Strait Talk is an excellent book, particularly for those who want to understand the turbulent triangular relationship between the US, Taiwan and China, and how it has been influenced by various people over the past six decades. The author is Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, who is professor in the history department and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and a diplomatic historian who specializes in US-East Asian relations. In this book, published in February, she covers events and policy debates from the days of the Truman presidency all the way through the end of the Bush administration in 2008.
Tucker provides an incredible amount of research — drawing from both interviews and archives — and the result is a highly readable account of the intricacies of US policy towards Taiwan, as it moved from recognition of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime in Taipei to “informal” relations with “the people of Taiwan” after the Carter administration switched official diplomatic recognition of China from the KMT’s Republic of China (ROC) to Beijing’s People’s Republic of China (PRC).
An important contribution of the book is that it shows how politicians and diplomats from former US presidents Harry Truman to George W. Bush shaped policies, and how US policy toward China and Taiwan varied significantly, depending on the background, knowledge and political insights of the people involved. Tucker is most unsparing in her criticism of former US president Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger.
“Nixon and Kissinger viewed Taiwan as expendable, as less valuable than the strategic and political advantages that a new relationship with the PRC would secure. As a result, they decided to give Beijing what it wanted in order to make a deal. In the process, they misled China’s rulers into believing that the US would step aside and allow Taiwan to collapse. When that did not happen, Beijing, like Taipei, felt betrayed.
“In their eagerness to play the China card, Nixon and Kissinger undermined the effectiveness and durability of their initiative. They underestimated support for Taiwan and ignored Taiwan’s capacity for meaningful political reform, which would provide the wherewithal for survival. Their shortsightedness, virtually guaranteed by excessive secrecy, bred mistrust everywhere. This collateral damage to US integrity, diplomacy, and democracy, at home and abroad, constitutes the most serious indictment of the policies pursued.”
Tucker’s research also shows that all through the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, there was widespread support for “dual representation” in the UN, both inside successive US administrations as well as among governments of other countries, including the UK and the USSR. Tucker cites the 1959 Conlon Report, written by political scientist Robert Scalapino, which called for diplomatic relations with Beijing, but also for recognizing the ROC as the Republic of Taiwan. She describes how in the 1970s then-UN ambassador George H.W. Bush fought tenaciously for such an outcome. Interestingly, the USSR also expressed support — albeit briefly — for Taiwan’s independence in early 1973. However, all these efforts ran into one major roadblock: Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) stubborn refusal to compromise on representation by the PRC in the UN, which was eventually the main reason for Taiwan’s increasing international isolation.
Tucker also describes vividly how, in the run-up to normalization of relations with China, US officials tended to make policy towards Taiwan without adequate thought or planning, and without consulting or giving any warning to Taipei. The decision to normalize relations with the PRC in December 1978 was reached in total secrecy — even Congress was left out. This pattern would repeat itself over subsequent decades: Former US president Bill Clinton embraced the “Three Noes” (no to Taiwan’s independence, no to “two Chinas” and no to Taiwan’s membership in international organizations requiring statehood) in 1998, and in December 2003, Bush — standing next to Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao (溫家寶) — criticized former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and told him that the US interpreted as a “change of the status quo” and thus opposed a planned referendum that asked China to publicly renounce the use of force against Taiwan and withdraw missiles aimed at
Tucker leads readers through fascinating chapters on the shaping of the Taiwan Relations Act and Taiwan’s subsequent transition to democracy, the 1996 missile crisis and the shift in Clinton’s position that followed in 1997 and 1998 and which eventually resulted in his trip to China and pronouncement of the “Three Noes.”
A main theme of Tucker’s book is that Taiwan’s democratization is a “new” element in the equation. It has strengthened the rationale of supporting Taiwan’s independence. At the same time, to many of those involved in the Nixon/Kissinger effort of normalizing relations with China, it is also perceived as adding “unwelcome volatility in the cross-strait situation,” in the words of Chas Freeman, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a founding member of the US-China Policy Foundation.
Another theme is that the lack of adequate communication between the US and Taiwan has led to misunderstandings and distrust. In her conclusion, Tucker pleads for “diplomacy at higher, more authoritative levels” to break down existing barriers between the two countries — such as the present insistence of the US administration that no officials above the rank of Deputy Assistant Secretary meet Taiwanese counterparts — that have led to confusion and misapprehension regarding each country’s position. She argues that “American national interests, defined as much by values as by security or strategic goals, render sacrifice of Taiwan unacceptable. The US must do more than merely confront and be party to a Strait impasse. For itself and for Taiwan and China, the US has a political and moral obligation to contribute to a solution.”
Overall, Tucker’s book makes an excellent contribution to better knowledge and understanding of US policy towards Taiwan. The only area where I disagree with Tucker’s analysis is in her assessment of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) new administration. Both in the beginning and at the end of the book, the author presents an all-too-rosy picture — which she calls “the politics of hope” — of Ma’s rapprochement with China, underestimating the problems this might pose for America’s political, economic and security interests in East Asia, as well as the increase of political tension it generates within Taiwan.
Gerrit van der Wees is the editor of ‘Taiwan Communique.’
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