The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979
Last week we touched on some of the reasons why Richard
Nixon opened the door to China in 1971. To summarize, back
then Nixon and Mao agreed to have a strategic dialogue with the
Soviet threat as the focus. China also received our assurances
that there would be one China while the U.S. continued its ties
with a separate Taiwan. Finally, there was a tacit agreement to
pay minimal attention to ideological differences.
But full normalization of relations didn''t take place until the
presidency of Jimmy Carter. Outside of the U.S., the majority of
nations in the world had begun to recognize China as the
legitimate leader of all Chinese. The massive trade potential of 1
billion people held everyone in thrall. Throughout the decade of
the ''70s it was also felt that without Beijing''s cooperation the
wars in Indochina might engulf all of Southeast Asia. Taiwan,
itself, didn''t help their own cause any as the island was ruled first
by dictator Chiang Kai-shek and later his equally bad son.
Political reform on the island really didn''t take hold until the ''80s
and democracy finally was the rule in just the past 5-7 years.
So when Carter became president, he set about to normalize
relations with the mainland and what ensued was a civil war
between his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, and his national
security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski (from here on, Zbig).
Zbig looked at the close relationship that Henry Kissinger had
with President''s Nixon and Ford, first as national security advisor
and later as secretary of state, and decided that he wanted to be
the chief strategist for foreign policy. Vance wasn''t about to
have any of that.
And a side figure in the debate to follow was Richard Holbrooke,
currently U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and key player in the
Balkans. In an article in the September / October issue of
"Foreign Affairs" magazine, Patrick Tyler describes the call that
Carter placed to Holbrooke as Carter was shaping his foreign
policy team before he took office.
Carter asked Holbrooke for his opinion of various cabinet
positions, men such as Vance for State and Harold Brown for
Defense. When Holbrooke didn''t recommend Carter favorite
Zbig, Carter asked why. Holbrooke replied that he didn''t think
Vance and Zbig would get along. Petty Jimmy never initiated
another conversation with Holbrooke who became assistant
secretary of state for Asia under Vance. Carter named Zbig
chairman of the NSC.
While Carter had normalization of relations with China on his
docket when he took over, his #1 priority was arms control with
the Soviet Union. China took a back seat.
And China was getting impatient. After all, it had been years since
Nixon''s ''72 visit and the world was quickly recognizing the
government in Beijing. In 1977, right after Carter''s inauguration,
China''s communist party elected Deng Xiao-Ping as its new
leader. Secretary of State Vance was dispatched to Beijing right
when Deng took over.
Carter had not wanted to sell out Taiwan. The U.S. had a Mutual
Defense Treaty with the island and we had troops stationed on
the island. While it was assumed that the troops would be
withdrawn, Carter wanted a liason office in Taiwan as a pretext to
normalizing relations with Beijing. Deng said, "No." He felt it
would promote the image of two Chinas, of one China and one
Meanwhile, Zbig pulled his big power play. Zbig, as national
security advisor, always had Carter''s ear since it was Zbig who
was the first to brief the president each morning for about an hour
on the world scene. Zbig finagled his way to Beijing, infuriating
Vance. At a meeting with Deng, Zbig laid down the new
administration proposal. The U.S. would close down their official
representation on Taiwan, terminate the Mutual Defense Treaty,
withdraw the remaining military personnel and make a statement
indicating the importance of a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan
question by the Chinese themselves. Then the two sides would
issue a joint communique establishing diplomatic relations in
which the U.S. would recognize the PRC (mainland China) as the
sole legal government of China.
But the sticky issue of arms sales to Taiwan was a stumbling
block. Deng wanted no further arms sales after allowing for arms
already in the pipeline as a one-year moratorium on sales expired.
He had been prepared to offer Taiwan near total autonomy,
granting them their own political and economic system - even
their own military - but under the banner of One China, with
national sovereignty residing in Beijing. As author Tyler says, in
essence "One country, two systems."
While all this was going on, Cyrus Vance was negotiating arms
control with the Soviets. But Carter wanted an agreement with
China before talks with Moscow were finalized, a Nixon trick
employed to light a fire under the Soviets.
[As an aside, Tyler''s article is amusing in its description of
the battle between Holbrooke and Zbig. Zbig was able to shut
Holbrooke out of many sensitive meetings as word had it that
Holbrooke was a "leaker." The assistant secretary was also
dating CBS reporter Diane Sawyer at the time].
While China thought the U.S. had agreed to no further arms sales
to Taiwan after the one-year moratorium was up, Carter and Zbig
thought they would be allowed limited sales of defensive weapons
to the island. When you read the full account of this diplomatic
dance, it really is scary how such crucial policy decisions are often
made with a total lack of understanding as to the other side''s true
position. Simply put, Zbig blew it.
Carter was all set to announce the historic agreement with China
when at the last minute Deng got word of the U.S. understanding
on weapons sales and requested an emergency meeting with our
U.S. representative to China, Leonard Woodcock. Carter had to
be able to reassure Congress that limited defensive arms sales
would continue. Deng disagreed. He argued that Taiwan
wouldn''t have the incentive to go to the negotiating table and
eventually China would have to use force to recover Taiwan. But
in the end, Deng suddenly gave in and allowed the defensive
weapons sales. [It is amazing to read that Deng made all of his
final decisions while meeting with Carter''s emissaries, never once
consulting with anyone else from the Chinese government, in case
you ever had any doubt as to how powerful Deng was].
Carter went before the people to tell us about the deal.
Immediately, Republican figures like Ronald Reagan and Barry
Goldwater slammed it as a sell-out of Taiwan. However, former
President Ford supported it. An angry Congress transformed the
"Act" to the Taiwan Relations Act, which included a security
commitment to Taiwan nearly as strong as the one in the now-
canceled Mutual Defense Treaty. But relations with China were
For over 20 years, despite China''s often bellicose statements, the
Taiwan Relations Act has guided our policy. It is purposefully
nebulous. It doesn''t clearly state that the U.S. would immediately
come to Taiwan''s aid if the island came under attack. It is, of
course, implied that we would. Which is why China is watching
us carefully to see how the Clinton administration handles the
current situation. So far, Clinton and his spokespeople continue
the ambiguity. We say there would be "grave consequences" if
China attacked Taiwan, but we don''t say what those
consequences would be. We should tell the mainland that an
attack on Taiwan is an attack on the U.S.