Everything we thought we knew about US-Taiwan-China relations has been thrown into doubt by some remarkable findings by two scholars, Jay Taylor author and former diplomat, associated with Harvard, and myself. Decades will be required to digest the meanings and implications but here are the facts.
My recent discussions with the Chinese confirm previous strong indications that Chinese leaders, probably beginning in 1969, kept Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) informed of the diplomacy going on between Beijing and Washington, using primarily a Hong Kong channel. Then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) was no doubt the key figure on the Chinese side of this exchange, almost certainly with Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) approval.
The previous indications of this secret communication are contained in the 2009 biography of Chiang by Taylor, who cites comments by Zhou in July and October 1971 as well as entries in Chiang’s diary indicating that early on the two Chinese sides began to keep in touch. Recent confirmations come from sources in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) having precise knowledge of these events. I have the fullest confidence in my sources.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
At times the Americans had a disconcerting sense that somehow Taiwan’s officials had long known more than they should have. Of talks in 1969, Taylor writes: “Even at this stage the Chiangs seemed to know more than some senior US officials about what was going on behind the scenes.”
The task of determining how this explosive discovery fits into the larger and complex history of the time is for others. It should be noted, however, that the degree of fit between what two entirely distinct sets of informants, working with two different scholars initially not acquainted at all, and relying on two distinct source bases, one in Taiwan the other in China, renders it almost certain that the information conveyed is accurate.
Then-US national security advisor Henry Kissinger’s expectation was that the world would be caught entirely unprepared by the announcement of then US-president Richard Nixon’s trip to Beijing. After all even the US secretary of state did not know. He also constantly assured the Chinese that Taiwan would soon be theirs. Kissinger was completely confident in his plan.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Thus, as early as 1971, after his first trip to Beijing in 1971, Kissinger had prophesied an Old Testament-style apocalypse: “The breakthrough [with China] sprung on an unsuspecting international community” would “send enormous shockwaves around the world;’” “‘panic the Soviet Union ‘into strong hostility,’ shake Japan loose from its heavily US moorings, [and] ‘arouse a violent uprising in Taiwan.’”
Kissinger did not understand that such developments would be most unwelcome to China and that spelled the end of American hopes, ended by Zhou, with subtlety, aware that Kissinger trusted him implicitly.
What kind of disaster might have come had Kissinger been followed is clear when considers the official positions of the rival Chinese governments. One reason China cooperated with Taiwan is that both regimes at that time supported absolutely the idea that China was indivisible.
Here what might be called the American “shock and awe” approach posed a real risk.
In 1947 a “violent uprising “ had indeed taken place in Taiwan, protesting the cruelty of the newly arrived Chinese Nationalists troops. These troops were forced to take refuge in a few strong-points while their commander engaged in sham negotiations with the Taiwanese, who were running the island. Only when fresh troops arrived from China, machine guns firing as they debarked at the island’s ports, was this put down, at the cost of perhaps 30,000 lives.
Suppose that as Kissinger expected, US de-recognition had precipitated an uprising in Taiwan; suppose this had led to the overthrow of the Republic of China (ROC) government, and the establishment of a “Provisional Government of the Republic of Taiwan” with general elections set. What then would have been the alternatives?
No more Chinese troops could be summoned. Furthermore It is difficult to imagine that then-president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), far more liberal than his father by inclination, would have ordered his overwhelmingly Taiwanese army and police to start shooting their fellow citizens, or that they would have obeyed.
In Taiwan, most likely, Chiang Ching-kuo would have moved to restore order by concessions that began to to liberalize the regime while gutting the idea that Taiwan belonged to China. He might have succeeded.
Would the US have then said to China: “We didn’t expect this. Go ahead and invade” — which would have been a violation of every assurance we had made about peaceful means only; militarily risky for China;not to mention unpopular at home and destructive of Washington’s reputation abroad.
Or would we have been forced to say: “Clearly the people of Taiwan have spoken. We have no choice but to recognize this new popular government.” Particularly if Chiang Ching-kuo were part of it. (The idea of the US suppressing the uprising is, I think, inconceivable).
The result would then have been clearly an independent Taiwan. One doubts that the Americans knew enough about Taiwan and dissent there even to have considered such a possibility. How many had read diplomat and eyewitness George Kerr’s 1965 classic Formosa Betrayed — not on the list of books consulted that Kissinger provides in The White House Years or were even aware of the powerful dissent and repression in the island?
