When the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed by Mao Zedung on 1 October 1949, the new Chinese leadership was very clear on one aspect. Speaking to the then Soviet Ambassador Roschin, on 1 January 1950, Mao clarified that any state that was sincere in establishing diplomatic relations must first ‘completely break all [emphasis added] ties with Jiang Jieshi [Chiang Kaishek] unconditionally, refuse any kind of support and assistance to this regime making it an official declaration. It was only under those conditions that a state could send a delegation for negotiations for establishing diplomatic relations. Mao made no distinction for any state and India too had to follow Mao’s dictum.
As far as recognition of the new Chinese regime was concerned, it was the Attlee government in London that took the lead. On 22 October 1949, Sir Esler Dening submitted a note to PM Attlee that the recognition of the new Communist government of China ‘cannot be said to be contrary to the principles and practices of international law’. On 27 October 1949 the British Cabinet approved the note and Attlee sent it to all Commonwealth governments, including India, for consideration. The British government note did not seek any assurance from the new Chinese government on whether it intended to honor all previous international obligations made by previous governments of China. The British explained away this aberration by saying that ‘the disadvantages of non- recognition were so great so as to outweigh any possible advantages to be obtained from securing Chinese assurances…’. On 18 December 1949, Attlee conveyed to Nehru that the British government intended to recognize the new Chinese government on 2 January 1950. Nehru whose personal inclinations were wholly in tune with British thinking, readily agreed; but insisted that India would recognize the new People’s Republic on 1 January 1950. Nothing was asked for in return.
But the Chinese were not finished just yet. They clarified that while recognition was one aspect, establishing diplomatic relations was quite another. Thus India was asked to send a delegation to Beijing to negotiate setting up diplomatic relations, as were the British. The Chinese made two demands. First, India must clarify what it intended to do with KMT Chinese properties in India and secondly it must ‘explain’ its voting patterns in the UN. For once even Nehru baulked at these untenable ‘demands’ and declined. Realizing their folly rather quickly and the felt need to keep Nehru on their side, as they were about to ‘invade’ Tibet, the Chinese quickly changed track and agreed to establish diplomatic relations with India on 15 March 1950. The British were kept waiting for years!
Let us now fast forward to 1972. When Nixon visited China, the Chinese insisted on one core demand. The US must recognize that Taiwan was a part of China. As per the 1979 US-PRC Joint Communique, the US switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. In the Joint Communique, the US recognized the Government of the People's Republic of China as the sole legal government of China [emphasis added], acknowledging the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China. This principle is enshrined in the two subsequent joint communiques that followed. The Joint Communique also stated that the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan. So when President Trump raised the specter of not following the ‘one China’ principle, it caused considerable consternation within the Chinese leadership. Of course, since then suitable amends have been made by the US and the ‘one China’ principle reiterated in a phone conversation between President Trump and President Xi Jinping. It must have come as a great relief to the Chinese leadership.
However international law is sufficiently opaque on the subject and if a state wishes to exploit the loop holes; these are available. International law makes a clear distinction between the recognition of a state, as opposed to the recognition of a government. For example, India recognized the state of Israel ever since its inception, but did not recognize or establish diplomatic relations with the government of Israel till many years later. The fact remains that hardly any state disputes that Taiwan is indeed Chinese Territory. The Taiwan authorities say so themselves. But the indisputable fact is that the People’s Republic does not exercise administrative control over the whole of Chinese Territory, but only does so on the mainland and over some island territories. Taiwan remains outside its administrative control. China is the only P-5 state that does not exercise full administrative control over its entire territory [emphasis added]. Therefore the question that remains is: what should the nature of relations be that outside powers can establish with the authorities exercising administrative control in the area of Taiwan?
It goes without saying that establishing full diplomatic relations is ruled out, since few states recognize the Taiwan authorities as the legitimate government of China. Few states would also like to risk bearing the wrath of China and its military and economic clout. Nevertheless, day to day dealings have to take place with the Taiwan authorities. The 1979 US-PRC Joint Communique also states that the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan. The American Institute in Taiwan [AIT] and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office [TECRO] does just that. Similarly India maintains representation in Taiwan under the India-Taipei Association [ITA], as does Japan and 72 other states. The Chinese authorities have had no objection to the participation of Taiwanese in the Olympics and other international events as Chinese [Taipei]. Short of official diplomatic functions at government to government level, these offices perform all other duties such as issuing visas, promoting trade etc. What if the US and all other states together, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, were to change these innocuous names of their offices and start calling them as “Representative Office of the United States” or “The Representative Office of India” and so on? The Chinese would be certainly miffed, but it would reflect reality and would not in any case contravene any international law.
Last year the Chinese President Xi Jinping took the unprecedented step of meeting the former Taiwanese President, who was then still in office, in Singapore. Both met as party leaders with no mention by either side of their official designations. Therefore it follows that other state leaders could also possibly meet the Taiwanese President as party leaders, in third countries, without risking any possible Chinese reproach. It has not been tried so far by any other state leader, but the precedent is there. Should such a meeting take place, it would severely test Chinese resolve, but it would begin to give the Taiwanese an international personality.
It must however be emphasized that playing the Taiwan card would certainly invite Chinese ire, which could prove quite costly, since China is a great power and has the capacity to inflict considerable damage. It is a 'core' issue for the Chinese. But if the Chinese continue to push their agenda aggressively, particularly in the South China Sea [SCS] area, they should also be made aware that other states in the region, and particularly in conjunction with the US, are not completely bereft of options. The Taiwanese card is always there.