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Taiwan: One China Principle or Just a Policy?

The Taiwan question remains unresolved. The United States and Taiwanese authorities seem content to maintain the status quo and not provoke the PRC

Die for Taiwan
Image: Creative Commons.

In March 2005, the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China passed an anti-secession law reaffirming Beijing’s One China Principle: that Taiwan is a fundamental part of China and that if the “possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” In August 2022, the PRC released a white paper stating a preference for peaceful reunification with Taiwan under a “One Country, Two Systems” principle, but it refused to renounce the use of force against “external interference and all separatist activities.” 

Taiwan’s official response was to claim the anti-secession measure violated international laws guaranteeing a state’s sovereign rights and its right to self-determination, as well as the prohibition on the threat or use of force in international relations. The United States has consistently called for a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan question, affirming that wish in its three joint communiques with the PRC. At the same time, Washington has pursued a One China Policy that is ambiguous on the nature of Taiwan and whether the U.S. will defend it. Is this merely policy, and thus fungible, or is there a principle in Washington’s stance?

Buffer or Bridgehead?

In addition to its aboriginal population, the island of Formosa, now known as Taiwan, has hosted a Dutch trading outpost, a pirate kingdom, an imperial prefecture and later province, a Japanese colony, and the former government of mainland China. At some point during this history, Taiwan is said to have become part of China.  While more than 95% of Taiwan’s population identifies as Han Chinese, the question remains of how, exactly, Taiwan became Chinese. 

Alan M. Wachman, in his book Why Taiwan?, tells the history of Formosa and describes the island as alternatively a buffer or bridgehead. Dutch traders wanted to establish a trading port similar to what the Portuguese had in mainland China. Ming Dynasty officials were not comfortable with this and directed them to Formosa, an island populated by aborigines. Wachman argues that the Ming Dynasty did not view Formosa as an integral part of China. This would change with the defeat of the Ming Dynasty by the Manchu and the establishment of the Qing Dynasty. 

The Dutch were forced to leave Formosa in the mid-17th century due to the pirate fleet of Zheng Chenggong. Zheng established his own kingdom on Formosa in defiance of the Qing Dynasty. This kingdom would last 20 years before the island was conquered and absorbed into China. 

China's Taiwan Plan

Image: Creative Commons.

Shi Lang, the admiral who conquered Formosa, argued that China should settle the island. Wachman describes the “Shi Lang doctrine,” according to which if China does not hold Formosa, another power could occupy the island and use it as a bridgehead to threaten southern China — just as the pirates did. If China occupied the island, however, it could flip that dynamic, using Formosa as a buffer to defend southern China. 

War in Korea, Japanese Colony, and World War II

Japan eventually challenged imperial China’s control over Korea, defeating them in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895. The resulting Treaty of Shimonoseki transferred the present-day territory of Taiwan to Japan, who administered it as a colony until 1945.

The concept of Taiwan as an integral part of China seemed to leave public consciousness during this time. As Wachman noted, “No Chinese government — Qing Empire, Nationalist Republic, or Communist Soviet — had a realistic chance of restoring sovereignty over the island.” 

This would change with World War II, when the Republic of China’s leader, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, made it a war aim to reverse the Treaty of Shimonoseki and other unequal treaties. The Communist Party of China did the same with its Declaration on the War in the Pacific, issued on Dec. 9, 1941. 

On Nov. 26, 1943, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt joined Chiang Kai-Shek and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to issue a statement known as the Cairo Declaration. The Declaration reversed all Japanese territorial gains since the First World War and confirmed “that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China.” After the conclusion of the war in Europe, the United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union repeated this aim with the Potsdam Declaration, noting “Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.”

