Diplomats and China watchers are familiar with the so-called “one China principle;” even “Uncle Roger,” a Malaysian-born comedian whose real name is Nigel Ng, knows what it means (and was banned in China for mocking it). The term is omnipresent – appearing at protests targeting political figures who dare to visit Taiwan, in Xi Jinping’s phone calls with world leaders, and in speeches at international events from which Taiwan is excluded.
And yet, only recently has the “one China principle” been touted by China as a “general consensus of the international community” (国际社会的普遍共识) and a “basic norm in international relations” (国际关系基本准则).
Chinese officials introduced the term “general consensus of the international community” at the 2007 World Health Assembly meeting that rejected Taiwan’s participation. The phrase was not officially translated into English until almost a decade later – by which point it had become a catchphrase in Chinese propaganda.
Chinese and English versions of the term “basic norm in international relations” were introduced at around the same time in 2016, the year President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progress Party was sworn into office. This term was introduced in the context of China-Taiwan issues, when Sao Tome and Principe established diplomatic relations with China, and has been frequently highlighted – including by former Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, one of China’s most prominent “wolf warrior” diplomats – since 2020 (see the chart below).
In 2019, during a celebration of the 30th anniversary of China-Micronesia diplomatic relations, Huang Zheng, the Chinese ambassador to Micronesia, went even farther. He stated that “the ‘one China principle’… is a holy international law (神圣国际法) and a basic norm in international relations binding all states.” This claim may have inadvertently unveiled the strategic intention behind this linguistic game.
Reframing the “one China principle” as the “general consensus of the international community” and a “basic norm in international relations” is part of a deliberate effort to sow confusion and bolster Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan. In essence, the phrase recasts cross-strait relations as domestic affairs, and seeks to preemptively delegitimize the international community’s intervention in any potential armed conflict. The strategy is not new; China has previously been accused of rewriting international law to advance its claims to sovereignty over territories in the South China Sea. Now, as China prepares to invade Taiwan, it is sparing no effort to find or fabricate a legal basis for the invasion and against foreign intervention.
As will be shown below, the “one China principle” does not qualify as a general principle of law, as is evidenced by how governments and courts around the globe address Taiwan’s status. The deception behind that claim aligns with Beijing’s recent lawfare campaign against Taiwan in that it is an effort to reframe the relationship as an internal affair and thereby preempt international intervention.
Definition of the “General Principles of Law” and China’s Twist
To debunk China’s rhetoric, it is necessary to review the definition of “general principles of law recognized by civilized nations.” The term derives from Article 38(1) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), adopted in 1945, which provides sources that ICJ judges shall apply when adjudicating disputes. These sources include treaties and international customs/customary international law. At the time, some worried the inclusion of this clause would endow the ICJ with legislative power to create new rules, while others believed it could grant the court greater flexibility in choosing applicable laws and rules.
Given the ambiguity of the clause, there is no consensus over the definition of the “general principles of law recognized by civilized nations.” Malcolm Shaw defines the general principles as “a rule that will be relevant, by analogy from already existing rules or directly from the general principles that guide the legal system,” while other scholars highlight characteristics such as “generality across common-law and civil-law traditions.” In practice, the ICJ referred to the general principles of law in the Lotus case as “international law as it is applied between all nations belonging to the community of States.”
Widely recognized general principles of law include the principles of reciprocity, equality of states, finality of awards and settlements, legal validity of agreements, good faith, etc. These definitions and examples underscore the high level of abstraction of the general principles, and why they can be applied in solving international disputes in various contexts.
China’s “one China principle” falls short of all these criteria. Although Beijing asserts that it is quite “clear and unambiguous” (there is but one China in the world, Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China), one readily sees that the “one China principle” is anything but a “general principle of law.” It is incapable of guiding the legal system to resolve disputes outside the context of cross-strait affairs – and obviously fails there, as well.
