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The One China Policy Is a Lie

Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Seeking to both assuage China and to clarify confusion left by President Joe Biden’s off-the-cuff remarks about Taiwan, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan earlier this month reiterated America’s “One China” policy while speaking at a Washington think tank. He should not have. 

Put aside the unseemliness of unelected, unconfirmed staffers correcting a sitting president – an action that only reinforces the notion among foreigners that Biden is senile and not in control of his own administration. The reality is that the One China notion was born from the ambition of Mao Zedong, chairman of China’s Communist Party, and Henry Kissinger, who as national security advisor helped broker détente with Beijing. 

Four years before Sullivan was born, President Richard Nixon acquiesced to the One China idea in the Shanghai Communique. But Nixon’s agreement was never as clear as Beijing claims. Rather than unequivocally endorse Mao’s statement that “the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government of China; Taiwan is a province of China,” Nixon said the “United States Government does not challenge that position” but instead “reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.”

Taiwan Was Never Part of China

Frankly, even that concession was too much. The American Enterprise Institute recently produced an edited collection entitled Defending Taiwan with contributions from Giselle Donnelly, Michael Beckley, Zack Cooper, Allison Schwartz, Hal Brands, Sheena Chestnut Greitens, Klon Kitchen, Mackenzie Eaglen, and Paul Wolfowitz, among others. My contribution was a deep dive into the question of whether Taiwan was ever really part of China. Short answer: It was not. 

Historically and legally, “One China” is a lie.

History matters. Taiwan has not been under mainland Chinese control since 1894, when Japan wrested the island from Qing Dynasty control. Put another way, China has had less practical say in the governance of Taiwan than the European colonial powers who dominated Asian and African states until the middle of the last century. 

Yet mainland China’s claim to historical ownership of Taiwan is even more tenuous. While the Qing Dynasty in theory ruled Taiwan for two centuries before the Japanese invaded, they never fully established control. Every few years, Taiwan erupted into rebellion. In effect, the Qing ruled in name only, but Taiwan’s aborigines and mainland immigrants had de facto autonomy. A broader irony, however, is that the Qing were only the second Chinese dynasty that the Han did not rule. Indeed, Han Chinese long argued the Qing were really foreign interlopers. In effect, Chinese nationalists cite Qing control after dismissing the Qing’s “Chineseness” for centuries. Further, in the centuries before Qing control, the Dutch and Portuguese controlled the island – or at least its accessible coasts. Indeed, while the Portuguese called Taiwan “Isla Formosa” or “Beautiful Island,” theories about the origin of the name “Taiwan” range from a bastardization of the Chinese for “Eastern Barbarians” – which would hardly indicate Chinese control – to the aboriginal word for “foreigners” used in reference to Chinese settlers. 

Mainland China’s legal claims are equally tenuous. 

Legal Mythologies

Much of Beijing’s legal claim to Taiwan today rests on the 1943 Cairo Conference. Chang Kai-Shek, who led the Republic of China from 1928 until his death in 1975, but fled into exile on Taiwan after Mao’s 1949 victory, signed onto a joint statement at the conference’s conclusion which declared, “All the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores, shall be returned to the Republic of China.” 

Other Chinese officials argue that the United Nations accepts Beijing’s “One China” interpretation. The late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan did embrace the “One China” policy, but the UN Charter gave him no authority to do so. That is the realm of international treaties. The 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, which finalized peace with Japan, read, “Japan renounces all right, title and claim to Formosa and the Pescadores.” Notably, however, the Treaty did not transfer sovereignty to any other state. This is why Chinese communist authorities base their arguments on the Cairo Declaration, even though the Treaty of San Francisco supplanted it. 

In a 1936 interview with journalist and author Edgar Snow, Mao himself treated Taiwan as distinct from China. 

“It is the immediate task of China to regain all our lost territories, not merely to defend our sovereignty below the Great Wall,” Mao said. “We do not, however, include Korea, formerly a Chinese colony, but when we have re-established the independence of the lost territories of China, and if the Koreans wish to break away from the chains of Japanese imperialism, we will extend them our enthusiastic help in their struggle for independence. The same things applies to Formosa.”

During his first meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai, Kissinger was conciliatory. “If the Korean War hadn’t occurred…Taiwan would probably be today a part of the PRC,” he said. Kissinger may have wanted to ingratiate with a historical hypothetical, but history is not on Communist China’s side. It is tragic that a half-century later, Sullivan appears willing to embrace a Beijing narrative that Communist authorities wove out of whole cloth rather than call his Chinese counterparts out on a lie built on repetition rather than fact.

Expert Biography – Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Error402

    June 28, 2022 at 8:51 pm

    Everything, without exception, that comes out from washington is a lie, doesn’t matter whether it’s from sullivan, badly mentally-ailed biden, migrant-born harris, natural mafia sidekick blinken or even house servant austin.

    It’s called speaking with forked tongue.

    The constant or permanent presence of warships, warplanes, spyplanes, subs and military personnel right at front or main doorstep is SOLID proof it’s a LIE. You don’t need any further confirmation.

    • mcswell

      June 29, 2022 at 3:27 pm

      Such (il)logic!

  2. Stefan Stackhouse

    June 28, 2022 at 9:36 pm

    The long history of China is one of repeated cycles of expansion out into peripheral territories and shrinking back into its core. Taiwan has always been the most peripheral of all these peripheral territories. It is not just one more province that is “part of one China”; it really is more complicated than that.

