The world saw an intense uptick in tensions across the Taiwan Strait this month.
China flew warplanes a record 149 times toward Taiwan over four days, starting October 1, as China celebrated its National Day holiday. Taiwan responded by dispatching its own fighter jets. War talk invaded some of the rhetoric, adding a further chill on top of the saber-rattling flights.
What’s it all about? Taiwan’s status.
The communist government in Beijing has claimed Taiwan as part of its territory ever since the nationalist government fled the mainland in 1949, ending a civil war. Meantime, Taipei regards the self-governing island as a sovereign nation with no need to declare independence.
Just days after the military drills near Taiwan, Chinese President Xi Jinping on October 9 vowed to achieve “complete reunification” with Taiwan, though adding that “reunification of the motherland by peaceful means is most in line with the overall interests of the Chinese nation, including our compatriots in Taiwan.”
Taipei condemned Xi’s speech as “one-sided distortion of historical facts” and President Tsai Ing-wen said Taiwan will not “bow to pressure” from China for reunification in her October 10 speech on Taiwan’s National Day.
Complicating this fundamental dispute is confusing policy. Hence this fact check of Ma Hui, the Chinese ambassador to Cuba, who tweeted:
“Almost all mainstream media treat Taiwan as a separate entity from China even if the UN passed a resolution, even if their respective national government acknowledge one China policy/principle.”
That statement misleads by suggesting the United Nations has endorsed the notion that Taiwan is part of China. That is not so. And it confuses further with the reference to “One China,” a policy under which the adopting countries recognize Beijing as China’s only lawful government but maintain varying attitudes toward Beijing’s claim to Taiwan.
In October 1971, the U.N. General Assembly passed Resolution 2758, declaring the government of People’s Republic of China (PRC) to be “the only legitimate representatives of China” and expelling “the representatives of [nationalist leader] Chiang Kai-shek” from their U.N. seats.
In other words, the resolution acknowledged the communists as China’s de jure government. But it did not address whether Taiwan was “a separate entity” from China. The resolution avoided mention of both Taiwan and the Republic of China (ROC), its official name.
On “One China,” Ma conflates two different concepts to imply that there is an international consensus on Taiwan’s status among countries that maintain diplomatic ties with China.
The concepts are the One China “principle” and One China “policy.”
The One China principle is China’s strategy toward Taiwan. According to a white paper released in 2000 by the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) of China’s State Council, China’s definition of the principle states: “There is only one China in the world, Taiwan is a part of China and the government of the PRC is the sole legal government representing the whole of China."
One China policy, however, broadly describes the more nuanced approaches that the United States and others have taken to juggle diplomatic relations with China and Taiwan.
Each country, wrote Jessica Drun, China and Taiwan analyst for the Center for Advanced China Research, “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 the United States, the One China policy is not so concise as China’s One China principle. Rather, it is “a distillation from key documents such as the three U.S.-China joint communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), and a series of policy statements made over the years, such as the ‘six assurances,’” wrote Richard Bush, former head of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which functions as a U.S. embassy on the island.
In 2014, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service described the distillation of diplomacy this way: “Not recognizing the PRC’s claim over Taiwan nor Taiwan as a sovereign state, U.S. policy has considered Taiwan’s status as unsettled.”
So, while the United States accepts Beijing as the official Chinese government, it regards Taiwan’s status as up in the air.
The 1972 Shanghai Communiqué issued at the end of then U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China stated:
“[T]he United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States does not challenge that position.”
Thus the U.S. said it “acknowledges” the Chinese position but did not endorse it. Using similar language, a 1979 normalization communiqué establishing U.S. - China diplomatic ties also did not state affirmatively that the U.S. recognized Taiwan as part of China.
Then-President Carter gave strict instructions to the U.S. negotiators to reject the Chinese position that Taiwan was a “province of China.” In the end, the normalization communique was finalized to say that the U.S. merely “acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is a part of China.”
“Gone was the awkward formulation of ‘all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait,’ and in its place was a vague reference to ‘the Chinese position.’ Moreover, the sentence from the Shanghai Communiqué that the United States ‘did not challenge’ the Chinese view was gone,” former diplomat Bush wrote.
“By only acknowledging ‘the Chinese position,’ the United States did not adopt as its own,” Bush said.
Chinese negotiators used the verb “recognize” (cheng ren) instead of “acknowledge” (ren shi) in the Chinese text of the 1979 joint communiqué. However, in the 1972 Shanghai communiqué, the Chinese text did stay faithful to the verb “acknowledge.”
Then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher affirmed to the U.S. Senate that the United States considered “the English text as being the binding text. We regard the word ‘acknowledge’ as being the word that is determinative for the U.S.”
Among the 180 countries that have diplomatic ties with China, 144 of them have signed joint communiqués with China upon establishing diplomatic relations. About 58 of them, unlike the U.S., "recognize" China’s sovereignty over Taiwan by stating that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China” in the joint communiqués. They include countries like Israel, Portugal, Panama and South Africa.
Twenty-nine countries followed the U.S. approach in their joint communiques with China. Like the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia both used “acknowledge,” while Japan used “understand and respect,” and Canada used “take note of.” Fifty-six countries, including Germany and Ireland, did not mention Taiwan at all in their joint communiqués with China.
Despite the absence of diplomatic relations, the TRA and President Ronald Reagan’s Six Assurances under the One China policy pledge U.S. security assistance “necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability” – that is, to deter China from taking Taiwan by force. President Bill Clinton stated in 2000 that any solution must have “the assent of the people of Taiwan.”
“Implied in this statement was the reality that Taiwan had a democratic system and that Beijing would have to satisfy Taiwan’s leaders as well as the public in any effort to resolve the dispute,” wrote Bush.