Tue, Apr 17, 2018 - Page 13 News List

When the US had a ‘two Chinas’ policy

As China readies live-fire military exercises in the Taiwan Strait amid heightened tensions over increased American support for Taiwan, a retired US foreign service officer revisits the evolution of the ‘two Chinas’ policy

By John J Tkacik, Jr

President Tsai Ing-wen participates in naval exercises on Friday of last week.

Photo: CNA

Back when the US had its “two Chinas” policy, in July 1977, I was posted from the US Embassy in Taipei to the US Liaison Office in Beijing. For eight years from 1971 through 1978 Washington’s policy was de facto recognition of both the Taipei and Beijing governments. In fact, in June 1977, former US president Jimmy Carter mused at a White House policy meeting that no other countries “have our kind of relations with China and Taiwan.” Secretary of state Cyrus Vance agreed, “we are the only country with official missions in both countries.” And so it was.

The “two Chinas” policy began in earnest on April 15, 1971, when the Dutch permanent representative to the UN warned US ambassador George H.W. Bush that Canadian and Italian recognition of Beijing had eroded Taipei’s position in the UN.

“Unless those countries interested in keeping the [Republic of China, ROC] in the UN soon start working actively on behalf of new tactics,” he said, “[it] will be expelled and the PRC [People’s Republic of China] will be admitted at the next session.”

There followed a desperate American campaign to work with allies, particularly Australia and Japan, to devise new UN General Assembly membership principles that could accommodate two Chinas. This conundrum of “China Representation,” or simply “ChiRep,” flummoxed US diplomats. In New York, they explored principles of “universality” and “dual representation” with other divided-state allies: South Korea, South Vietnam and West Germany.


In 1971, the most vocal opponent of “two Chinas” turned out to be Taiwan’s then-president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and not the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) founding father Mao Zedong (毛澤東). On April 28, 1971, the State Department spokesman went on record with the US position that “sovereignty over Taiwan and the Pescadores is an unsettled question subject to future international resolution.”

Five days later in Taipei, Chiang harangued a visiting former US treasury secretary about the statement. Chiang “went on at great length without interruption becoming increasingly agitated ... visibly shaking,” the US embassy reported. It was a most serious affront, the Generalissimo protested, a “slap in the face.”

But the fact remained. Outlining the historical basis for America’s stance on Taiwan’s “unsettled status,” the State Department legal advisor reiterated on July 13, 1971, that Taiwan’s international status remained undetermined; nonetheless, the US recognized the ROC as “legitimately occupying and exercising jurisdiction over Taiwan.”

Just days before, unbeknownst to the State Department, president Richard Nixon’s security advisor, Henry Kissinger, was on his secret mission to Beijing, listening as Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) also complained: “You . . . declared the status of Taiwan was still unsettled. Even up to the present day the spokesman of your State Department still says that this is your position.” Kissinger could only sigh, “he hasn’t repeated it!”


This “two Chinas” policy crystallized with the Shanghai Communique of February 1972, although not in the way most historians look at it. In the penultimate American draft of the communique, the US side acknowledged that “all people [sic] on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China.”

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