Why did Donald Trump cave on the "one China" policy?

Source: Evan Vucci/AP

On Feb. 9, President Donald Trump spoke to Chinese president Xi Jinping and assured him that the United States would honor the "one China" policy. That the U.S. would honor an almost 40-year-old policy should not have been news. However, the phone call followed a statement Trump made on Dec. 11 to Fox News, saying, "I don't know why we have to be bound by a 'one China' policy." This caused an uproar in China, and a Chinese newspaper called him "ignorant as a child." Why did tough negotiator Trump cave on the "one China" policy?

What is "one China"?

In 1949, Taiwan split from mainland China, and the United States recognized Taipei as the capital of a single nation-state, the Republic of China. In 1979, the United States switched its recognition from Taipei to Beijing, the capital of the People's Republic of China. It still recognized a single China, but under the rule of the communist government and not the nationalists in Taiwan. 

Cordial relations remained with Taiwan, and even in its statement recognizing Beijing, the U.S. acknowledged that while Taiwan was part of China, the U.S. would maintain separate ties with Taiwan. Now, Taiwan has many attributes of statehood, and maintains that its existence is separate from the PRC. But it does not claim to be an independent state. It is perhaps best described as a "state-like entity." This is the basis of the "one China" policy that has existed with relative stability since 1979.

Soldiers hold positions next to a U.S.-made Avenger air defense missile system launcher during an annual military drill in Taichung, central Taiwan.
Source: Sam Yeh/AFP

Why did Trump change policy?

Trump has staked his reputation on his ability to make deals. He hopes to reach a grand bargain with China on trade issues and territorial disputes, and help in negotiating with North Korea. If he had continued to imply that the U.S. might abandon "one China" and recognize Taiwanese independence, there would be no chance of cooperation with China on any outstanding issue. Trump likely had hoped to use Taiwan as way to extract concessions from China, but it is possible that he did not realize that the Chinese red line on Taiwan is immutable

There is another, possibly equally, important reason to change policies. Trump's earlier stance on "one China" likely went farther than Taiwan is willing to go. Taiwan has not submitted a formal request for recognition from the United States, it claims sovereignty only over its own island, and one state cannot force another to become independent. Moreover, if China were to respond militarily, either the U.S. would get involved and there would be an armed conflict between the U.S. and China, or the U.S. wouldn't get involved and would sow fear and doubt in its allies worldwide. There were no good outcomes to unilaterally abandoning "one China."

Of course, sometimes Occam's razor provides the easiest answer: Maybe Trump never heard of the "one China" policy until he was first asked about it.

How likely are you to make Mic your go-to news source?

Jonathan Cristol

Dr. Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute (www.worldpolicy.org). He is also a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College (www.bard.edu), where for many years he was a professor of international affairs and director of Bard's Globalization and International Affairs Program. Dr. Cristol is an independent advisor/expert at Duco, a global affairs, policy, technology, and security consulting firm (www.ducoexperts.com).

MORE FROM

Will Justice Anthony Kennedy retire at end of Supreme Court term? Here's what we know.

Rumors that the 80-year-old swing justice may leave the bench are fueling fear of a second Trump pick on the nation's high court.

3 states and D.C. allow same flammable building materials behind Grenfell Tower fire

The causes of London's Grenfell Tower are similar to the justifications used to waive fire regulations in the U.S.

New Jersey bill would require kids to be taught how to interact with police

Students from kindergarten through 12th grade would receive the education.

UK Parliament hit with cyberattack

Members of Parliament had difficulty accessing their emails Saturday in the wake of the attack.

Istanbul LGBT pride march banned by government for safety concerns

A right-wing nationalist group has vowed to stop the protest.

Compounds seized by US in December reportedly contained material useful in Russia probe

The Trump administration has reportedly been considering returning the New York and Maryland compounds to Russia.

Will Justice Anthony Kennedy retire at end of Supreme Court term? Here's what we know.

Rumors that the 80-year-old swing justice may leave the bench are fueling fear of a second Trump pick on the nation's high court.

3 states and D.C. allow same flammable building materials behind Grenfell Tower fire

The causes of London's Grenfell Tower are similar to the justifications used to waive fire regulations in the U.S.

New Jersey bill would require kids to be taught how to interact with police

Students from kindergarten through 12th grade would receive the education.

UK Parliament hit with cyberattack

Members of Parliament had difficulty accessing their emails Saturday in the wake of the attack.

Istanbul LGBT pride march banned by government for safety concerns

A right-wing nationalist group has vowed to stop the protest.

Compounds seized by US in December reportedly contained material useful in Russia probe

The Trump administration has reportedly been considering returning the New York and Maryland compounds to Russia.