Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen is visiting the U.S., but under the odd diplomatic protocol that governs U.S.-Taiwan relations, she isn’t on a state visit or even a visit. Officials at the State Department and the White House are at pains to refer to it as a “transit.”
When Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger negotiated the 1972 Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqué in Shanghai, Taiwan’s status was the most difficult issue. Beijing made some hard demands, which the American side neither accepted nor challenged, leaving room for “strategic ambiguity” in its support for Taiwan after the U.S. formally established relations with Beijing and broke with Taipei in 1979.
That approach was probably wise at the time, but stability would now be better served by an unambiguous American statement on the legality of the Taiwan government. The U.S. could recognize Taipei under a principle of “one country, two governments.” That would fall short of supporting Taiwan independence and wouldn’t abrogate the “one China” principle on which Beijing has insisted since 1972. Instead, it would follow the evolution of Beijing’s own approach to relations with Taipei.
In the Shanghai Communiqué, the Chinese side explicitly rejected “one China, two governments” in addition to these other formulas: “one China, one Taiwan,” “two Chinas” and “an independent Taiwan.” The Chinese Communist Party’s position remained the same until the mid-1990s, when subtle changes began appearing.
In a speech in January 1995, President Jiang Zemin expressed “resolute opposition” to “two Chinas” and to “one China, one Taiwan,” but notably made no mention of “one China, two governments.” A 1993 party white paper on Taiwan stated that China rejects the “two Germany” and “two Korea” solutions to the Taiwan issue, but another white paper, in 2000, maintained opposition to the two-Germany model but said nothing about opposing the two-Korea model. Since then, “one China, two governments” and “two Koreas” have been systematically missing from official speeches and documents. On a topic as sensitive as Taiwan, these minor shifts can’t have been inadvertent. They meant something.
The Germany and Korea models were different. The East German Constitution of 1974 conceived of East Germany as a separate country, distinct from West Germany. By contrast, the constitutions of both North and South Korea see their governments as ruling part of a single Korean motherland. That is the “one country, two governments” notion that Beijing in the late 1990s dropped from its “resolutely oppose” list.