China and Taiwan, Part I
The Wall Street Journal''s Gerald Seib recently listed some
questions that ought to be asked of our presidential candidates.
One of them was, how many China''s are there? Seib then
commented, "Mess up this question, and a president can start a
The issue of Taiwan and China, and the U.S. stance, has
reentered the political dialogue thanks to a statement made a few
weeks back by Taiwan''s president, Lee Teng-hui. Lee stated that
Taiwan should have "special state-to-state relations" with China.
China viewed this statement with grave concern. Clearly, Lee
was calling for independence for his island nation. China, as
national policy, advocates "One China," meaning that
reunification of the two is inevitable. Lee''s statement was thus
tantamount to an act of war. The U.S. also holds to a "One
China" policy, but the hope has always been that this would be
achieved through peaceful means.
But let''s take a quick step back and try and understand how we
arrived at this current state of tension between the two China''s.
Someday, I''ll go in far greater detail of the history of China (it
would be a 5 or 6-parter) but for now we''ll cover some of the
In the late 1920''s through the 1940''s China was a mess. Imagine
a civil war taking place between a peasant army led by Mao Tse-
tung (or Zedong in the modern vernacular), the Communists, and
the ruling Kuomintang, or Nationalist party, under the leadership
of Chiang Kai-shek. By 1931, Japan became the third player as it
invaded China. Chiang was trying to use the Communists to help
in his fight against Japan while at the same time destroying them.
At the end of World War II, Japan''s forces had to withdraw,
leaving the Communists and Nationalists to battle it out. Mao
was a brilliant strategist and, despite a lack of basic resources, his
peasant army was disciplined and became expert at living off the
land. Chiang was the total opposite. Despite support from FDR
during the first phases of the civil war, and later support from
Truman and the other major Western leaders, Chiang was a
despicable, corrupt leader who squandered the $2.5 billion in aid
that the U.S. gave him between 1945 and 1949. He had been
presented to Americans as a savior of a united, democratic China.
Efforts to reconcile the Nationalists with the Communists failed
and, once the civil war started in earnest, the aid began to dry up.
By April 1949 Mao was in control of many of the major
provinces and soon thereafter Chiang was driven out of the
mainland onto the island of Formosa (Taiwan) where he
established the Republic of China (ROC). *Chiang pilfered the
country''s treasury, including the last 3 mm ounces of gold in
China''s reserve. When Chiang arrived on Taiwan, he led a
violent crackdown on the population that by some estimates killed
In Beijing on September 21, 1949 Mao declared the People''s
Republic of China (PRC). Then, just two days later, President
Harry Truman announced, "We have evidence an atomic
explosion occurred in the USSR." Historian Paul Johnson writes,
"The events fused on the public mind as the march of a single
conspiracy." Truman had been accused by the Republicans of
having "lost China." Now, we had the twin threats. Everyone
you saw on the streets of America could be a Communist.
It became the judgment of many that traitors in America had
given Stalin the bomb and fellow travelers in the State
Department had allowed his puppet Mao to defeat Chiang''s
Nationalists. It was also felt that Mao would quickly fall under the
sphere of Soviet influence. [In the hindsight of history, it wasn''t
that easy. Yugoslavia''s Tito had split with Stalin in 1948, lending
some hope that Mao and Stalin may not become allies. The press
focused, however, on a two-month stay by Mao in Moscow in
early 1950. It was assumed that Mao and Stalin were meeting
daily. In actuality, Stalin kept Mao waiting for two months and
Mao had become seriously ill while in Moscow].
In a speech in January 1950, U.S. Secretary of State Dean
Acheson spoke of the new line of containment and mentioned that
he felt it was certain that Stalin and Mao would quarrel but he
didn''t mention Taiwan, Indochina and Korea, appearing to
exclude them from the American defensive perimeter. The speech
was read by Stalin who was making some conciliatory overtures
to Mao. Acheson''s reference to an inevitable Russo-Chinese
break reminded Stalin of the danger, and his apparent omission of
Korea as an American vital interest pointed to the remedy. Stalin
decided that a limited proxy war in Korea would be the means to
teach China where its true interest lay.
Stalin seems to have agreed with North Korea''s Communist
dictator, Kim Il Sung, that the North could make a limited push
across the38th parallel, which divided Communist North from
non-Communist South Korea. But Kim took Stalin''s hint as
permission to stage a full-scale invasion and he launched it on the
25th of June 1950.
As a result of the invasion, Taiwan became a large issue and the
U.S. adopted a firm stance. The Truman-Acheson East Asia
policy of January 1950 failed to deter looming aggression. Mao
had initially talked of a timetable for acquiring Taiwan. He
retreated from that position and with the outbreak of the Korean
War, and China''s subsequent involvement, the world saw a clear
cut need to deter Mao. As historian Johnson says, "While
nothing was gained in the Korean War, America at least
demonstrated its willingness to defend the policy of containment
In the 1950''s China''s bark was bigger than its bite. It was the
American military link with Taiwan and with Japan that deterred
Beijing from acting on its ambition to grab Taiwan. In the 1960''s
events in Indochina took center stage. By 1971 the world
received word that President Nixon was going to China in early
Next week, Nixon''s overture to China and the impact on Taiwan.
[Sources: Gerald Seib, Wall Street Journal - Aug.25, 1999.
Ross Terrill, The Weekly Standard - Aug. 23, 1999.
Paul Johnson, "A History of the American People."
Harold Evans, "The American Century."]