Suspended Civil War

The current debate over Taiwan is the result of a suspended civil war. Republic of China forces fled the mainland after the Communists proclaimed the PRC in December 1949. The United States viewed ROC forces as merely occupying Taiwan after the Japanese surrender at the end of the Second World War. With the North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, the United States immediately changed its policy of not defending Taiwan. The Truman administration feared the spread of Communism and sent the U.S. 7th Fleet to the Taiwan Strait to prevent the PRC from invading Taiwan or ROC forces from attempting to retake the mainland. This intervention created the status quo that exists today of two governments claiming to represent the island’s people. Taiwan remains a bridgehead to the Chinese mainland, threatening lines of communication in the strait and possibly southern China.

The United States ensured that Taiwan’s status would remain ambiguous with the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which formally ended the war with Japan. The PRC and ROC did not participate in treaty negotiations. Japan renounced its “right, title and claim to Formosa and the Pescadores islands.” This territory was not ceded to any other country. ROC forces have been occupying the territory since Japan’s surrender in 1945. 

One China Principle

It took nearly 25 years for the PRC to receive international recognition as the legitimate government of China. This occurred amid the decolonization period following the Second World War and the admission of new countries to the United Nations. The liberated Global South would provide the PRC with the diplomatic support it required to emerge on the world stage. The PRC successfully raised the One China Principle to the international community with the passage of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758, which recognized the PRC as the “only lawful representatives of China to the United Nations” and expelled “the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occup[ied] at the United Nations and in all the organizations related to it.” 

China Taiwan War

Image: Creative Commons.

The road to the One China policy began, from the American perspective, with the administration of President Richard Nixon in 1969. Secret visits to China by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger led to President Nixon’s visit to the PRC in February 1972. This visit resulted in the Shanghai communique, with the United States acknowledging that “there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” The United States called for a “peaceful settlement to the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves” and declared that the United States would “progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes.” 

Thus was formed the core of Strategic Ambiguity. The United States would lessen its support to Taiwan, leaving the issue for the Chinese people to resolve.

A key feature for countries establishing diplomatic relations with the PRC is expressly stated support for the One China Principle. The promise for peaceful reunification that was present in the United States-PRC joint communique is not necessarily included in these diplomatic agreements — for instance, the United Kingdom-PRC joint communique did not include this requirement. In 1972, British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Sir Alec Douglas Home, stated, “We held the view both at Cairo and at Potsdam that Taiwan should be restored to China. That view has not changed. We think that the Taiwan question is China’s internal affair, to be settled by the Chinese people themselves.” Similarly, the Australian-PRC joint communique establishing diplomatic relations did not mention the peaceful reunification of Taiwan with China. The PRC’s One China Principle has successfully isolated Taiwan, with Honduras being the most recent country to sign on. 

The argument for Taiwan’s sovereignty or independence from the PRC was weakened when Japan established diplomatic relations with the PRC in September 1972. The Japanese-PRC joint communique recognized the PRC as the sole legal government of China and declared Taiwan “an inalienable part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.” The Treaty of Taipei between Japan and the ROC would have no further effect. 

One China Policy and Strategic Ambiguity

The United States’ One China Policy differs from the PRC’s One China Principle. A careful reading of the three joint communiques reveals subtle differences. In the first communique, the United States “reaffirm[ed] its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves” and promised only a gradual withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Taiwan. The second communique was more in line with the PRC’s One China principle, but the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) passed in its wake committed the United States to selling weapons to Taiwan. In the third communique, the United States clarified that it did not have a “long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan.” 

The third communique caused President Ronald Reagan to issue the Six Assurances to Taiwan. The United States would continue arms sales without consulting with the PRC and would not change the TRA. It is interesting to note that there were different public and classified versions of the Six Assurances. The United States’ One China Policy is to disclaim any role in mediating the Taiwan question, while providing “defensive weapons” to Taiwan to help it resist forceful reunification. 

Biden Taiwan Comment

Image: Screenshot from CCTV/Chinese State TV.

The United States has maintained strategic ambiguity in its commitments to Taiwan. The TRA is a policy statement, not a commitment to defend Taiwan. It was the policy of the United States to “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” 

The “arms of a defensive character” must be approved by Congress and the president. There is no open shopping list for Taiwan to access at will. The Act’s definition of Taiwan is also limited to Taiwan and the “Pescadores islands” excluding other islands such as Matsu and Kinmen that are close to China’s mainland. These islands may be difficult to defend if invaded and could be considered sovereign territory of China long before Formosa was settled. 

