The US and China continued a bitter dispute over arms sales to Taiwan right up to the final minutes before Washington and Beijing announced on Dec. 15, 1978, that they had agreed to establish diplomatic relations.
Secret details of that extraordinary day and its immediate aftermath have been released for the first time by the US Department of State.
A total of 1,200 pages of diplomatic memos, reports and letters were declassified and released by the US Office of the Historian in a volume titled Foreign Relations of the United States, 1977-1980, China.
The shift by the administration of former US president Jimmy Carter in formal diplomatic relations between the US and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the ending of formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan is the primary focus of the volume.
“This shift in formal recognition played out against a background of renewed fighting in Indochina, deterioration in US-Soviet relations, and political and economic changes in China associated with Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) consolidation of power,” the US Department of State said.
In a secret message to then-US secretary of state Cyrus Vance, chief of the liaison office in China, Leonard Woodcock, reported that he had held a one-hour meeting with then Chinese vice premier Deng at 4pm on Dec. 15 focused on the arms sales issue.
He said there were “serious differences,” but that Deng was prepared to proceed with the normalization schedule as planned.
“When I confirmed our intention to continue selling arms to Taiwan after 1979, Deng states emphatically that he could not agree,” Woodcock said.
Noting that the US no longer had significant numbers of troops in Taiwan, Deng said that continued arms sales would amount to retaining the essence of the Defense Treaty, that such sales would block efforts to find a rational means of settling the Taiwan issue peacefully and that force would be left as the last resort.
“I stressed that our statements on arms sales would take into account Chinese sensitivities, that over time, public moods in the US would change and make this question easier to handle, and that we had no intention of opposing peaceful settlement,” Woodcock said. “The only hint of forbearance in Teng’s [sic] remarks was linked to the degree that we could preserve public ambiguity on this issue. In short, Teng [sic] will not give us a free ride. I continue to believe we should move ahead.”
Soon after receiving this message, Vance sent a cable to Leonard Unger, the last US ambassador to the Republic of China.
He ordered him to arrange an “immediate and urgent” meeting with then-president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國).
Unger was instructed to tell Chiang that at 9pm EST on Dec. 15, 1978, (10am on Dec. 16, Taipei time) Carter would announce the formal diplomatic recognition of China and acknowledge that “there is but one China and Taiwan is part of it.”
Although diplomatic relations with Taiwan would cease on Jan. 1, 1979, Carter wanted to assure Chiang “there need be no interruption in practical relations between our people.”
However, the all-important Defense Treaty would be terminated in one year.
Unger was to tell Chiang that after a one-year transition period, Taiwan would be able to resume purchase of “carefully selected defensive weapons” in the US.
The ambassador was instructed to say: “You have our solemn assurance that the US is not abandoning its interest in the peace and security of the region or its concern for the well being of the people on Taiwan.”
Soon after, Unger wrote back to Vance confirming that he had met with Chiang at 2:20am.
Chiang, who had been raised from bed, had scurried to have then-vice minister for foreign affairs Fredrick Chien (錢復) and his private secretary, James Soong (宋楚瑜), also present.
Unger read Carter’s message.
“President Chiang took my presentation very badly and predicted the gravest consequences,” Unger reported back to Vance.
Chiang said it was “totally impossible” that the US “solution” would lead to internal stability and continuing development in Taiwan.
In effect, Chiang said, the US was turning Taiwan over to the PRC and that the US decision was “dishonest” and that the US would lose the confidence of the people of the Republic of China and of other countries around the world.
Chiang complained that he was being given only seven hours notice and no opportunity for discussion.
Unger ended his message to Vance by saying there was probably no way to deter Chiang “from a sharply negative reaction.”
“He did not have the opportunity I have always strongly advocated to adjust his own thinking, line up his leadership to take the shock constructively and confirm that he can still manage the US relationship,” Unger said.
A few days later, after the formal recognition of China had been made, the Carter administration sent US National Security Council staff member Michel Oksenberg to see former US president Richard Nixon at his office in San Clemente, California.
“Taiwan will survive,” Nixon said. “There is no problem there. Terminating the Defense Treaty had to occur. Taiwan can defend itself.”
However, Nixon stressed it was an emotional issue.
“A lot of people feel very close to Taiwan and have had extensive relations with them,” Nixon said.
He said the biggest concern was how the US would retain its credibility after terminating the treaty.
“To terminate a defense treaty could sow seeds of doubt about us, particularly in Asia,” Nixon said.
“Nixon is very impressive,” Oksenberg said. “He is not the cold, aloof man portrayed in the papers. He is impressively knowledgeable, nuanced — an old pro.”
After the meeting with Oksenberg, Nixon wrote a long letter to Carter in which he said that he had three major concerns.
First, the adequacy of the guarantees against the use of force to resolve the Taiwan issue.
Second, the credibility of US commitments to other allies and friends in view of the termination of the Taiwan Treaty.
And third, the effect on Carter’s ability as president to enlist public support for other foreign policy initiatives in the future.
“No political realist can ignore the fact that the 17 million people on Taiwan, who have prospered greatly under a non-communist government, have an almost fanatical core of support in the nation and in Congress,” Nixon said.
“I believe that it is essential that you and your representatives give additional reassurances firmly and unequivocally,” the former president said.
He said that any use of force against Taiwan would “irreparably jeopardize” US relations with China.
“There are those who contend that the pro-Taiwan forces are stupid, short-sighted and reckless,” Nixon said.
“Assuming for the sake of argument this to be true, they are a fact of American political life and they are effective,” he said. “Unless their opposition is mitigated, you will probably still win the battle, but you may lose the war because the fall-out on future foreign and defense policy battles you will have to fight will make the Panama Canal controversy look like a Sunday school picnic in comparison.”