Only One China?
The Shanghai Communiqué in the Age of Trump
Richard Nixon Presidential Library
March 28, 2017

Program Transcript  •  Video

Overview and Objectives

This report is based on the views expressed during a workshop on March 28, 2017 organized by the Richard Nixon Foundation as part of its mission to create and contribute to actionable information for use by policy makers across the globe.

Offered as a means to support ongoing discussion, the report does not constitute an analytical document, nor does it represent any formal position of the organizations involved.


Ambassador Karl Eikenberry is the Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow and Director of the U.S.-Asia Security Initiative at Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center, and a Stanford University Professor of Practice. He served as the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan from May 2009 until July 2011 and had a 35-year career in the United States Army, retiring with the rank of lieutenant general.

John Pomfret served as a correspondent for the Washington Post for many years, and was a Fulbright Senior Scholar living in Beijing. He is the author of the acclaimed book, “Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China,” and has won several awards for his coverage of Asia, including the Osborne Elliot Prize. He’s the author of the newly published book, “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present.” He was one of the first American students to go to China and study at Nanjing University, and attended Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies as a Fulbright Scholar.

Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy is a Distinguished Scholar and Founding Director Emeritus of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. During a career focused on East Asia and the Soviet Union, Roy’s ambassadorial assignments included Singapore, China, and Indonesia. His final post with the State Department was as Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Research.

Clayton Dube heads the USC U.S.-China Institute. It focuses on the multidimensional and evolving U.S.-China relationship and aims to inform public discussion on the importance and evolving nature of that relationship. A historian, Dube has earned teaching awards at three universities and has produced documentaries including Assignment: China about journalists reporting in China since the 1940s.

Issues Discussed

It has been 45 years since President and Mrs. Richard Nixon landed in the People’s Republic of China.

President Donald Trump recently affirmed the One China Policy – after some skepticism – which is a key element of the Shanghai Communiqué, the overarching framework of Sino-U.S. relations since 1972.

Considering contemporary circumstances, can Americans expect the basic elements of the Shanghai Communiqué – and President Nixon’s larger Chinese legacy – to live on in the Age of Trump?

Key Definitions of Importance

The Shanghai Communiqué is a reflection of the fact that the Chinese civil war never formally ended and there remain two governments – the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) – who claim to be the sole legal government of China.

A communiqué, more broadly, is a summary statement expressed after a meeting or series of meetings.

In the case of the Shanghai Communiqué, it is not an enforceable treaty or law. The U.S. Senate has never confirmed it, nor has the Chinese leadership submitted it to its governing legislative bodies.

It is a declaration of intent, rich with 45 years of historical impact. It remains the governing diplomatic relations between China and the United States.

In order to open relations with Beijing, the Nixon administration acknowledged that both sides said there was one China and claimed to represent it. The two sides of the Strait would have to reach a political solution directly and peacefully.

The two sides also agreed generally that normalization between China and the United States is in the interest of all countries, and that their relationship should be governed on the basis of non aggression, non interference, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. “International disputes should be settled on this basis, without resorting to the use of threat or force.”

China and the U.S. opposed “hegemony”, a phrase directed at the Soviet Union.

The leaders of both countries were also candid about their disagreements on political ideology, and support for their respective allies engaged in conflicts throughout the globe.

Though travel, cultural exchange, and trade are buried at the bottom of the document, they’ve become some of the most pivotal components in bilateral relations.

It is important to note that on an average day, 8,600 Chinese will visit the United States; there are about 380,000 students from China living and studying in America.

China has become second largest economy in the world and may overtake the U.S. in the near future. In addition, about 40% of world economic growth is fueled from China. Taiwan’s purchasing power parity is now number 15 in the world.

