In a way, 30 years is not a long time, at least not in US-China policy. Despite the bureaucratic forces tugging and pushing at it, it retains an admirable consistency that is often misunderstood. The August 1982 Taiwan Communique is a textbook example of this.
In late May 1982, as the negotiations for the “Taiwan Arms Communique” were secretly under way, I was dispatched on routine consultations to Beijing and Taipei as the US Department of State’s Taiwan Coordination Staff economics officer. Now, I had no part in any of the communique negotiations. In fact, no one openly admitted such talks existed, although it was the subject of press speculation at the time. What I knew, I had read in the newspapers. However, the morning I departed on my trip, I called on China desk director Bill Rope to discuss consular issues related to China. Rope gave me a paper to take to our deputy chief of mission in Beijing, Chas Freeman.
It read: “It is not the long-term policy of the US to sell arms to Taiwan and the US will gradually diminish and ultimately cease arms sales to Taiwan.”
Nothing else, just one typed sentence on a sheet of white paper. It unsettled me because I had handled the Taiwan desk’s political-military oversight of US arms sales in the aftermath of the 1979 de-recognition of Taipei. I did not understand how it could be possible legally to “cease” arms sales to Taiwan under any circumstances.
There was little I could do about it. I delivered the note to Freeman in Beijing. However, the following week in Taipei, I conveyed my misgivings directly to American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) director Jim Lilley.
“Don’t worry about it,” he reassured me.
On June 14, 1982, a few days after I returned to Washington, the Washington Times newspaper carried a column by Ralph de Toledano headlined “State’s China Policy” which quoted the phrase “the US will gradually diminish and ultimately cease arms sales to Taiwan” in a tone of utmost disapproval. De Toledano asserted that then-US secretary of state Alexander Haig had been lying to then-US president Ronald Reagan about his talks with the Chinese and charged that Haig “has been taken over lock, stock and barrel by the Red China Lobby in the State Department and is using all his powers of persuasion to win over President Reagan.”
De Toledano’s column had some effect.
That very evening, Reagan wrote in his diary at Camp David: “The Al H. situation is coming to a head. I have to put an end to the turf battles we’re having & his almost paranoid attitude.”
On June 18, the president’s diary reads: “Barry Goldwater came to see me. He’s upset by rumors that I’m going to dump Taiwan. I convinced him there is no way I’ll ever do that.”
On the evening of June 23, according to the diary, Reagan met with Haig, who pronounced he was ready to resign “over policy.” What policy? Reagan fired Haig on June 25. His diary said Haig insisted “his differences were on policy and then said we didn’t agree on China or Russia.”
Reagan editorialized: “Actually, the only disagreement was over whether I made policy or the Secretary of State did.”
A year earlier, on June 16, 1981, the final day of Haig’s first trip to Beijing as secretary of state, Reagan declared to reporters that “the Taiwan Relations Act could be carried out as the law of the land.”
Haig recalled in his memoir, Caveat: “This statement puzzled me. The timing suggested that the President felt that, in carrying out his instructions, I had somehow got out in front of him on our China policy.”
Haig’s Chinese hosts were miffed and, as Haig boarded his aircraft, a Chinese vice minister drew him aside and “earnestly” asked “who makes American foreign policy? Why are there always such surprises?”
From then on, Haig apparently felt obliged to show Beijing that he, not the president, made policy. In October 1981, after Reagan’s cordial but non-eventful meeting with then-Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽) in Cancun, Mexico, then-Chinese foreign minister Huang Hua (黃華) delivered a separate ultimatum to Haig: The US must specify a period during which it intended to sell arms to Taiwan; undertake not to exceed the levels of the former US president Jimmy Carter years; and commit that sales would decrease year over year, and then cease. Or else.
At once, Haig mobilized the State Department to formulate an agreement to meet China’s demands in a decision memorandum for the president that would get the ball rolling.
At the time, Jim Lilley oversaw China policy for the Reagan National Security Council (NSC).
In an oral history 16 years later, Lilley explained that when he came on board at the Reagan White House in February 1981: “I was more concerned that the State Department had fallen into the hands of people who were too much ‘pro-PRC [People’s Republic of China],’ we saw our job [at the NSC] as holding the fort against an encroachment of the ‘pro-PRC’ group and, somehow, to carry out what Reagan wanted.”
