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.”