Maintaining the Status Quo

The Taiwan question remains unresolved. The United States and Taiwanese authorities seem content to maintain the status quo and not provoke the PRC. The Kuomintang party that ruled Taiwan for decades held on to the idea of One China, but the democratization of Taiwan led to the emergence of the Democratic People’s Party (DPP). It remains to be seen whether the DPP will push for independence or continue the status quo. Cross-strait economic and cultural ties have increased. As the decades pass and former mainlanders are replaced with younger generations who have their own ideas on Taiwan’s relations with the mainland, one wonders if the One China Principle may one day replace the One China Policy.   

Lt. Col. Brent Stricker, U.S. Marine Corps, serves as a military professor of international law at the Center for Naval Warfare Studies, U.S. Naval War College. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, the Naval War College, or the Department of Defense.

Written By

Lt. Col Brent Stricker, U.S. Marine Corps, serves as the Director for Expeditionary Operations and as a military professor of international law at the Stockton Center for International Law at the U.S. Naval War College. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, the Naval War College, or the Department of Defense. 



  1. Jim

    May 18, 2023 at 5:32 pm

    There is a foreign policy following who are in favor of war against China… China being the primary threat in their minds.

    But Taiwan isn’t the place to do it.

    The idea that Taiwan was never really part of China… so, such claims today, have no standing… is to erase the history of China and Taiwan and the United States relationship to Taiwan for the last 80 years.

    And one can’t forget Imperial Japan took Formosa (Taiwan) by right of Conquest and the brutal war between Japan & China… longer than our war against Japan… that is the primary reason the U. S. settled on the One China policy… nullifying a claim that was made by Right of Conquest… thus returning the island to China.

    The Chinese see “peeling Taiwan off” into independence as an existential action against China.

    The U. S. has recognized the One China policy since 1943 @ the Cairo Conference. And has continued on for 80 years to this day with the One China policy and with several reaffirmations in the 1970’s: Nixon, Carter, and the Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress.

    The beginning of the One China policy @ the Cairo Conference is a solid place to start reviewing U. S. policy.

    At this point, “Voiding” the One China policy is to renege or renounce on a firm international & geopolitical commitment… not a good look on the international stage… which matters now more than ever.

    China sees Taiwan as a sovereign territorial province of their country.

    They will go to war to prevent a U. S. sponsored independence.

    The South China Sea is where to draw the line.

    China, in violation of International Law, has erected military airstrips on coral atolls, claiming territorial sovereignty by Right of Conquest in other country’s recognized 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zones.

    For hydrocarbons under the seafloor, fishing rights, and potential trade rout control in the event of war.

    This claim is NOT existential for China the way Taiwan is… they claim to respect International Law and the U.N. Charter… let them prove that in binding arbitration or go to war against the United States.

    My hunch is China would submit to binding arbitration over the South China Sea than risk war against the United States.

    That’s where the Red Line should be.

  2. 403Forbidden

    May 18, 2023 at 7:59 pm

    The US and its minions should bug out of taiwan issue but this would be like asking a carnivore to go vegetarian.

    Would the US accept foreign meddling in puerto rico. Yet after 1945, US meddles everywhere, poking its finger in every pie.

    In the fifties, US attack jets with atomic capability were parked on taiwan airbases ready for action. Pilots even reportedly slept just nearby their planes.

    That was how brazen and predatory US was. Still is.

    Fortunately, the atomic bomb was one weapon that didn’t dogbark during the entire Cold War. It was used only on japan pre-Cold War period.

    (Those words are quoted directly from one Lewis Gaddis.)

    Today, the US has an extremely militarized foreign policy, and it is the source or direct cause of many geopolitical problems. Around the world.

    The biggest crime of the 21st century is the march 2003 invasion of iraq which joe biden the current warmonger president voted in favor of in oct 2002.

