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  • Jessica Drun

One China, Multiple Interpretations

When discussing cross-Strait relations and broader contacts involving the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC), two “one China’s” are consistently referenced: the “One China” Principle (一个中国原则) and the “One China” Policy (一中政策). This article will explore the relationship between the two and discuss how ambiguities, language, and subtle but pervasive manipulation of words and statements allow Beijing to conflate the two and undermine the function and utility of countries’ “One China” policies—specifically those of the United States and its allies.

A Principle and Many Policies

It is noteworthy that the broader concept of “One China” was first formalized in 1947 when it was enshrined in the ROC Constitution and that there remains a contentious interpretation of “One China” in Taiwan in the “1992 Consensus.” However, for the purpose of this piece, emphasis will be on the PRC’s “One China” Principle and the “One China” policies adapted and articulated in response.

As laid out in a PRC government white paper released by the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) of China’s State Council in 2000, Beijing states that its “One China” Principle came into effect with the founding of the PRC in 1949, when it sought to establish diplomatic relations with other countries and required that counterparts “recognize the government of the PRC as the sole legitimate government representing the whole of China” and “sever or refrain from establishing diplomatic relations with the Taiwan authorities.” Explicitly in regards to cross-Strait relations, the “One China” Principle is Beijing’s baseline for Taiwan for dialogue between the two governments.[1] Further, Beijing has asserted that the ultimate goal for its “One China” Principle is “peaceful reunification” and the incorporation of Taiwan under the PRC through the “one country, two systems” rubric, which is also used to guide Beijing’s policies toward Hong Kong and Macao.

By extension, the “One China” Policy—or rather, “One China” policies plural—are a country’s individual approach to Taiwan and China that said country adopts when it establishes formal diplomatic relations with the PRC. Of critical—and often overlooked—importance, each country subscribes to its own unique “One China” policy, and the language used by the adopting country varies across the spectrum and stems from their respective historical interactions with the PRC and the ROC. These policies are ever-evolving.

For example, the United States’ “One China” Policy—though not explicitly defined—is grounded in the Three Joint Communiqués, the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), and the “Six Assurances.” It is likewise informed by a series of official statements conveying key U.S. interests and viewpoints, such as a peaceful resolution of differences, sustained dialogue between the two sides, opposition to moves to unilaterally alter the status quo, and non-support for Taiwan’s de jure independence. After Taiwan’s democratization, Washington also began asserting the importance of the assent of the people. Of note, the U.S. “One China” Policy is “strategically ambiguous.” This most often refers to whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense in a Taiwan Strait contingency, but also to Washington's stance toward the PRC’s claims over Taiwan, as exemplified in the language used in the three communiqués.

As former ROC President Ma Ying-jeou highlighted in a speech at the Brookings Institution in March 2017, there exists three groupings of statements within joint communiques on Taiwan’s political status: 1) recognition of PRC claims that Taiwan is a province or part of the PRC; 2) vague language in regards to these claims; and 3) omission of any mention of Taiwan. A sampling of the first two categories are presented in the chart below:

Figure 1

Those in the final group of joint communiqués that do not mention Taiwan include Germany (1972) and Mexico (1972). Ma notes that the exemption of Taiwan in this final group, when coupled with those in the second (with vague phrasing), indicates the existence of a large swath of countries that maintain “flexibility and reservations [in] regards [to] the PRC’s claim to Taiwan.”

Yet, of interest and relevance, he overlooked the dynamism of policy and diplomacy. While joint communiqués establishing diplomatic relations provide unique insights into a country’s “One China” policy, given that such statements marked the initiation of formal contacts, they generally only represent policy perspectives and priorities at that point in time. As China has deepened its bilateral relationships with countries across the globe through the advancement of “strategic partnerships,” “comprehensive strategic partnerships,” and other such frameworks, countries’ approaches to China and Taiwan have increasingly shifted to align with Beijing’s views and the “One China” Principle.

