President-elect Donald Trump has just said that he considers America's One China policy a bargaining chip, to be traded off against other things that the United States wants from China. In his description:
I don't know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade. … I mean, look … we're being hurt very badly by China with devaluation; with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don't tax them; with building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they shouldn't be doing; and, frankly, with not helping us at all with North Korea.
In other words, the One China policy isn't a big deal — it's a bargaining issue, like many other issues. So is Trump right?
No. The big deal is this: The relationship between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan is an ambiguous one, where the People's Republic claims Taiwan as part of its national territory but is prepared for the present to let Taiwan continue in existence, while Taiwan also has an interest in not clarifying its relationship with the People's Republic too precisely. Both the PRC and the United States adhere to the notion of One China, but they mean very different things by it. Undermining the status quo could lead to full-scale military conflict between the United States and China over an island that both see as vital to their national interests and whose unique status they have managed well up to this point.
One China means one thing to China
What does "One China" actually mean?
For China, it means the "one China principle." From the very beginning of the PRC, its leaders have maintained that historically and according to the terms of the Japanese surrender in 1945, Taiwan was a part of the sovereign state of China ruled from its capital on the mainland. The government on Taiwan — which was founded by the side that was defeated in China's civil war — is seen as an illegal occupation by the remnants of a defeated regime. China's leaders view the recovery of Taiwan as close to being a sacred task that would accomplish the restoration of the Chinese nation, the final victory of the Communist Party, and the end of the country's exploitation by foreign powers that began in the 19th century.
China formulates the principle as follows — that "there is only one China in the world; the mainland and Taiwan both belong to one China; and China's sovereignty and territorial integrity are indivisible." This is why the PRC demands that states with which it has diplomatic relations break official ties with Taiwan and recognize the PRC government as the sole legal government of China. Other states — and international organizations — that have dealings with Taiwan are seen as interfering with China's domestic affairs. PRC law says that the PRC can use force against acts by Taiwan aimed at independence or resistance to unification, and China's military buildup over the last two decades has been driven by the desire to deter Taiwan from separating or, if necessary, to use force to unify it with the mainland.
It means something very different to the U.S.
The United States' One China policy is radically different. In the 1950s, the United States recognized the defeated Nationalist government in Taiwan as the legitimate government of all of China and encouraged other states to do the same. As time went on, proposals that the United States recognize two Chinas were vehemently rejected by the PRC. When the U.S. normalized relations with China in 1979, it cut diplomatic and official ties with the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan, recognized the mainland as the "sole legal government" of China, withdrew U.S. forces from Taiwan and allowed a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan to expire. The American position on the status of Taiwan island was left undefined.
The United States defines the content of its One China policy as consisting of the three Sino-American communiqués issued at the time of the Nixon visit (1972), mutual establishment of diplomatic relations (1978) and the attempted resolution of the question of American arms sales in 1982, as well as the Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress in April 1979 to establish a legal foundation for "unofficial" relations with Taiwan after recognition of the PRC and de-recognition of the ROC.
Subtle diplomatic nuances can have big consequences
The United States has made it clear that it does not consider the political entity on Taiwan (whether it is called "Taiwan" or "the ROC") to be a state within the international community. Here it agrees with the PRC. However, it does not accept Beijing's contention that the island of Taiwan, or its government and people, are parts of China. The formal U.S. legal position is that the island's status is "undetermined." This means, remarkably, that since 1979, the United States has conducted a relationship with a government it does not officially recognize, that rules a state it does not acknowledge exists, on an island the status of which is undetermined. Such are the subtleties of international diplomacy.
On the one hand, the United States respects Beijing's position that the ROC is not a state for international purposes. On the other, it does not accept Beijing's sovereignty over the people and government of Taiwan.
This complicated diplomatic dance has crucial real-world consequences. It means that U.S. policy toward Taiwan has been guided by America's interests in the relationship with Taiwan, the PRC and Asia as a whole, rather than being constrained by Chinese charges of foreign interference in the nation's domestic affairs. Since 1979, under the United States' One China policy a broad and varied relationship has developed with the island. For example, the U.S. and Taiwan have presences in each other's countries that have diplomatic privileges and immunities. The laws of the United States apply with respect to Taiwan, "in the manner that the laws of the United States applied with respect to Taiwan" before the breaking of relations and the terms of most pre-1979 treaties have been maintained. There is a significant amount of mutual trade and investment; and according to the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is mandated to make available defensive arms to Taiwan, to maintain Taiwan's capacity to resist any use of force or other coercion that would jeopardize its security and well-being, and after consultation between the president and Congress to "determine … appropriate action by the United States" if there is any such threat. There is extensive consultation between military and civilian officials; Taiwan's president is permitted to make "transit stops" in the United States on the way to other destinations under agreed rules; and officials at the Cabinet level have visited Taiwan. Finally, while the United States accepts the position that Taiwan is not a sovereign state, it supports the ROC's "meaningful participation" (rather than membership) in international organizations where statehood is a requirement.
In short, the United States has built a much closer relationship with Taiwan than with many acknowledged nation-states, and it has done so despite the Chinese claim that both China and Taiwan come under "one China." After all, one country doesn't sell arms to or maintain quasi-diplomatic relations with a subdivision (think California) of another nation state.
Since 1979, the United States has looked to maintain the status quo between the PRC and Taiwan by saying that it will intervene if either side takes unilateral action to change the status quo (e.g. if the mainland tries to coerce Taiwan into unification, or Taiwan declares independence). It is officially neutral as to how the PRC and Taiwan ultimately resolve their differences, simply insisting that it has to involve a mutually agreed upon peaceful settlement.
While the U.S. position is driven by a variety of political interests, China's position is driven by a desire for national unity that China's leadership has defined as existential and nonnegotiable. This means that the U.S. approach flouts essential elements of the Chinese position. Moreover, not only is Washington maintaining a relationship that contravenes China's One China policy, but it has apparently put itself in a position of setting the conditions for the resolution of the conflict. The reason this has not led to overt hostilities is because all sides have behaved with restraint to maintain a very fragile peace. They know full well how sensitive these differences are.
This is why Trump's suggestion that One China is another bargaining chip, which the United States can play or not play as it likes, is both misleading and risky. On the one hand, it apparently misses the subtle, but extremely significant, differences between the American "one China policy" and the Chinese "one China principle." On the other, it endangers the central tenet of American policy in the area — the maintenance of the status quo. The Trump transition team has already referred to Tsai Ing-wen as "President of Taiwan." This publicly undermines the only aspect of the One China issue where the United States and China actually agree — that Taiwan is not a state, while starkly exposing the reality of the quasi state-to-state relationship that the American One China policy obscures. By using Taiwan's status as a negotiating ploy, Trump is doubling down on this dangerous strategy. China's vital national interests are in conflict with U.S. policy, and stable relations are fragile, because all the parties are unhappy with the present situation. If the incoming administration persists in its apparent careless indifference, it runs the risk of grossly destabilizing U.S.-China relations, and even risks war.
Steven M. Goldstein was a member of the Smith College Department of Government from 1968 to 2016. He is now the director of the Taiwan Studies Workshop and associate at the Fairbank Center at Harvard University. His most recent publication is "China and Taiwan" (Polity Press, 2015).