I don’t want to suggest that there currently are any secret undertakings between the Biden Administration and Xi Jinping’s (習近平) regime. I would only caution that secret understandings and clandestine assurances are anathema to America’s principles of diplomacy. President Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” demanded “open covenants, openly arrived at, that proceed always frankly and in the public view.” If American diplomacy is to have legitimacy and bind future presidents and administrations, it cannot tolerate secret assurances given by one president to a foreign leader, while telling the exact opposite to future presidents and to the American people. President Richard Nixon told Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) that, in his second term, he would withdraw US military forces from Taiwan and break relations with Taipei. But he did not tell his “personal envoy,” Ronald Reagan, of his plans. This was a bad move. In August 1971, Nixon recruited California governor Reagan as his personal emissary, briefed him and gave him talking points for a mission to Taipei to take place on October 10-11, 1971.
At the time, Reagan was the second most influential Republican politician in America. A staunch conservative, Reagan had been Richard Nixon’s main Republican rival in the 1968 presidential campaign, and it was expected that Reagan would be a future Republican nominee. Nixon knew well that his conservative supporters — Reagan included — despised communist China with a passion surpassed only by their phobia of the Soviet Union. Importantly, according to Reagan biographer James Mann, “Reagan’s mission [to Taipei] helped Nixon protect his political flanks at home by demonstrating that America’s most prominent conservative politician was working alongside Nixon and would not oppose his new opening to China.” But breaking diplomatic relations with Taiwan was not something Ronald Reagan had ever signed up for, and his supporters in the Republican Party were absolutely clear on this. Reagan’s support for Nixon’s China policy was geostrategic. It was informed by a single intelligence briefing from the National Security Council in August 1971 that China was tying down “140 Soviet divisions” that would otherwise be deployed against Europe.
Notwithstanding China’s strategic importance in tying down “140” Soviet divisions, Reagan support for Nixon’s 1971 opening to China was conditional. Reagan told fellow conservatives in August 1971 that Nixon “has been blunt in his declarations that we will not under any circumstances desert an old friend and ally ... give anything away, or betray our honor. If I am wrong and that should be the result — time then for indignation and righteous anger.”
At Nixon’s request, Reagan flew to Taipei where he was to explain Nixon’s China initiative to a suspicious Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石). At 10am on October 11, Governor Reagan (accompanied by the American ambassador) met President Chiang and “affirmed on behalf of the President our defense commitment to, and continued interest in, the ROC.”
A few days after the Reagan mission, President Nixon could be heard telling Henry Kissinger on the secret White House tape recording system (conversation 289-018, minute 00:45:10): “The only thing, I think, is: we have to remember, everything always comes out! I don’t think we can have a secret deal if we sold out Taiwan, you understand?” Kissinger tried to change the subject, but Nixon impressed on him that the US would retain forces on Taiwan until such time as there was a “peaceful resolution.” Shortly after this conversation, Kissinger travelled out to Peking a second time to negotiate wording for the now-historic “Shanghai Communique.” Kissinger’s concessions to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai would have shocked Reagan — if he had known about them.
A month later, on November 17, Reagan called upon President Nixon in the Oval Office to report in-person on his Taipei sojourn. The governor explained to Nixon “the situation in Taiwan was understandably unsettled as a result of the China initiative but that in the final analysis he [Reagan] felt the people of Taiwan understood the reasons for the President’s trip to Peking.” The Nixon Tapes (conversation 620-12; minute 4:23) reveal:
“Reagan: And I said [to Chiang] that if you stop and think that there are 140 Russian divisions on the Chinese border ... you would have to consider how aggressive Russia might be in the Middle East or Western Europe if the back door was suddenly closed and they no longer had to maintain those troops on the Chinese border any more, but he [Chiang] wasn’t quite sure that was the case...”
Governor Reagan may have been briefed by the NSC on the “140 Russian divisions tied down on the Chinese border” (the number was closer to 40) as central to the Nixon pivot to China. Reagan informed Nixon:
“... it was evident that their fear [in Taipei] was borne of a belief that you might be going to Peking in an effort to negotiate a detente or something with them, that you might then try to put pressure on Taiwan to somehow come to an agreement, you know, an incorporation with the mainland, and, he [Chiang] said, this would be a bloodbath, he said, ‘we would be killed.’ And he said ‘this we will never hold still for, life will end’...”
Nixon agreed with Reagan’s assessment. Reagan said he was reassuring to Chiang; he candidly reviewed for President Chiang America’s domestic politics, Democratic senators’ “war weariness” and their “possible presidential ambitions.” Reagan hinted to the Generalissimo that there was a domestic political dimension to Nixon’s actions: “I said this to Chiang, he suddenly turned to me and his face broke out in the warmest smile, and he just said, one sentence, in Chinese, and the interpreter smiling broadly says, ‘The President says he understands this very well,’ and suddenly the whole conversation for an hour became very different, very cordial.” Reagan recounted to Nixon, “I told them...”
“that I felt that I’d been authorized to assure them that this country had absolutely no intention of changing its treaty relationship in any way. I said, in the first place, that I’d never heard this trip discussed in line with negotiations at all, but simply to open communications, and I did not believe the United States would ever consider forcing Taiwan to submit itself to the mainland. And, as I say, the whole atmosphere was left very well.”
For years thereafter, Ronald Reagan believed he had been “authorized” — directly by Nixon — to reassure Taiwan that the United States had no intention whatever of changing its relationship with Taiwan or of putting pressure on Taipei to negotiate with Beijing. His decision to run for president against Jimmy Carter in 1980 was prompted partially by a feeling that Carter had betrayed this assurance; at one point in the 1980 campaign, Reagan said he would “restore official relations with Taiwan.”
On June 25, 1982, when Reagan himself was President, he fired secretary of state Alexander Haig who sought to cut off American arms sales to Taiwan in contravention of the Taiwan Relations Act. Afterwards, Reagan reassured Taiwan secretly — confirmed a month later by public State Department testimony to Congress — that the United States would not end arms sales nor consult with China on arms sales, nor would the United States mediate between Taipei and Beijing, nor exert pressure on Taiwan to do so. Nor would the United States alter its position on Taiwan’s sovereignty. As the State Department still avers in 2023, Reagan’s “Six Assurances” are “a foundational element in US policy towards Taiwan and the PRC.” But the Reagan “envoy” episode underscores the reality that secret machinations of one president are not binding on successors, the Congress or the American people.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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