What Is the U.S. “One China” Policy, and Why Does it Matter?

On January 11, Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Taiwan, based on the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and the Six Assurances, at his Senate confirmation hearing. He also indicated that he is not aware of “any plans to alter” the U.S. “one China” policy.

Q1: What is the U.S. “One China” policy? Why does it exist?

A1: When the United States moved to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and de-recognize the Republic of China (ROC) in 1979, the United States stated that the government of the People’s Republic of China was “the sole legal Government of China.” Sole, meaning the PRC was and is the only China, with no consideration of the ROC as a separate sovereign entity.

The United States did not, however, give in to Chinese demands that it recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan (which is the name preferred by the United States since it opted to de-recognize the ROC). Instead, Washington acknowledged the Chinese position that Taiwan was part of China. For geopolitical reasons, both the United States and the PRC were willing to go forward with diplomatic recognition despite their differences on this matter. When China attempted to change the Chinese text from the original acknowledge to recognize, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher told a Senate hearing questioner, “[W]e regard the English text as being the binding text. We regard the word ‘acknowledge’ as being the word that is determinative for the U.S.” In the August 17, 1982, U.S.-China Communique, the United States went one step further, stating that it had no intention of pursuing a policy of “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan.”

To this day, the U.S. “one China” position stands: the United States recognizes the PRC as the sole legal government of China but only acknowledges the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China. Thus, the United States maintains formal relations with the PRC and has unofficial relations with Taiwan. The “one China” policy has subsequently been reaffirmed by every new incoming U.S. administration. The existence of this understanding has enabled the preservation of stability in the Taiwan Strait, allowing both Taiwan and mainland China to pursue their extraordinary political and socioeconomic transitions in relative peace.

Q2: What is the U.S. position on who has sovereignty over Taiwan?

A2: In the San Francisco Treaty of Peace of 1951, Japan renounced “all right, title and claim to Formosa and the Pescadores.” Neither the Republic of China nor the People’s Republic of China were parties to the treaty, and thus neither was declared a beneficiary of the Japanese renouncement.

While President Richard Nixon’s private notes show him willing to recognize the status of Taiwan as determined and part of China, subsequent U.S. documents and statements show the United States as having no position on the Taiwan sovereignty question.

The U.S. position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan remains steady and consistent with its “one China policy”: both sides of the Taiwan Strait should mutually and peacefully agree to a resolution of this as yet unsettled issue. The United States doesn’t agree with Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, nor does it agree with Taipei that the ROC is an independent, sovereign state.

Q3: What is the Taiwan Relations Act, and what role does it play in U.S. policy toward Taiwan?

A3: After the Jimmy Carter administration recognized the PRC, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 to protect the significant U.S. security and commercial interest in Taiwan. The TRA provided a framework for continued relations in the absence of official diplomatic ties. It also set out U.S. commitments regarding Taiwan’s security and empowered Congress to oversee various aspects of U.S. Taiwan policy. The law required that the president inform Congress promptly of any anticipated danger to Taiwan and consult with Congress to devise an appropriate response. The TRA also authorized the continuation of commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan. Each subsequent Congress has reaffirmed the TRA to ensure that the absence of diplomatic ties does not negatively affect the continued strong, substantive relationship enjoyed by the United States and Taiwan.

The TRA sets forth the American Institute in Taiwan as the corporate entity dealing with U.S. relations with the island; makes clear that the U.S. decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means; considers any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States; mandates that the United States make available defensive arms to Taiwan; and requires that the United States maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.

The TRA also reaffirms unequivocally that the preservation and enhancement of the human rights of all the people on Taiwan are objectives of the United States. The TRA gives the United States the legal means to continue relations with Taiwan in economic, cultural, and security dimensions. In lieu of official exchanges, all programs, transactions, and relations are conducted and carried out by a nonprofit corporation under contract of the State Department—the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). AIT and its counterpart, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), handle interactions between Taiwan and the United States. Together, these two private organizations carry out the unofficial relationship between the United States and Taiwan, but neither operates in an official capacity as an embassy.

Q4: What are the Six Assurances?