  • The Shanghai Communiqué remains a key element in stabilizing the East Asia region.
  • Despite early missteps and negative claims during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the initial steps of the Trump administration have been laying the basis for the possibility of a continuation of the complex relationship between the U.S. and China, in which cooperation is mixed with fundamental disagreements.
  • There remains great uncertainty in the Trump administration’s foreign policy, especially its China policy, because of the lack of serious foreign policy debate during the 2016 presidential election cycle.
  • There is going to be a steep learning curve in the Trump administration, which was already seen reflected in the administration’s approach to Sino-U.S. relations. However, much learning has already taken place since January 20.
  • One of the most significant detriments to Sino-U.S. relations — which has harmed American policy — is that there remain key positions in the Departments of State and Defense, as well as at the National Security Council, that are unfilled. As a result, the president lacks the benefit of the seasoned knowledge of those around him, and remains at a fundamental disadvantage until such positions are filled.
  • States act in their own national interests. In the case of China, it will support the enemy of its enemy. As a result, the United States cannot allow its relationship with China to deteriorate into one of mutual hostility.
  • The problem of “moral hazard” needs to be front of mind when considering how much the Trump administration should do to improve U.S. relations with Taiwan; in essence, moral hazard is when one actor promotes an activity by another actor in which, if the activity goes wrong, the first actor pays the price and the second actor remains minimally affected. Ultimately, the United States may hurt Taiwan’s place in the region instead of boosting any negotiating positions of its own.
  • Congress should not introduce bills that seek to significantly alter or amend the United States’ current relationship with Taiwan, lest it put Taiwan in a very dangerous situation. The Taiwan Relations Act — which authorizes commercial, cultural, and other unofficial relations between the people of the United States and the people of Taiwan — should not be abandoned.
  • The relationship with Taiwan based on security should be maintained, which includes billions of dollars in arms sales. But American leaders should note that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan will not deter aggression from China, if China feels compelled to use force against Taiwan. While Taiwan will spend $15 billion a year in arms sales, China will spend $150 billion.
  • A disruption across the Taiwan Strait would have disastrous global implications, especially for long term relationships between China, Taiwan and the United States.
  • After a period of stagnation as a result of decades of Maoism (orthodox communism), China is gradually returning to its normal role throughout history as the central power in Asia.
  • The importance of language and rhetoric coming from both the American and Chinese sides cannot be overstated. The Trump administration should monitor closely the nationalist rhetoric in China; at times of late, the rhetoric expressed from China is that the U.S. is attempting to deny China’s right to govern its own affairs.
  • Similarly, President Trump should be careful of the intensity of his own rhetoric in regard to unfair trade with China, and the weight that rhetoric carries.
    In endorsing the concept of a new power relationship between the U.S. and China, the the U.S. should not be only using language acceptable to both sides expressing such a power structure; the status quo involves both sides only using “Chinese language” of terms such as “mutual respect,” “lack of confrontation,” etc.
  • Symmetric knowledge and understanding of issues surrounding and having influence on the Sino-American relationship is paramount to negotiation, surmounting obstacles and differences.
  • It is important that President Trump and President Xi get to know each other personally; the panel recommends removing all advisers from the room and talking to one another as equals on a human level. This can only be productive, however, when the Trump administration settles on its China policy. Lack of preparation for meetings can be detrimental.
  • The current state of Sino-U.S. relations can be described as a “gray zone;” that is to say that China and the United States are neither enemies or allies.
  • The United States needs to recognize that its influence and impact can only do so much; both China and Taiwan are independent actors. Any outcome to the China-Taiwan dispute should be determined by the Chinese and Taiwanese together, themselves. Since 1972, there has been significant improvement in political and economic relations between the U.S. and China while Taiwan has become a vibrant economic democracy.
  • World leaders command respect on the “world stage” in terms of how successful that leader is in managing domestic affairs. At the present time, it is unclear whether the United States’ domestic circumstances will enhance its ability to exercise leadership as the world’s sole superpower.
  • History shows that conflict more than often arises when a rising country or expanding power deals with the established superpower. The panelists concluded that the United States and China should avoid falling into this “Thucydides Trap.” The Chinese position, which the panel agreed is sensible, is that the approaches of both sides should be identical, i.e. that neither side wants to get into conflict because of the dangerous consequences for both parties. Both sides need to agree to a strategy to avoid a great power conflict.

The Past As Instructive

The panelists’ comments on the role of President Nixon in developing and implementing a grand strategy to establish a new international framework built on peaceful relations with Beijing and stability in Asia, as well as a relaxation of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union, are instructive for today’s American leaders.

President Nixon took enormous political risks in order to shift the balance of power away from the Soviet Union and toward the United States. At the time of the China visit in 1972, China and the Soviet Union were close to war with each other. His administration’s central policy of triangulation put pressure on the Soviet Union by opening U.S. relations with China, ultimately benefitting the United States.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine that today’s existing international frameworks would have been developed without the central role of Richard Nixon in initiating this dramatic shift in geopolitics.

For these reasons, the panelists concluded that President Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972 was the definitive turning point in the Cold War.

President Nixon also encountered Chinese leadership who were essentially forced to make shifts in international strategies, due to economic challenges – agricultural depression – and its hostile geopolitical situation with the Soviet Union. The Chinese were looking to the United States — and still are – as a force to boost economic and agricultural production.

The panel concluded that, currently, the paradigm has shifted in the dynamic between China, Russia and the United States – away from a relationship of Sino-American cooperation to that of stronger ties between China and Russia, with the United States maintaining lukewarm relations with the former and strained relations with the latter.

However, evidence indicates that in the long term, the 1972 diplomatic breakthrough has positively shaped the way China responds to issues where, previously, the enmity between the U.S. and China had determined China’s approach to the international order.

The existing and future effects of the changes in this policy will be examined in a future Nixon Foundation workshop.