    That crime was carried out not for advancing humanitarian reasons but strictly to have control of iraq’s oil and iraq military bases.

    US has made a serious error under obama in meddling in ukraine which now sees a bloody proxy war in europe and with ukro cities likely to end up as the next japan (a la hiroshima & nagasaki).

    Now biden has continued obama’s error or grave mistake. But biden is old.

    What’s next. Taiwan.
    WW3 then.

  3. David Chang

    May 18, 2023 at 8:32 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Although the Ming Dynasty of China considered Taiwan island was not a territory of China, many people in China moved from Fujian Province to Taiwan Island 400 years ago, because some people escaped from famine, some people escaped from war, some people escaped from the legal responsibility. From then on, these people in China who lived on Taiwan Island by laws and currency of China until 120 years ago, then Taiwan Province is the territory of China officially.

    But many people promote a wrong thought when explaining the wars made by Japan. After the Meiji Restoration, most people in Japan believe socialism and evolution, and determine all policies with sociology and psychology, the scholars of law and politics in Japan explain war with sociology, and think that murder and robbery are reasons for obtaining properties of foreign people. They believe that war is a rational behavior for survival, so the Japan army is educated to be the socialism army and think that they are the owners of Taiwan Island, until 1945. Moreover, many socialism scholars oppose the king of Japan, that cause the rebellion of young army officers, and cause the Japan socialism army government to force the king of Japan. Therefore, in 1952, King Hirohito would like to call the people in Japan to confess their sin and repent.

    Although the people in Japan do something wrong because of sin,  the people in Taiwan Province also do something wrong because of sin. When the Japan socialism army occupied Taiwan Province, most people in Taiwan surrendered before fighting because they were afraid of death.

    People in Japan and China should confess sin and repent to God, but the Democratic Party and the Taipei authorities believe atheism, oppose one China policy, and instigate the Taiwan Province Independence War, educate people in Taiwan Province to believe socialism, evolution, critical racial thought, and liberation theology, and provoke the CCP. So the U.S. Marine Corps needs weapons, and Chaplains shall promote Ten Commandments to defeat atheism parties.

    God bless America.

  4. Duane

    May 19, 2023 at 6:41 am

    The “nation of China” was a political creation, not a reality, when the Republic of China was founded in 1911, and initially led by Sun Yat Sen. The “history of China” is a fabrication put together initially by the Nationalists, then later on embraced by the ChiComs, including a pretense that there has always been “one China” for thousands of years. The “Chinese” never referred to themselves as “Chinese” or their nation as “China”, until the 20th century.

    The actual history in what is now called “China” was a series of dynastic regimes imposed mostly by outsiders – Mongolians, Manchurians, and later on by Europeans and Japanese. All of western “China” was conquered by the Manchurians and later on by the ChiComs, and the ChiComs have been furiously trying to wipe out their cultures amongst the Uyghurs and Tibetans. Absorbing the Republic of China – which is the correct name of the nation, not “Taiwan”, is a political expediency for the ChiComs, not a restoration of some former glory or order or even regime.

    The “One China Policy” was simply a geopolitical move by President Nixon to attempt to peel the ChiComs, who had gone to war against the Soviets in 1969, nearly going nuclear, from the Soviets – divide and conquer. There was a wink wink nod nod to the Nationalists on the island of Taiwan, to satisfy those who opposed communism strenuously in the US at the time.

    There is nothing permanent about either the “One China Policy” or even the nation of “China”. It is all a political construction, much like the nations of the Middle East were a creation of European colonialists in the aftermath of the Great War. Regimes and national borders come and go, and no, the nation of “China” is not far older than ours, indeed it’s a fake nation that is only 110 years old, far junior to the United States of America, and with no more established culture than what we have in the US and our mix of Europeans, Asians, indigenous peoples, and Africans in our population and in our culture.

  5. Jim

    May 19, 2023 at 10:18 am

    Duane, why don’t you ask a person from China whether China is a country and has a history.

