“One China” as Floating Signifier: the Benefits of Diplomatic Ambiguity

When Canada recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1970, the Joint Communiqué stated, “The Chinese Government reaffirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China. The Canadian Government takes note of this position of the Chinese Government.” Canada maintained diplomatic silence, in spite of China’s requests to the contrary, about the sovereignty of Taiwan. Any confusion about what “take note” means should have been dispelled by the explanation given to Parliament by Mitchell Sharp, Secretary of State for External Affairs: Canada will “neither challenge nor endorse” China’s position on Taiwan. Canada, however, could have formal relations with only one side, and chose the PRC.

Four years earlier, Paul Martin, Sr., had told the UN General Assembly, “Canada has never recommended a two-China policy. We have recommended a policy of ‘One China, one Taiwan.’” The quandary was that Beijing and Taipei both insisted that they alone legitimately represented China. To some, the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan seemed to have the upper hand. President Chiang Kai-shek was recognized as an important wartime ally. The ROC was a founding member of the UN, a permanent member of the Security Council, and had a privileged relationship with the U.S.A. Pierre Trudeau and his diplomats tried to reconcile a desire to recognize the PRC with legitimate Canadian concerns about Taiwan. Nobody asked the 15 million people of Taiwan which side they preferred, if either. In fact, Taiwan was under Martial Law and the Taiwanese had no democratic way to express themselves. Canada thus recognized the PRC, while passing the question of Taiwan to future generations. Many hoped that the Taiwanese would someday be able to decide for themselves.

“One China” became a sacred diplomatic symbol. Beijing consistently tries to get other countries to declare that “One China” includes Taiwan. To Beijing, “One China” unambiguously means the PRC. Nonetheless, 23 diplomatic allies of Taipei recognize the ROC. Most countries follow the “Canadian formula” of official relations with the PRC, substantive relations with Taiwan, and strategic silence. Americans seem to prefer “strategic ambiguity,” hoping that a bricolage of “One China” communiqués with Beijing, and a Taiwan Relations Act promising to protect Taiwan, will enhance their ongoing influence in the region. Perhaps “One China” is best understood as what anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss called a ‘floating signifier’: a word or symbol that doesn’t point to any agreed-upon meaning.

In Beijing’s 1993 White Paper, “One China” means integration of Taiwan into the PRC, which is the “sacrosanct mission of the entire Chinese people.” In this view, Taiwan should become a special administrative region as “One country, two systems.” In 2005, during the second term of Taiwan’s “separatist” President Chen Shui-bian, Beijing’s Anti-secession Law threatened to “employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures,” to assert PRC sovereignty over Taiwan. Subsequently, politicians Lien Chan and James Soong made historical journeys from Taiwan to China, demonstrating that Chinese nationalists on both sides fear Taiwanese independence more than they distrust each other.

Since Ma Ying-jeou (Chinese Nationalist Party, KMT) became ROC President in 2008, the Mainland and Taiwan have moved toward economic and cultural rapprochement. Ma justifies his cross-strait policies through the ‘1992 Consensus’ of “one China, different interpretations”. This is contested by the opposition, which stresses Taiwan’s right to self-determination. Ma reminds constituents that his nation is “One Republic of China, two areas”. He emphasizes Chinese cultural unity, initiating a new ritual to worship the Emperor Huangdi as “common ancestor of the Chinese nation”. Although Ma promises to protect his country’s sovereignty, opposition leaders fear his policies will lead to annexation by the PRC.

For students of nationalism, the important lessons are that “One China” means different things to different people, and does not necessarily mean political unification. We are dealing with floating signifiers, not political agreements.

Most Taiwanese seem content with ambiguity, as demonstrated by the fact that they voted twice for KMT Ma Ying-jeou. Yet, Taiwanese identity has risen throughout the process of cross-strait rapprochement. In 2011, NCCU Election Study Centre polls showed that 54.2% identified as Taiwanese and only 4.1% as Chinese, yet 39% as “both”. Fewer than 2% desire “unification as soon as possible,” suggesting that political unification is politically unfeasible in the short run in democratic Taiwan. Recently, Ma has shown reluctance to host a Cross-strait Forum in Taiwan, even though seven have been held on the Mainland. Since the meanings of “One China” are hotly contested in Taiwan, there is a risk of public backlash.

Canada seems willing to embrace this symbolism. As Canada expands people-to-people relations with Taiwan, including a substantial Canada-Taiwan Parliamentary Friendship Group, Stephen Harper has gradually mastered the ambiguities of “One China”. In 2006, he provoked criticism from Taiwan supporters by stating in an interview that “Taiwan is an integral part of China”. Yet the 2009 Canada-China Joint Statement, drafted by diplomats from both sides, states: “The Chinese side emphasized that the question of Taiwan concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Canadian side reiterated its consistent and long-standing One China policy, established at the founding of diplomatic relations, and underlined its support for the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations, including through efforts by both sides to increase dialogue and interactions in economic, political and other fields.” We might call this ‘One China, two sides’, but the implications for Taiwan remain intentionally vague.

Facing real political constraints, politicians and diplomats seek the appearance of consensus through symbols and rituals. Social scientists prefer conceptual clarity, but diplomacy thrives amidst ambiguity. As long as people agree on “One China”, various actors hope to postpone disputes about “One China = PRC”, “One China = ROC”, or “One China, One Taiwan”. There is no pressing need for Canada to take a stand. Current practices permit bilateral agreements between Canada and Taipei, including a recently signed customs agreement, without endangering relations with Beijing. As long as these peaceful trends prevail, everyone benefits from playing along.

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