As indicated above, the “Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the People's Republic of China and the United Mexican States” did not touch on Taiwan. Yet, a 2008 joint communiqué between Mexico and China notes—consistent in both Chinese and Spanish—that “the Mexican government adheres to the ‘One China’ principle and regards it as the cornerstone of bilateral relations and respects and supports the Chinese government's position on the Taiwan issue” [墨西哥政府奉行一个中国原则,视其为双边关系的基石,尊重和支持中国政府有关台湾问题的立场/ El Presidente de México reiteró el apego del Gobierno mexicano al principio de "una sola China", como piedra angular de la relación bilateral, y su respeto y apoyo a la posición del Gobierno chino respecto al tema de Taiwán.] This was likewise the case for Brunei, which also lacked language on Taiwan during the formalization of official relations, but explicitly recognizes China’s position in a later joint communiqué.

Such developments point to Chinese efforts to compel countries to reassess their respective “One China” policies and reframe these policies so that they are conducive with Beijing’s official line. Of similar importance, then, are Beijing’s moves to redefine the “One China” policies of countries within that second category—the ones that were deliberately ambiguous or vague. Countries with such approaches have greater vested interests in the maintenance of stability in the Taiwan Strait—hence their careful selection of words—and play a greater role in navigating the complexities of cross-Strait relations. Beijing’s continued attempts to repackage purposefully ambiguous “One China” policies as its “One China” Principle limit the critical space that this very ambiguity has afforded these countries to manage their respective bilateral relationships with both Taiwan and China.

Inconsistencies in Language

Attempts to undermine these countries’ “One China” policies have been present since the formalization of ties, as apparent when comparing Beijing’s official Chinese language translations of the communiqués with those of the original.[2] The chart below showcases the Chinese-language translations of key communiqué statements from the second grouping of countries from Figure 1:

Figure 2

Figure 2 paints a clear picture of the liberties Beijing took in its translations of communiqué language with three of the five sample countries, converting “acknowledge” in the original text to chengren (承认), which means to “recognize” with connotations of acceptance—a connotation obviously absent from the English language translations. The deliberateness of the move is made all the more clear when referencing back to the translation of the Shanghai Communiqué between the United States and the PRC in February 1972:

The translation for “acknowledge” in the Shanghai Communiqué is renshi (认识), a more direct equivalent that is softer, more neutral, and better captures the original phrasing and intent. The motive to change the meaning is likely multifold. First, mistranslating “acknowledge” to chengren (recognize and accept) plays up the successes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to domestic audiences, demonstrating the party’s ability to make strides towards securing its core interests. Further, China considers communiqués as legally binding treaties and adapting the Chinese translation to better match its objectives allows Beijing greater grounds for asserting its claims to the island (in contrast, the United States has noted that communiqués are “non-binding” and—referencing the Shanghai one explicitly—“not a treaty or agreement but a statement of future U.S. policy”). The argument that the communiqués are legally binding, that Washington “recognizes” (承认) Chinese views, and has thus violated the communiqués through the TRA has been used by a legal scholar affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences as justification for the necessity of the 2005 Anti-Secession Law that further enshrined PRC claims to Taiwan into law.

Additionally, given the shared language, people in Taiwan would naturally refer to the Chinese-language version of the communiqués (It is worth noting that the American Institute in Taiwan website features the same translation of the 1979 Joint Communiqué). Accordingly, the people of Taiwan run the likelihood of being misled on U.S. and other countries’ “One China” policies (Of note, even President Ma himself confused the two in the aforementioned speech at Brookings, noting that “Mr. Trump complained about the ‘One China’ Principle, and why the U.S. has to abide by that,” and “…the ‘One China’ Principle has been the cornerstone of U.S.-China policy ever since 1972”). Thus, the use of “recognizes” also ties into broader Chinese psychological warfare operations to dominate information, in this case through manipulated data, to support national objectives and weaken resolve on the island. Official Chinese sources continue to use “recognizes” (承认) to this day in reference to U.S. policy.

Manipulation of Words and Statements

However, China’s moves to equate countries’ “One China” policies with its own “One China” Principle extend beyond efforts to shape the perception of its own people and the people of Taiwan to international audiences more broadly. Often, when Beijing is displeased with the actions of other countries in regards to Taiwan, statements from government officials will be made and commentaries from state-controlled and state-affiliated media will be released in response, stressing adherence to “One China.”