    They would thoroughly disagree with you… they might laugh or might punch you in the nose.

    And, that’s a problem: there’s a strong faction in the Chinese military who want to punch Uncle Sam in the nose… and they think Taiwan is the place to prove their military power within their region.

    Your characterizations of China as having “no history as a country” would be chalked up by almost any Chinese to the “Century of Humiliation” from roughly 1840’s to the 1940’s when they were subject to European Colonialism, civil war and military invasion.

    Your characterizations play right into the hands of the hardliners in Beijing… who also want war just like you… itching to pull the trigger just like you.

    A “fake nation”…huh, tell that to the Chinese Military as they engage American sailors, marines, and soldiers over, around, and on Taiwan in event of war.

    Duane… your explanation is simplistic… and a dead giveaway: you want war against China over Taiwan, which would be a complete disaster for the United States… warmongers like you can always twist history to suite your war agenda.

    It’s a magical rendition of “history” designed to do one thing… justify war against China over Taiwan.

    This is a good example of the attitude which leads to war… arrogance… attempting to erase the history of a country like China… good grief!

  6. ATM

    May 19, 2023 at 12:33 pm

    This is an awesome summary of the history, thank you very much. I think we can also look at strategic ambivalence as the United States mindset or hope that Jiang Zhongzheng would take over the mainland at some point. Hence the inclusion of one China principle in the Taiwanese constitution and US foreign policy. That is Taiwan’s claim to the mainland, which basically restates CCP one china principle from the Island’s and US point of view.

  7. Duane

    May 19, 2023 at 12:44 pm

    Jim – my post is the opposite of “simplistic” – your response is simplistic. Just who is a “Chinese”? Would that include Hong Kong residents who fled the ChiComs by the millions after 1949? Of the millions of Muslim Uyghurs whom the ChiComs are trying to obliterate using massive networks of concentration camps, oops I mean “reeducation camps”? Or the Tibetans who have a culture far older than that of the ChiComs who have been suppressing them for the last 70 years? Or the hundreds of millions who suffered and died in Mao’s cultural revolution, or those who survived and thought they were doing well until Xi came along and established another Maoist violent dictatorship?

    Nope – most people who live today within the current bounds of the PRC today never thought of themselves as “Chinese” but as members of communities defined linguistically (here’s a hint for you – there is no such thing as a “Chinese language”), and by the regime that ruled them (Ming, Manchurian, Maoist, etc.), and/or by their religious or cultural background. And just as I wrote, nobody who lived in what is now called “China” called their nation that, or even thought in those terms.

    Your simpleton’s stupid reactionary response claiming that I favor war with “China” is beyond dumb. I expressed no such sentiment. I only pointed out that the current regime’s claims for “One China” are false, fake, made up. There is no, and never has been, “One China” and for most of recorded history only ignorant westerners, going back to medieval times, referred to “China” as a nation or place, and “Chinese” as a singular people of culture. There was never an “ancient” Chinese empire within the so-called “nine dash line” in the South China Sea – that was 100% an invention of Nationalist mapmakers in the 20th century, continued now by the ChiComs.

  8. Jim

    May 19, 2023 at 2:43 pm

    Duane, okay, you say you don’t want war… or what?

    Where does U. S. policy go from here?

    Your take seems to suggest reneging on the One China policy.

    A logical conclusion from your writings.

    The United States fostering or sponsoring Taiwan independence is a recipe for war against China (China has declared in writing such action will precipitate war).

    However, again, I’ll ask, where do you want to go from here?

    Your kind of talk suggests wanting to steer the ship directly @ the iceberg dead ahead… but who’s to say.

  9. David Chang

    May 19, 2023 at 4:48 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Duane is wrong.

    We have found that people called their country China 2,400 years ago.The earliest “China” refers to Henan Province in the Republic of China.

    “Gongyang’s Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals”
    Lord Zhao 23 years
    “Don’t let foreigners rule China”

    But the word “ChiComs” is a hatred word, like N-word in the United States. This hatred word is from the first half of the World War II, it’s promoted by the socialism party in Japan for inciting the people in China and Japan to hate and murder each other.