    The truth is that, except for a short time in the 15th century, China really didn’t have much of a navy at all. Projecting even minimal military power across even the narrow Taiwan Strait was difficult, if not impossible, for most of China’s history. Whatever ties existed between the island and the mainland were always more cultural and commercial than they were political and military.

    Frankly, Taiwan has as good a case to be made in favor of its independence from China as does Mongolia and the Koreas.

  3. TrustbutVerify

    June 29, 2022 at 7:53 am

    As pointed out, nothing was ever said that locked down WHICH government – CCP or ROC – was the legitimate government of One China. You could easily interpret 90% of what has been said as indicating, “Yes, there is One China, but the legitimate government is the Republic of China.”

    • Theodore Appleby

      July 1, 2022 at 11:16 pm

      This comment is inaccurate. Taiwan was still sovereign Japanese territory when the ROC relocated its central government to the island in December 1949. In other words, the ROC “relocated” itself outside of China’s national territory. The post-WWII San Francisco Peace Treaty confirmed this — Taiwan does not belong to China. In summary, after late April 1952, the ROC has no claim to being a legitimate government of China.

  4. Jim Kenaston

    June 29, 2022 at 8:06 am

    President Biden should assure mainland China that we will come to their defense if and when the Taiwanese military attempts to invade the mainland and overthrow the Communist government there. Perhaps such a strong stance in their favor will help ease their concerns, or maybe just test their sense of irony.

  5. LOVE LEGER

    June 29, 2022 at 8:43 am

    Yes, white dude Michael Rubin citing other white dudes’ declaration of other people’s possession. Would not you want to live in such a world where you 10-20,000 miles away determine how others ought to live

    • JMIII

      June 29, 2022 at 11:03 pm

      Not much better to have potential slave masters rule you, even if from only 100 miles away. The people of Taiwan have had plenty of opportunity to opt to join Beijing but alas, they don’t. Wonder why?

  6. Don Bacon

    June 29, 2022 at 10:35 am

    The ROC(Taiwan) Constitution covers all of China including Tibet and Taiwan plus Mongolia — one China.

  7. GhostTomahawk

    June 29, 2022 at 12:53 pm

    Why do we care? If we instead used the treasure we are currently are expending on foreign sovereignty on our own we could eliminate our dependence on foreign bad actors. The fate of Taiwan and Ukraine would be the concern of their neighbors not the United States. It wasn’t that long ago the US made all of its own food, energy and products, rendering imports as “luxury items”. It’s time to return to that policy. Time to abandon the failed global economy. Let the world fend for themselves

    • Joe Comment

      June 29, 2022 at 3:14 pm

      GhostTomahawk: Your attitude (called “isolationism”) was popular in 1940 but became very unpopular after 1941. You want to go back to the “good old days” when we did not care if Belgium or Manchuria fell to the invading dictatorships?

    • mcswell

      June 29, 2022 at 3:27 pm

      Sure, until Pearl Harbor is bombed–again.

      You sound like an America Firster from 1940. As is well known, they changed their tune after 7 Dec 1941.

  8. Chip Henry

    June 29, 2022 at 10:16 pm

    The CCP Chinese themselves state that Taiwan is an outside province, at best. One could argue that Mao TsiDong took over mainland China but never controlled the free people under Chiang Kai-Shek. It was a revolution but an incomplete one. Following that, their attempt to persuade foreign governments that they have a right to claim Taiwan does not give them that right.
    CCP wants the US to fall, and that has been their goal since the ’50s. That’s nearly impossible, given our strength, unless you then introduce enough corruption at every level to weaken the US in strategic areas. That’s the current plan and we see it in every level of education, no holds barred.
    If Taiwan were to fall, does any rational mind think that the next target isn’t Japan? Korea?
    The Chinese (CCP) have never lived up to the truth. They will lie at every point, await a time to exploit, and then hurry and do so. Proof in that is shown in simply how they took coral reefs and turned them into fortified islands and then drew a 9-dash line as their wish list.
    America is failing freedom around the world by entertaining any idea that China and Taiwan should be under the same control. My wish is that America uses the current weaknesses and brings down the CCP. Corruption alone is why that hasn’t happened. It’s a huge battle and at the heart of it, strikes me as ongoing and involving Ukraine and Russia as strategic parts of CCP’s wish list. Let’s dominate the world and offer freedom to all nations who wish for it, and that certainly includes Taiwan.

  9. Joe Comment

    June 30, 2022 at 9:36 am

    Right conclusion, but some wrong reasons. The problem is, how many of these arguments would also apply to other parts of China, such as Tibet?

    A better explanation is, China and Taiwan were a Cold War split country, just like Germany was. But now Taiwan does not want to reclaim the lost territory on the Mainland anymore, but the Mainland still does want to remove the last possible rival to itself on Taiwan.

    The important thing is, it can’t be solved by force. Then what’s a better solution? If the Mainland is serious about the goal of uniting with Taiwan, it needs to reform itself to become something that is potentially attractive to people in Taiwan. That means it needs to stop worshipping Chairman Mao and stop being a one-party autocratic state. Otherwise, the Mainland can just go on talking about, but never actually achieving, unification.

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