President Trump and “Our ‘One-China’ Policy”

By John J. Tkacik


On Thursday evening, February 9, 2017, President Donald J. Trump spoke for 45 minutes by phone with People’s Republic of China State Chairman Xi Jinping.   According to a “senior U.S. official” (speaking to The Wall Street Journal), it took only five minutes for the Chinese leader to mention Taiwan.  “I would like you to uphold the ‘One China’ policy,” Chairman Xi requested.  The President replied, “At your request, I will do that.”



And the issue was laid to rest. 


That evening, the White House issued a press release announcing that, among the “numerous topics” discussed, “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our ‘one China’ policy” [emphasis added].


  Immediately, hundreds of news outlets reported across the world that President Trump had abandoned his support of Taiwan and embraced the “one China Principle.” 


Fake News?  The White House release clearly stated that what the President had agreed to honor was not China’s “one China Principle,” but rather “our ‘One China’ Policy.”     


Indeed, “our One China Policy” has been a specific diplomatic formulation followed by the U.S. Department of State for at least the past 15 years -- usually accompanied by the explanation that it is “based on the Taiwan Relations Act and the Three Communiques.”


   Beijing’s “One China Principle” is an entirely different creature that insists that Taiwan Island is an integral part of Chinese territory over which the Beijing government has sovereignty in international law.


So, what exactly is “our One China policy based on the Taiwan Relations Act and the Three Communiques”?  


Perhaps the most authoritative articulation of “our One China” is in formal testimony to the U.S. Congress by then-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly on April 21, 2004.  Secretary Kelly briefed the House International Relations Committee on the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Taiwan Relations Act, the legislation that sets the legal basis for the conduct of defense, commercial, cultural and other normal foreign relations with Taiwan in the absence of formal diplomatic recognition of the “Republic of China” government in Taipei. 


Among the definitive sections of the TRA, and the section central to its legal authority, the Act states: “Whenever the laws of the United States refer or relate to foreign countries, nations, states, governments, or similar entities, such terms shall include and such laws shall apply with respect to Taiwan” at §3303(a), (b)(1), emphasis added.


The 2015 Supreme Court decision, Zivotofsky v. Kerry


, quoting the Solicitor General of the United States, observes that the TRA “treated Taiwan as if it were a legally distinct entity from China— an entity with which the United States intended to maintain strong ties.”  For the purposes of United States law, Taiwan is a “country, nation, state, government,” to be treated juridical exactly like any other.  In Zivotofsky, the Judicial Branch queried how, then, did the Executive Branch view the People’s Republic of China’s claim that “Taiwan is a part of China”?  The Court’s decision recorded that “The Solicitor General explains that the designation ‘China’ involves ‘a geographic description, not an assertion that Taiwan is . . . part of sovereign China’,” an explanation that the late Justice Antonin Scalia wryly endorsed: “Quite so,” he wrote.



So, what is the legal force of the “Three Communiqués”, particularly the December 16, 1978, communiqué in which the United States “acknowledges the Chinese position” that Taiwan is part of China?  The Court in Zivotofsky points out that “according to the Solicitor General, the United States ‘acknowledges the Chinese position’ that Taiwan is a part of China, but ‘does not take a position’ of its own on that issue.” 


The Taiwan Relations Act is, therefore, necessarily the core legal component of “our ‘One China’ policy.”  Indeed, the Taiwan Relations Act -- the foundation of “Our One China Policy” emphasizes that U.S. relations with Taiwan are separate from its relations with China. 


Indeed, in the course of Secretary James Kelly’s 2004 testimony, he used the term “Our One China” five times.  Mr. Kelly explained that “The TRA [Taiwan Relations Act], along with the three communiqués in Our One China policy, form the foundation for the complex political and security interplay among China, Taiwan and the United States.”  (Note that Secretary Kelly’s statement gave precedence to the TRA before the “Three Communiqués.”) Mr. Kelly continued, “This is a unique situation, with sensitive and sometimes contradictory elements.”   


Puzzled about this, one member of Congress asked the obvious question: “can the evolution of full-fledged democracy on Taiwan and the clear emergence of a sense of Taiwanese identity meld with the principle of One China, or are they in stark contrast with each other?”  


Without hesitation, Secretary Kelly responded:


... In my testimony, I made the point "our One China," and I didn't really define it, and I'm not sure I very easily could define it.


I can tell you what it is not. It is not the One-China policy or the One-China principle that Beijing suggests, and it may not be the definition that some would have in Taiwan. But it does convey a meaning of solidarity of a kind among the people on both sides of the straits that has been our policy for a very long time.



Still not convinced?  The State Department also made a confidential representation to the United Nations in August 2007 when U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon asserted that, under the terms of UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 of October 1971, “the United Nations considers Taiwan for all purposes to be an integral part of the People's Republic of China.” 


To this, the United States Mission issued a counter-demarche saying:


 “The United States reiterates its One China policy which is based on the three US-China Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act, to the effect that the United States acknowledges China's view that Taiwan is a part of China.  We take no position on the status of Taiwan.  We neither accept nor reject the claim that Taiwan is a part of China.”




According to the Wikileaks database, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Zalmay Khalilzad, reported to the Secretary of State on August 16, 2007, “Ban said he realized he had gone too far in his recent public statements, and confirmed that the UN would no longer use the phrase ‘Taiwan is a part of China,’ as reported reftel.”




If “Our One China Policy” is good enough for the Supreme Court and the United Nations, then I suppose we should all agree that it’s good enough for President Trump.



Key Point


The Phrase “Our One China Policy based on the Taiwan Relations Act and the Three Communiques” is a proposition entirely distinct from Beijing’s “One China Principle.”   The Act, itself, is the controlling legal core of “our ‘One China’ Policy,” while the “Three Communiqués” are diplomatic imprecisions in which, according to the Solicitor General of the United States, “the United States ‘acknowledges the Chinese position’ that Taiwan is a part of China, but ‘does not take a position’ of its own on that issue” and, indeed, the United States believes “the designation ‘China’ involves ‘a geographic description, not an assertion that Taiwan is . . . part of sovereign China’.”




Carol E. Lee and Te-Ping Chen, “Trump pledges to honor longstanding policy not to recognize Taiwan diplomatically”, The Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2017 at


White House Press Release - “Readout of the President’s Call with President Xi Jinping of China”


My database has dozens of hits for “our one China”, beginning with “U.S. Department of State Daily Press Briefing Index, 1:10 p.m. -- Thursday, June 27, 2002, Briefer: Richard Boucher, Spokesman.” 


Zivotofsky v. Kerry, No. 13–628. June 8, 2015


ibid.  See Mr. Justice Scalia’s dissent.


John J. Tkacik, ‘Taiwan's "Unsettled" International Status: Preserving U.S. Options in the Pacific,’ Heritage Foundation Backgrounder June 19, 2008, at  The text of the demarche in non-paper form, was given to the author by Taiwan government officials who said it was transmitted to the Taiwan government by the United States.  State Department officials confirmed without attribution the authenticity of the text.  

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