In short, although China promotes its “one China principle” as a “universal consensus” and characterizes it as a “basic norm,” it fundamentally differs from the “general principle of law” as defined in the ICJ Statute. China’s word game, albeit strategically crafted, does not transform its particular foreign policy into a general principle of law.
Now, if the “one China principle” is not one of the “general principles of law,” does it qualify as a principle or rule that binds or guides states and domestic courts when dealing with Taiwan-related issues? The evidence suggests not.
“One China Principle” in Practice
On the surface, the “one China principle” seems to be widely accepted by governments around the globe. Indeed, Beijing asserts that around 180 countries have established diplomatic relations with China on the basis of adhering to its “one China principle.” However, this has been shown to be an exaggeration.
A report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace pointed out that only 51 countries adopt China’s exact stance on “one China.” According to the report, although the rest recognize the PRC as the only legitimate representative of China, their positions on the Taiwan issue vary: 68 countries chose not to take a stance about Taiwan’s sovereignty, while others use different expressions to convey their attitudes toward China’s sovereign claim over Taiwan, such as “acknowledge,” “take note of,” “understand,” and “respect.”
The diverse responses to China’s claim indicate how governments operationalize their positions on the “one China” narrative, proving that the so-called “one China principle” falls far short of a “universal consensus,” let alone constituting a principle, rule, or a “basic norm.” Importantly, even though in those cases where states employ such wordings as “acknowledge,” “take note of,” “understand,” and “respect,” what they acknowledge, take note of, understand, and respect is simply China’s assertion rather than a fact or norm.
Evidence from judicial branches also shows that such a “principle” is hardly accepted or referred to by judges in lawsuits regarding the statehood of Taiwan. Courts in Canada, Switzerland, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, to name but a few, have made decisions that recognize the statehood or government of Taiwan, while pointing out that diplomatic recognition is not the decisive factor when examining statehood, and that “[the] commitment to respect one another’s territorial integrity does not necessarily entail acceptance of one another’s territorial claims.”
Certainly, further analysis is needed to have a whole picture of foreign judges’ views on the topic, but the above decisions are sufficient to demonstrate that the “one China principle” is anything but a “principle” or rule widely applied in domestic legal processes, let alone in the international arena.
Breakdown of a So-called Principle and Proposal for Much-needed Countermeasures
While Beijing insists that its “one China principle” is widely accepted, evidence shows otherwise: It is neither a principle that can be referred to by judges in international or domestic courts, nor one that can be followed unconditionally by states other than China. No wonder so many countries have chosen to formulate alternative “one China” policies (as U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan highlighted, “This is not a model of clarity.”).
As China seeks to distort global norms and redefine terminology to advance its interests, more concerted moves are expected in the future. Fabricating the “one China principle” as a “general principle of law” to confuse the international community and imply widespread acceptance of Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan is but one example. The world should not ignore such moves because the goal is to craft misleading narratives, strengthen the perceived legitimacy of false claims, and escalate the waging of lawfare against Taiwan to preempt and delegitimize international intervention should China resort to armed conflict across the Taiwan Strait.
Taiwan and like-minded democracies should make every effort to scrutinize and correct China’s word games in a timely manner. The international community should spell out, loudly and clearly, that peace and security across the Taiwan Strait are of global importance, and major countries should make clear that their “one China policies” are by no means the equivalent of China’s.
As China continues to distort and deliberately misinterpret UNGA Resolution 2758, and groundlessly seek legal basis for its asserted “one China principle” therein, the international community should communicate clearly that this decision does not touch upon the territorial sovereignty of Taiwan. The U.S. Congress’ Taiwan International Solidarity Act is a good example to counteract China’s propaganda while sending an important message that malicious distortion of UNGA resolutions will not go unnoticed and may bring consequences from other U.N. members.
The rest of the world must also mobilize and act against China’s distortions of international law, UNGA resolutions, etc. If China’s linguistic provocations go unchecked, the world risks relearning hard lessons of which George Orwell wrote in “1984”: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” We need be very careful following where China and “Xi Jinping Thought” would lead.