    God bless America.

  10. Joe Comment

    May 19, 2023 at 8:07 pm

    Taiwan and the Mainland were part of the same country in the past, and they can be again in the future. But if it is to happen peacefully, it means the Mainland needs to accept the rights of political opposition groups to exist, express their opinions and compete for power.

    When China re-integrated Tibet in the 1950s, and re-integrated Hong Kong in 1997, in both cases the peaceful transition agreements fell apart within 10 to 15 years and ended with the opposition groups chased into exile or prison.

    If the Mainland is satisfied with its handling of those cases, how can the people of Taiwan expect anything better for themselves? If the leaders of the Mainland sincerely desire peaceful reunification, they need to reflect very seriously on the past, present and future of their own behavior on the reintegration of territories whose populations hold different political preferences than themselves.

  11. David Chang

    May 20, 2023 at 6:32 am

    God bless people in the world.

    The United States Marine Corps should worry about the most important thing. The first mission of the Marine Corps is to defend the territory of the United States, not to defend the territory of foreign countries. This is the first policy of Captain Mahan’s naval theory, to protect the territory of the United States, then to defend the shipping lines of the United States and the logistics ports and naval bases established with the agreement of the U.S. and foreign countries, so the people in the United States shall respect foreign people. Captain Mahan should also agree with General George Washington’s foreign policy, people in the United States defend their country, do not make permanent alliances with other countries, but preach the grace of God and Ten Commandments to other countries.

    Because of sin, General George Washington reminds us not to be used by the conspiracy and ambitions of foreign people, so the first policy of the United States is to let people in the United States obey Ten Commandments and worship God, to be the country that protects life, property, and freewill of people. So the United States under God, for honor God.

    However, the Taipei and Beiping authorities of the Republic of China do not obey Ten Commandments, but believe socialism and evolution. Therefore, most people in Taiwan Province of the Republic of China don’t obey Ten Commandments, and don’t protect their country by themselves. They are like the Afghan police who Mr. Davis said, and are like most of Vietnam people in the Vietnam War.

    So the U.S. Marine Corps shall learn the lesson of the Socialism War in Vietnam and in Afghan, remember General George Washington’s policy, remember Captain Mahan’s naval theory, and don’t join the small war made by socialism parties, because of the “cutting sausages” is an attrition strategy, not a tactic. But fight the war of atheism and creationism by Ten Commandments. The limited resources should be used to defend the territory of the United States, so the Marine Corps shall first obey Ten Commandments, and proclaim the grace of God and Ten Commandments to foreign people.

    God bless America.

  12. len

    May 21, 2023 at 9:40 am

    It is clear that the ROC fell to defeat by our good buddies the Communist Chinese. The US acted as mediator ‘to prevent the PRC from invading Taiwan or ROC forces from attempting to retake the mainland’ to keep the peace after WW II. Back in those days China could easily be coerced into submission by the US. Recall that the US supported China against Japanese invasion.

    Years later after the UN declared ‘Restoration of the lawful rights of the People’s Republic of China’ by the United Nations.That gave a clear signal that Taiwan was recognized as part of China. The US should have had ‘better sense foreign policy’ than to further develop relations with Taiwan and treating it as an independent state. Particularly after letting China become so heavily rooted with the manufacturer and supply of goods to the United States. The result being China’s rampant growth, both economically and militarily as seen today. Time to butt out! The US has been “Hoist with his own petard”.

    Do we really care if Apple gets any more chips for its over priced Iphones from Taiwan? Certainly not worth dying for.

  13. Johnathan Galt

    May 24, 2023 at 3:18 pm

    Everyone is looking at the Taiwan issue all wrong. When the Communist insurgents usurped the lawful government of China, the legitimate government relocated to Taiwan. Reunification thus should involve the peaceful transfer of power back to the legitimate Democratic government of Taiwan, and the world should assist in this transition.

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