Kissinger has never in his life been to Taiwan. One can say, I think, that he made a point of knowing little and dismissing the island which he considered at its end. Ironically by so doing he prepared himself well for Zhou’s deception.
At this time, US universities did not teach any real history of Taiwan. Everything was focused on the rise of the communist party. Taiwan was a place you went to learn Chinese before China opened, no more.
The Chinese, whose rule everywhere rests on blood and iron, understood better. Therefore, they may have reflected better to cooperate with Taiwan to avoid precisely the shock that the US sought.
Even so, the US and China did not share a completely common set of views of the future either. Mao’s expectations were very much opposite to those of the Americans: In 1972 he told Kissinger that, “[I]f you were to send it [Taiwan] back to me now, I would not want it, because it’s not wantable. There are a huge bunch of counter-revolutionaries there. A hundred years hence we will want it [gesturing with his hand] and we are going to fight for it.”
To which Kissinger responded: “Not a hundred years.”
Mao agreed: “[Gesturing with his hand, counting] It’s hard to say. Five years, ten, twenty, a hundred years. It’s hard to say. [Points toward the ceiling] And when I go to heaven to see God, I’ll tell him it’s better to have Taiwan under the care of the United States now.”
Taken literally Mao’s statement suggests Taiwan has at most another 18 years, with military conquest coming in 2034. Mao’s was an ambivalent attitude.
Other Chinese clearly understood that the Kissinger demarche was their big chance in effect to have Washington deliver Taiwan to them. Thus, in the previous year’s talks Zhou had stated with some firmness that the running down of relations with Taiwan should take place over a period of one and a half years, while Taiwan should be fully discarded and China fully recognized by the US bicentennial in 1976. The US would cease to say that Taiwan’s status was undecided and recognize her as part of China. Furthermore, Washington would not support the then underground Taiwan independence movement. The US-Taiwan relationship was to be completely liquidated. All of Indochina was to become communist. US forces were to be withdrawn from South Korea.
As for Japan, Zhou worried they might replace the US in Taiwan — 108 m apart at their closest point. He insisted that “After twenty-five years it is no longer possible for you to exercise a position of hegemony. Japan has now become strengthened, and if you will now withdraw all foreign troops from the Far East it’s your intention to strengthen Japan so it can serve as your vanguard to control Asian countries. When we blame you for this you say it is not the case.”
Kissinger demurred, sharing Zhou’s concerns but arguing that the alliance with Washington, and our “totally insignificant” troop presence there, moderated Japanese military development.
Earlier Zhou had expressed a clear Chinese sense that the whole mission was not fully understood by his side: China feared “collusion” against her. It is not clear that Kissinger grasped the full import of that comment.
The US security adviser also spoke of “permanent relationship” between China and Washington. Kissinger concluded with the revealing comment that “We believe a strong China is not expansionist because this is your tradition.”
Zhou pressed his wish list, which would have led to a significant US exodus from Asia probably because he understood that he was unlikely ever to encounter so cooperative an interlocutor. In the end only a few of his demands carried.
As for Mao, the next night, he was very much himself, but perhaps signaling is that he has no concrete idea of how Taiwan is to be brought under control even after the US had broken all ties (Zhou likewise had no formula. Not until 10 years later was “one country, two systems propose — and rejected). But though vague about timing, Mao nevertheless insisted that Taiwan would be brought to heel — militarily, when the time was right.
The Americans by contrast seem to expect a rather rapid collapse and merger, owed above all to the shock to what they consider a client state at abandonment by her patron; also to that they consider all involved to be “Chinese” which means merger is natural.
This kindergarten-level of ethnic stereotyping is captured by an US commentator who, remarking on a discussion that stressed the similarity of populations on the two sides of the Taiwan paraphrased sarcastically: “You guys all look the same. So what’s your problem?”
Above all, it never crossed American minds that a democratic movement might arise and prevail in Taiwan.
Kissinger clearly underestimated the sophistication of a country where he has never set foot to this day. In Kissinger’s time such collapse in Taiwan did appear remotely possible now it is extremely unlikely.
Fear of such disorder and a consequent exit of Taiwan from China was what drove the two sides together. The US scenario was dangerous. Far better for the US in effect to deliver Taiwan by cutting ties gradually and systematically while in fact giving the island as they thought no choice.
Furthermore, as both Chinese sides were clearly aware, the US, since former US-president Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, had sought to engineer a “two-China” solution to the issue of Taiwan, or even independence for Taiwan. Both Chinese sides were implacably opposed to this. Therefore in dealing with the Americans, Beijing had to make clear that for diplomatic relations to be established, Washington would have no choice but to break diplomatic relations with Taipei entirely and end to military connections. That was non-negotiable. Keeping solidarity with respect to Chinese unity was almost certainly Beijing’s highest priority — and also Taipei’s.
