Much has been written about the "one China" policy, what it is -- and isn't.
One hears arguments that it has contributed to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and that it should therefore not be changed.
However, if asked, government officials are hard-pressed to give a precise definition.
US Assistant Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific James Kelly in an April 2004 hearing before the House International Relations Committee stated:
"When it comes to our `one China' [policy], I did not really define it. I'm not sure I very easily could define it. However, I can tell you what it is not. It is not the `one China' policy or principle that Beijing suggests, and it may not be the definition that some would have in Taiwan."
When asked what US policy towards Taiwan is, State Department spokesmen these days generally recite a mantra along the following lines: "We have a `one China' policy in accordance with the Three Communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act."
While the Kelly quote makes the very essential distinction between the US "one China" policy and the PRC's "one China" principle (a distinction often lost on many in the news media and policymakers in Washington), the State Department's mantra glosses over some essential differences between the Communiques themselves, and between the Communiques as a group and the Taiwan Relations Act.
Also, over time, additional elements have been added, making the policy increasingly anachronistic. In order to recapture the essence of the difference between the original policy and the present unwieldy concoction, one needs to go back the basics -- to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the present policy came into being.
At that time, there were two governments claiming to be the real government of China: the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) authorities in Taipei, who had come over from China after its 1949 defeat, and Mao Zedong's (
The Nixon/Kissinger opening to China resulted in a shift of recognition "as government of China" from the KMT authorities to the CCP authorities.
"One China" in those days thus meant that we only recognized one government as the government of China, and not two.
On Taiwan's status, the basic position taken by the US and other Western nations was that these nations "acknowledged" or "took note" of the Chinese position, but did not take that position themselves.
It was emphasized time and again by US officials and officials of other nations that the issue needed to be "resolved peacefully," and some added: "with the consent/assent" of the people on the island.
This position taken by the US and Western Europe was an extension of the decisions of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, when Japan ceded sovereignty over Taiwan.
At the time, most representatives emphasized that the future status of the island needed to be determined "in accord with the Purposes and Principles as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations."
In the early 1950s, this clearly meant self-determination and independence.
Thus, from 1979 through the mid-1990s, US policy towards Taiwan was indeed based on the Three Communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act, but was captured by one phrase: "peaceful resolution."
The US was agnostic to the future status of the island: it neither supported nor opposed independence, and neither supported nor opposed unification. It was simply insisting on a peaceful process.