The Chinese government’s regular insistence that its “one China principle” is a “universal consensus of the international community and a basic norm in international relations,” has been challenged by a new report. It finds that just 51 countries use language unambiguously consistent with the idea held by China that there is “one China” and Taiwan is a part of it, known as adopting a “one China principle.”
Jostling over how Taiwan is recognized has been seen to increase in recent years and is often thought of as splitting off in three main directions. There is the position of a small number of countries who officially recognize Taiwan’s government (as the government of the Republic of China) and who do not recognize the government of the People’s Republic of China. There is the position of countries outright adopting a “one China principle,” as described above. And there is the separate position of countries “acknowledging” or “recognizing” China’s position but not taking a position on Taiwan’s sovereignty themselves, which is often known as a “one China policy.”
However, there are cracks in how this diplomatic language is being used. The new report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace outlines that China’s government has sought to conflate positions that do not not directly contest its sovereignty claim over Taiwan with support for it. The logic of this conflation is that it enables China to label shows of support for Taiwan as inconsistent with countries’ previously stated positions — and thus a challenge to the status quo.
As a counter to this attempt to blur lines, the report offers ten more precise categories for different kinds of recognition for Taiwan, focusing on language use rather than policy directions. Using this more refined taxonomy, it found just 51 out of 166 surveyed countries matched China’s position, while other countries took up a broader range of more nuanced positions than the common “one China principle” versus “one China policy” division can suggest.
The categories and countries split into the following:
- Fifty-one countries were found to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the sole legitimate government of China (or representing all Chinese people) and Taiwan as part of China (province or inalienable part).
- Nine countries were found to recognize the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China and “acknowledge” the PRC’s claim that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.
- Sixteen countries recognize the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China and “take note of” the PRC’s claim that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.
- Four countries recognize the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China and “understand and respect” the PRC’s claim that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.
- One country (Russia) respects and supports the position of the PRC over Taiwan.
- Two countries recognize the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China and “respect” the PRC’s claim that Taiwan is a province of the PRC.
- One country (the U.S.) recognizes the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China and “acknowledges” the PRC position that Taiwan is part of China.
- Forty-one countries recognize the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China with no explicit mention of Taiwan’s sovereignty.
- Twenty-seven countries neither recognize the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China nor mention Taiwan’s sovereignty.
- Fourteen countries recognize the Republic of China (Taiwan).
Accounting for the range of different language, the report explains that “These widely varying positions largely originate from when the country in question established formal diplomatic relations with the PRC. Some had more reason to maintain separate and robust even if unofficial ties with Taiwan, while others saw little reason to weigh in on some far-flung dispute that they believed had little to do with them.” Furthermore, it adds that “Since ‘one China’ is generally not of primary importance to most states, many do not bother to adjust their stated positions even if practical circumstances evolve.”
On top of this, the report notes that in some cases language use can belie actual policy approaches. Norway, for instance, does not “explicitly incorporat[e] any statement about Taiwan in its “‘one China’ statements,” but counts Taiwanese nationals in the country as “Chinese” nationals. Meanwhile, the U.K., “does not accept the PRC ‘one China principle’” but previously chose not to emphasize this point.
However, in some circumstances the issue of wording becomes international news, if it is deemed to signal intended shifts in policy direction. Last year, the United States’ changing of wording in a fact sheet on Taiwan was described as “a petty act of fictionalizing and hollowing out the one-China principle,”’ by then Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅), after text on not supporting Taiwan independence and on acknowledging China’s position that Taiwan is part of China had been removed. Days later, the text on not supporting Taiwan independence was put back in, though the text on acknowledging China’s position was not.
Clearly, then, key actors involved in decision-making believe that words can matter. And thus it’s useful to keep a check on who’s saying what.Image: Collection RN-WHPO: White House Photo Office Collection (Nixon Administration), Public Domain