Nor did Beijing have any reason to trust an unknown US professor in his late forties who had abruptly flown in from Islamabad, almost self-invited, who spoke not a word of Chinese, and who referred to their country, on meeting Zhou Enlai, as “mysterious” — an insult that any professional diplomat would have avoided.
Far better to deal with Chiang, who had been Zhou’s boss in the 1920s. They were divided politically, but trusted they understood one another. America was an enigma and so were Americans and their purposes.
Most importantly the Chinese wanted a smooth transition that appeared favorably to the world and to their own people. Many had been opposed to the decision to open to the US, feeling that patching up with the Soviets was a better idea: they were heretics, admittedly, but also communists, and they were well known to the Chinese. The Kissinger scenario threatened to destabilize Chinese politics as well the carefully orchestrated diplomatic minuet. The Red Army had moved to China’s borders. They could have overthrown the regime with ease one suspects.
Furthermore Nixon was distrusted. The Chinese feared he might somehow pull a two-China rabbit out of the hat, just as the eyes of the world were focused on the unfolding Asian drama. We see here the kind of meticulous attention to detail and fear of the unexpected — as well as deep suspicion of foreign motives — that also characterized the return of Hong Kong in 1997.
In addition, the hope was also then strong in Beijing that as their leader aged — Chiang Kai-shek would die April 5, 1975 at the age of 87 — he or his increasingly demoralized followers in the ROC government, as they saw it, might be receptive to a renewal of cooperation and friendship, or even unification, provided the terms were jointly arrived at rather than imposed without warning. Beijing also understood that revealing American duplicity to Chiang might make him more receptive to them.
They were absolutely correct. Kissinger and Nixon seem to have assumed that Chiang Kai-shek was in his dotage, totally trusting Washington after all the false American promises. In fact, Chiang was enraged by American behavior. He was appalled by the utter lack of candor shown by the Americans; by their many lies, false reassurances, etc. Chiang Kai-shek was so enraged by the complacent condescension, bad manners and airs, of the Americans that he came to refer to the erstwhile anti-communist Nixon as “the Clown” in his diary.
Thanks to the Zhou-Chiang communications, one more fact was established. Chiang Kai-shek understood that a diplomatic break was unavoidable. This time the Americans were determined. Protest on his part would be useless. So in his meetings with Americans, he maintained a calm demeanor. His diplomats did the same. This puzzled some Americans.
Chiang Kai-shek was unwilling, however, to abandon the thriving Western-oriented state he had created on Taiwan and join Communist-ruled China. So he set limited but realistic goals: his administration must maintain stability and international confidence, even while going its own way as part of a single China. His son followed, declining to respond to a letter from his old acquaintance and united front expert Liao Chengzhi (廖承志), proposing talks. Chiang Kai-shek had his own ideas — not least liberation and development separately from China. In this he and his successors have been very successful.
Of course all this information casts a new light on everything. On the day he was due to leave for his first trip to China, Kissinger encountered the ROC ambassador. In a moving passage in The White House Years he recalls how painful it was to lie to the dutiful envoy of a loyal ally. But he was wrong. Ambassador James C.H. Shen (沈劍虹) was highly educated but also a Shanghai street kid — like a New Yorker. Kissinger imagined he was concealing his plans from from Shen. In fact, as Chiang Kai-shek’s man in Washington Shen knew exactly what was going on, so he had to keep the placid and credulous face as Kissinger spun lie after lie.
As so often, the Americans had totally underestimated the Chinese.
Asked about the fact that their top secret enterprise had been thus compromised by the Chinese, one of the surviving members of the US group that went to China with Kissinger in July 1971 was astonished and almost incredulous. Another of that group considered the report quite possible, noting how the fact resolved certain puzzles.
Kissinger has not yet responded to two enquiries and some telephone calls from associates. He was described by colleagues as never having considered the possibility that his absolutely secret initiative had been revealed.
Today of course contrary to all expectations of the time Taiwan is a constitutional democracy, utterly free, having a per capita GDP higher than Britain. The 1970s enterprise bought perhaps 30 years of somewhat rocky relations with the US — an achievement. Having no US embassy in Beijing is unthinkable. But how we got there? That story will now require complete rewriting.
Arthur Waldron is the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the University of Pennsylvania’s history department. He is also vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington.
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