On December 2, President-elect Donald Trump held a telephone call with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. Later, he expressed doubt as to whether it was necessary for the United States to adhere to the so-called One-China policy. Mr. Trump was harshly criticized for these moves in both the U.S. and Europe, as people feared that the People’s Republic of China (Beijing) would see them as a provocation. Beijing, for its part, showed some indignation and lodged a formal protest with Washington.
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But what is the One-China policy? After World War II, the communist movement of Mao Zedong started an insurgency and civil war against the leadership of the Republic of China, headed by President Chiang Kai-shek. Eventually Chiang and his followers had to retreat to the island of Taiwan in 1949. The government of the Republic of China claimed to be the legitimate government of all China, seated in Taiwan. In Beijing, the People’s Republic of China claimed the same. The positions have not changed since.
In the following decades the countries of the West, especially the U.S. and Europe, recognized the government in Taiwan as sovereign over all of China, while the communist countries, led by the Soviet Union, recognized the People’s Republic as the only legitimate China. Up until 1971, the government in Taipei represented China in the United Nations. In 1971, the General Assembly recognized the communist People’s Republic as representing China. Taiwan lost its UN membership.
Taiwan developed into a prosperous economy with a democratic system, whereas mainland China suffered in poverty under the brutal communistic dictatorship of Mao Zedong.
However, the West finally had to reckon with the fact that the People’s Republic of China controlled the mainland. The first Western leader to recognize the government in Beijing was General Charles de Gaulle, president of France in the mid-1960s, who had a long term, realistic view. He concluded that it would be necessary to accept political reality and that mainland China would eventually become a major global economic and political power.
In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon visited China and initiated a relationship with the People’s Republic. The reason for his decision was realpolitik: it was the thick of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, and the opening to communist China was intended to further estrange Beijing from Moscow. The Vietnam War was also ongoing, and the Nixon government hoped to obtain China’s help in ending it. Henry Kissinger, U.S. Secretary of State at the time, had a similar view to General de Gaulle.
It might be sound politics for the U.S. to reestablish official relations with Taiwan now
The Vietnam War ended in 1975. In 1979 The U.S. established full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China and broke them off with Taiwan. However, commercial and political relations with Taiwan continued; Taipei remained one of Washington’s closest allies.
When the U.S. established relations with the People’s Republic of China, it did not accept Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over all of China, including Taiwan. It only acknowledged that Beijing made the claim – a pragmatic way of splitting diplomatic hairs.
It might be sound politics for the U.S. to reestablish official relations with Taiwan now. This would again reflect realpolitik and acknowledge the fact that Taiwan is an important ally and a democratic country.
The difference between the situations now and in the 1970s is the following: Forty years ago, communist China did not need the U.S., but the U.S. needed China in its efforts to contain the Soviet Union and end the Vietnam War. China was not an integral part of the global economy and therefore not particularly dependent on good relations with Washington.
Today however, the U.S. is China’s most important commercial partner – China is more dependent on the U.S. than vice-versa. It seems logical that the U.S. is now in a position to discuss official recognition of the Republic of China in Taiwan by reestablishing diplomatic relations. This would not be a vain provocation but a clear message. Beijing could – again based on realpolitik – finally be forced to accept.
The fact of the matter is that there is not “one China” – there are two. Democratic Taiwan does not want to become subject to Beijing. It is also strong enough to render military aggression very costly. It deserves to be recognized. Under current circumstances, the pragmatic approach of recognizing the two Chinas has become a realistic option.