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How secret were Washington’s talks with China?

Taipei had advanced knowledge of then US-president Nixon’s secret China diplomacy as it progressed, long before the talks were made public

By Arthur Waldron

Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, left, meets with then-US president Richard Nixon in Beijing on Feb. 21, 1972.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

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.

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.

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