLeft&pgtype=article [https://perma.cc/NW2C-MKJA].

[7] See Wang et al., supra note 1.

[8] US to sell arms to Taiwan despite Chinese opposition, BBC News (Dec. 16, 2015) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-35115507 [https://perma.cc/WY2H-MUDD].

[9] Id.

[10] Simon Denyer and Phillip Rucker, Backing away from a fight, Trump to honor one-china policy, The Washington Post (Feb. 10, 2017) https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/trump-agrees-to-honor-one-china-policy-in-call-to-xi-jinping/2017/02/10/ea6e7ece-ef4a-11e6-9973-c5efb7ccfb0d_story.html [https://perma.cc/9QZN-V6DM].

[11] Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America, White Paper – – The Taiwan Question and the Reunification of China, China-Embassy (Aug, 1993), http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/zt/twwt/White%20Papers/t36704.htm [https://perma.cc/5RNA-633G].

[12] Id.

[13] Jiang Zemin, Continue to Promote the Reunification of the Mortherland, China-embassy (Jan. 30, 1995) http://dm.china-embassy.org/eng/zt/twwt/t19061.htm [https://perma.cc/CX7X-EBVQ].

[14] Michael S. Chase & Derek Grossman, Walking away from One-China Policy imperils Taiwan, The National Interest (Dec. 22, 2016) http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/walking-away-one-china-policy-imperils-taiwan-18825 [https://perma.cc/RY9H-ALRS].

[15] Chieu Luu and Emiko Jozuka, The ‘One China’ policy explained, CNN (Feb. 10, 2017),  http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/10/asia/one-china-policy-explainer/ [https://perma.cc/Z322-BZP5].

[16] Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of American, supra note 11.

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