For example, following the Trump-Tsai call in late 2016, the hawkish Global Times remarked, “The One China policy has maintained peace and prosperity in Taiwan, and, if abandoned, cross-Straits ties would see a real storm.” The reference to the “One China” policy as a singular entity, one that has seemingly preserved the cross-Strait status quo, detracts from utility and value of the United States’ “One China” Policy as unique and separate from those of other countries and one that has served as the bedrock of Sino-U.S. relations. Rather, the emphasis on cross-Strait ties and threat toward a military solution hint at undertones of the “One China” Principle, with acceptance of the concept as the basis for peaceful reunification. The article likewise notes that “the policy has become a fundamental principle of international order. Leaders all around the world, including US leaders, understand the importance of the policy,” explicitly designating “One China” policy as not only a principle, but as unitary and universally-accepted.

Additionally, China often refers to a “One China bottom-line,” a vague expression that has been used in reference to both the “One China” Principle and “One China” policies. For example, Wang Zaixi, former Vice Minister of the TAO, accused then-Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian of “bumping Beijing’s ‘one China’ bottom line”—indicating the “One China” Principle. The same phrase, though, was used more recently in response to Chinese students taking issue with Australian curriculum. The Sydney Consulate-General’s Education Counselor Niu Wenqi noted that the Chinese government became involved because of its “one-China bottom line”—referencing the Australian government’s “One China” Policy” (though false as Canberra does not take a stance)—but does not make the distinction.

Such inconsistent framing disregards and weakens a country’s ability to set the tone of its own “One China” policy and plays up Chinese efforts to promote the two “One China’s” as one and the same. This is in line with Beijing’s insistence that the U.S. “One China” Policy is grounded in only the Three Communiques and its questioning of the validity of the TRA and the Six Assurances.

Effects and Mitigating Damage

While the aforementioned tactics may seem inconsequential in comparison to more overt actions, the effects are far-reaching. Western media has consistently mischaracterized the U.S. “One China” Policy as “recognizing” China’s claims and conflated the U.S. “One China” policy with the “One China” Principle. This also extends to other countries with vague policies, such as Australia, and dilutes the public’s general understanding of cross-Strait issues. Even U.S. government officials have misconstrued U.S. policy towards Taiwan and China.

However, general confusion over “One China” policies and the “One China” Principle do not stem from Chinese efforts alone, but also from the very nature of the deliberate impreciseness of the policies. For example, the ambiguity of the United States’ “One China” Policy has afforded Washington great flexibility and space to navigate and scope its approach to sensitive cross-Strait dynamics, helping to bring about relative stability in the region. Yet, that same ambiguity creates a unique opening for Beijing to attempt to reshape and redefine the narrative and contents of the U.S. “One China” Policy so that it is more conducive to its goals and more in line with the “One China” Principle.

Accordingly, how to mitigate the impact of China’s reframing of “One China” policies needs to be incorporated into broader policy debates in the United States and among affected countries on how to best counteract Chinese misinformation campaigns. A possible short-term solution could follow the example of Taiwan media, which—after the Trump-Tsai call—placed greater emphasis on the United States’ “One China” Policy as its own (“美國的「一中政策」” ). This in line with recommendations from U.S. think tanks and scholars for U.S. government officials to do the same and persist in distinguishing “our ‘One China’ Policy.” Another option could be something as small as changing the preceding article from definite to indefinite. The use of “the ‘One China’ Policy” by media inadvertently suggests that the policy is a singular concept, while reframing to “a ‘One China’ Policy” would imply multiple variations.

In short, Beijing has continuously pursued an effort to reinterpret “One China” policies—specifically those that are purposefully vague or ambiguous—as its “One China” Principle. As time passes and the original voices that shaped the framework of the U.S. “One China” Policy fade, it remains critical that Washington preserve the flexibility that its “One China” Policy grants it to adapt and expand U.S. approaches to Taiwan and China, while remaining free from foreign interference.


[1] This was achieved under the Ma Ying-jeou administration through the so-called “1992 Consensus,” an ambiguous agreement that there exists but one China, but with different interpretations of what that one “China” entails.

[2] It is important to note that the United States only considers the English-language as being “the binding text,” as indicated by former Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Image Source: Quartz


Jessica Drun is a Washington, D.C.-based Taiwan and China analyst. The views expressed here are her own.

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