A4: In the third U.S.-China communique signed on August 17, 1982, the United States stated “that it does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan”; “that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China”; and “that it intends to reduce gradually its sales of arms to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to a final resolution.”

Concerned about the possible impact of the communique on Taiwan, President Ronald Reagan placed a secret memorandum in the National Security Council files that stated that U.S. willingness to reduce arms sales to Taiwan was conditioned upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of cross-Strait differences. The memo underscored that the quantity and quality of weapons provided to Taiwan must be determined by the threat posed by the PRC.

Reagan also took the additional step of asking the head of AIT, James Lilley, to deliver orally, in the president’s name, six assurances regarding U.S. policy toward Taiwan. Those assurances are that the United States:

  • Had not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to the Republic of China;
  • Had not agreed to hold prior consultations with the PRC regarding arms sales to the Republic of China;
  • Would not play a mediation role between the PRC and the Republic of China;
  • Would not revise the Taiwan Relations Act;
  • Had not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan; and
  • Would not exert pressure on the Republic of China to enter into negotiations with the PRC.

Q5: Why is Taiwan important to the United States?

A5: Taiwan ended martial law in 1987 and held its first direct democratic presidential election in 1996. Today, Taiwan is a fully functioning democracy, respects human rights and the rule of law, and has a open economy that, in 2015, made it the ninth-largest U.S. trading partner, with bilateral trade between the United States and Taiwan reaching $66.6 billion. As such, Taiwan is a vital partner for the United States in Asia, a robust, prosperous, free, and orderly society with strong institutions that stands as a model for the region.

Taiwan and the United States are engaged in joint programs, under the Global Cooperation Training Framework, working together to expand their already robust cooperation to address global challenges in such areas as international humanitarian assistance, public health, environmental protection, energy, technology, education, and regional development.

In 2012, the two countries jointly launched the Pacific Islands Leadership Partnership, and in 2014 the United States joined as a founding partner of the Taiwan-initiated International Environmental Partnership program. The partnership is also highlighted by recent cooperative efforts of Taiwan and the United States in response to pressing issues ranging from the Ebola and MERS epidemic to the humanitarian refugee crisis in the Middle East. Taiwan has proved to be a vital partner not just for the United States, but for the region.

Taiwan’s government is committed to maintaining the peace and stability that currently exists across the Taiwan Strait, a top U.S. priority for the region. The United States’ adherence to its long-standing commitment to the people of Taiwan remains important for maintaining U.S. credibility throughout East Asia.

Q6: What are U.S. obligations and commitments regarding the defense of Taiwan?

A6: The Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Republic of China was in effect from March 3, 1955, to January 1, 1980. The termination of the treaty ended the obligation that both parties had to provide the other with aid and military support in the event of an attack. Some of the content of the treaty was included in the Taiwan Relations Act. The TRA states that any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, is a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and to be considered of grave concern to the United States. It also establishes that the U.S. decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.

The TRA set forth a policy of providing Taiwan with arms of a defensive character, but the specific decisions regarding weapons sales are left up to the president, who is obligated to notify Congress of pending arms sales. In the last 10 years, the United States has approved $23.7 billion in arms to Taiwan. The TRA also requires that the United States maintain the capacity resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.

Q7: Why is China so fearful of Taiwan becoming independent?

A7: With the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control in July 1997, Taiwan remains one of the few areas over which Beijing claims sovereignty but does not control. It is widely viewed by Chinese on the mainland as the last vestige of the century of humiliation that began with the Opium Wars in the middle of the nineteenth century. The persisting separation of the mainland and Taiwan is also portrayed as a hindrance to China’s reemergence as a great power, which President Xi Jinping has dubbed the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. The Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy is linked to its pledge to achieve reunification of Taiwan with the motherland. A commonly held view on the mainland is that no Chinese leader could remain in power if he allowed Taiwan to separate from the PRC and be recognized by the international community as an independent sovereign state.

The Anti-Secession Law, adopted by Beijing in 2005, sets forth three conditions under which China would be justified in using “non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity: 1) Taiwan independence forces cause Taiwan’s secession from China; 2) Major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China occur; or 3) possibilities for peaceful reunification are completely exhausted.

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and holds the Japan Chair at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Bonnie S. Glaser