As Haig’s paper on Huang’s October ultimatum was in hasty draft, Lilley recalled: “A good friend of mine, an FSO [Foreign Service Officer] at the State Department, called me up and said: ‘This memorandum is coming to the President, it’s bad news. See what you can do.’”
Lilley raced to get a copy of the document before it slid into Reagan’s inbox, but was too late. Haig had taken the memo directly to the president, bypassing the NSC. It said that the cessation of arms sales to Taiwan by a “date certain” was a “commitment made to the Chinese communists” by the Carter administration.
Lilley made a thorough search of the archives, but he “couldn’t find any record of such a commitment. We talked to former US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and we talked to anybody else who might have knowledge of this matter. Finally Carter himself was contacted, and he said: ‘I never made such a commitment. I can tell you that I wouldn’t have made it.’”
This was fortunate. Four months after the Dec.15, 1979, “normalization” with Beijing, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which mandated continued arms sales to Taiwan. Moreover, the TRA mandated the continuation of the US-Taiwan mutual defense treaty for a year beyond “normalization” and mandated the continuation in force of all US treaties with Taiwan — something no other nation recognizing Beijing had done or would do.
After Reagan fired Haig in 1982, Lilley remembered that, as the new director of the AIT: “I was brought back to Washington for consultations” and “was pushed very hard to see whether Taiwan would agree to a ‘cessation’ of arms sales.”
Upon returning to Taipei, he wrote a message to the Department of State saying “this is the wrong thing to do, both in terms of the security of Taiwan and the Taiwan Relations Act” and “we couldn’t do this.”
Meanwhile, according to Lilley, the president insisted that he would not terminate arms sales and said that “we’ll risk a ‘downgrading’ of relations with the PRC” if it came to that.
Chinese negotiators had hit a brick wall and rationally decided to take the money and run.
“They dropped all references to the termination of such arms sales to Taiwan,” Lilley said.
It was either that or no communique.
On July 14, 1982, while Beijing scratched its head on whether to continue with the communique, Reagan pressured the Chinese government.
He delivered “six assurances” to Taiwan: The US would not agree to “cease” arms sales; not mediate between Taipei and Beijing; not revise the TRA; not push Taipei to negotiate with Beijing; not consult with Beijing on arms sales to Taiwan; and — significantly — the US had not changed its “long-standing” position on the matter of “sovereignty over Taiwan.”
In his oral history, Lilley described Reagan as angry about Haig’s communique negotiations: He admonished NSC Asia director Gaston Sigur.
“Listen, this issue hit me at the last minute. I don’t like it. I want you to understand that my intention is that in the implementation of this communique, we will maintain a balance. If China becomes belligerent or builds up a power projection capability which brings insecurity or instability into the area, we will increase our arms sales to Taiwan, regardless of what the communique says,” he said.
The day the communique was published, Aug. 17, 1982, Reagan issued a short, four-paragraph confidential presidential directive, initialed by both his new secretary of state, George Shultz, and then-US secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger. It read: “As you know, I have agreed to the issuance of a joint communique with the People’s Republic of China in which we express US policy toward the matter of continuing arms sales to Taiwan.”
“The talks leading up to the signing of the communique were premised on the clear understanding that any reduction of such arms sales depends upon peace in the Taiwan Strait and the continuity of China’s declared ‘fundamental policy’ of seeking a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue,” he said.
“In short, the US’ willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of the Taiwan- PRC differences. It should be clearly understood that the linkage between these two matters is a permanent imperative of US foreign policy,” he said.
“In addition, it is essential that the quantity and quality of the arms provided to Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC. Both in quantitative and qualitative terms, Taiwan’s defense capability relative to that of the PRC will be maintained,” he said.
The next day, Aug. 18, assistant secretary of state John Holdridge personally appeared before a congressional committee to announce the approval sale of 250 new F-5E/F air force jets to Taiwan.
It has been 30 years since that last US-China “communique” and the US’ commitment to make “available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability” remains firm. I trust it will remain so 30 years from now.
John Tkacik is a retired US foreign service officer. He directs the “Future Asia Project” at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Virginia.
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