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.