Does Australia have a ‘one China’, ‘two Chinas’ or ‘one China, one Taiwan’ policy—or all three? 
2 Aug 2021|

Most Australians would be wondering how we can have a ‘one-China policy’ when Defence Minister Peter Dutton has warned that war with China over Taiwan can’t be ruled out. ‘Why is it so?’, as Julius Sumner Miller would have said.

The one-China policy accepts that there’s only one sovereign state under the name China, as opposed to the notion that there are two: the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China. The simple reason for the one-China policy is that the PRC has always been more important strategically to the international community than the ROC.

By way of background, after the Sino-Soviet border conflicts of 1969, relations between China and the Soviet Union were marked by ongoing military and political tensions, and it suited both the West and China to seek rapprochement with an eye on the Soviet Union. At the time, China, like Taiwan, was poor and there was no obvious prospect of its becoming an economic powerhouse.

In 1971, the United Nations voted to recognise the PRC as the sole government of China. After that, the PRC refused to have diplomatic relations with countries that recognised the ROC.

This led to countries—mainly developing ones subsidised by China—recognising only China. Others, mainly developed countries (including Australia and its Five Eyes partners) recognise China but maintain ‘unofficial’ relations with Taiwan. A few nations that are subsidised by Taiwan recognise the ROC as China’s sole legitimate government.

The basis of Australia’s one-China policy is the 1972 communiqué issued by the Commonwealth of Australia and the PRC, which states:

The Australian Government recognises the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China, acknowledges the position of the Chinese Government that Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China, and has decided to remove its official representation from Taiwan before January 25, 1973.

Since we signed the 1972 communiqué, Taiwan’s progress from military dictatorship to democratisation has been impressive. So (like China’s) has been its economic development.

At present, 179 of the 193 UN member states recognise the PRC, while only 14 and the Holy See have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Most developed countries, like Australia, maintain unofficial diplomatic ties with Taiwan through representative offices and institutions that function as de facto embassies and consulates.

Australia’s representative office in Taiwan doesn’t have diplomatic status, and nor does Taiwan’s Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Australia.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website notes that:

The Australian Government strongly supports the development, on an unofficial basis, of economic and cultural relations with Taiwan including a range of two-way visits, state, territory and local government contacts, trade and investment opportunities and people to people links. Australia supports Taiwan’s participation in international organisations and conferences where appropriate.

In 2003, I ran a counterterrorism workshop for Taiwan’s National Security Bureau. The director-general wanted to establish a working relationship with the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation on issues of common interest. I broached the offer in Canberra, but at that time there was no Australian interest in a security intelligence relationship with Taiwan.

International organisations in which the PRC participates are pressured to either refuse to grant membership to Taiwan or allow it to participate only on a non-state basis. (For example, Taiwan competes at the Olympics as ‘Chinese Taipei’.)

As China expert Mark Harrison has noted: ‘The legacy of Confucianism is why Beijing is so acutely sensitive to the language that is used with respect to Taiwan. For Beijing, any vocabulary that implies that Taiwan is a nation-state … would ultimately undermine the historical legitimacy of the PRC party-state.’

Taiwan (by contrast with China) is now ranked highly in terms of political and civil liberties. It’s also rated highly for education, health care and human development. Taiwan’s export-oriented industrial economy is now the 21st largest in the world by nominal GDP, with major contributions from steel, machinery, electronics, and chemicals manufacturing. Components of major computer brands like HTC, Acer, Asus and MSI are manufactured in Taiwan.

In 2018 (the latest data available), Taiwan was Australia’s sixth-largest merchandise export market and 16th-largest source of merchandise imports. Australia’s exports to Taiwan in 2018 were worth $10.6 billion. Our major exports were coal, iron ore, natural gas and copper.

This is still miniscule compared to our trade with China. China is Australia’s largest two-way trading partner in goods and services, accounting for 29% of our international trade. Two-way trade reached $251 billion in 2019–20, and our exports to China grew by 9% to $168 billion.

Our one-China policy is effectively a ‘having our cake and eating it too’ policy.

How valid is China’s claim that Taiwan is a province of China? Geographically and historically, it seems fairly tenuous.

Taiwanese indigenous peoples settled the island around 6,000 years ago. It was annexed in 1683 by China’s Qing dynasty and there followed a large-scale Han Chinese immigration. For a time in the 17th century it was partly under Dutch rule. Japan took control in 1895.

In 1945, following Japan’s surrender, the Nationalist ROC took control of Taiwan and tried to do the same in mainland China. This led to the resumption of the civil war between Chinese Communist Party forces under Mao Zedong and Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek. By 1949, the Nationalist forces had been soundly defeated in mainland China and fled to Taiwan.

Since then, the Nationalist ROC in Taiwan has intermittently claimed to be the rightful government of China, while the PRC has claimed to be the rightful government of both China and Taiwan.

There is no prospect of Taiwanese indigenous people successfully laying claim to the island. More than 95% of its 23.4 million people are Han Chinese, while only 2.3% are indigenous.

Today, Taiwan’s main political divide is between parties favouring eventual reunification with China and those aspiring to an independent Republic of Taiwan. (But any prospect of reunification after China’s crushing of democracy in Hong Kong seems very remote.)

In any case, both political groupings are conscious of the danger of pushing their agendas too hard. Most voters are less concerned about Taiwan’s governance or politicians’ ambitions than the traditional Chinese values of maintaining family ties and family prosperity, both of which are best served by maintaining an amicable working relationship with China.

Meanwhile, Australia’s current position reflects a curious Confucian obfuscation between a foreign policy that recognises one China and a strategic policy that doesn’t.