Reassessing the Mutual Defense Treaty: Three  Communiqués, Three Erosions of Taiwan’s Interests

Reassessing the Mutual Defense Treaty: Three  Communiqués, Three Erosions of Taiwan’s Interests

Reassessing the Mutual Defense Treaty: Three  Communiqués, Three Erosions of Taiwan’s Interests

Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the secretary of defense from 2005-2006.

Henry Kissinger has said of the Korean War, “The United States did not expect the invasion; China did not expect the reaction.”[1] The results of that mutual miscalculation were three years of war, 38,000 Americans and over a million Koreans and Chinese killed, and the border between North and South Korea unchanged from what it was when the war started in June 1950. The principal cause of that miscalculation may be found in the National Press Club speech made by Secretary of State Dean Acheson that January, in which he described the vital strategic interests in Asia that America would fight to defend. South Korea and Taiwan were not included within that defensive perimeter. In the immediate aftermath of the Korean War, the United States and the Republic of China on Taiwan signed the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty in 1954.

How did Washington, Pyongyang, Beijing, and Moscow all get it so wrong and blunder into a costly and futile conflict? Why was the United States surprised when North Korean forces poured across the 38th Parallel? Why was Mao Zedong, who had approved the attack, surprised when Washington led a United Nations coalition to resist it?

For Pyongyang, which had wanted to rule the entire Korean Peninsula ever since it was divided by US and Soviet diplomats at the end of World War II, the Acheson speech (and similar statements by General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman) constituted a green light to launch its attack. Similarly, Mao, who had seized the mainland of China from Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists the year before, had openly stated his intention to take the island of Taiwan where Chiang’s forces had retreated. He now prepared to make his move as well. Truman realized his administration’s colossal mistake in conveying a lack of interest in the security of South Korea and Taiwan despite Communist expansionism in Asia. In addition to belatedly rallying to the defense of South Korea, he rushed the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait to keep Mao and Chiang from reigniting China’s civil war.

After the Korean War, President Dwight Eisenhower ensured that there would be no future misunderstandings of US intent in the region by executing nearly identical Mutual Defense Treaties with both the Republic of Korea and the Republic of China on Taiwan. (He also deployed tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea to bolster America’s deterrent message.) Aside from a couple of limited Taiwan Strait crises involving Chinese shelling of Taiwan’s offshore islands, the US defense commitment to Taiwan and South Korea restrained significant aggression against those states over the ensuing decades. The Communist powers instead focused their efforts on Indochina.

Then came President Richard Nixon’s opening to China and the security dynamic began to change again. In another US strategic misjudgment of the Cold War, Nixon and Kissinger, his national security advisor, devised what they considered a master stroke of realpolitik. To offset the Soviet Union’s global challenge to the international order, Nixon played “the China card,” providing a security guarantee to Beijing in its own rivalry with Moscow. In return, China would help Washington extricate itself from the Vietnam War. Both China and the Soviets were supporting Ho Chi Minh’s regime in Hanoi in its goal of conquering South Vietnam—the third Asian Communist unification struggle.

The sticking-point in the Sino-US negotiations over a presidential visit to China had been the future status of Taiwan. Nixon and Kissinger quickly made clear their willingness to make concessions on Taiwan “to remove an irritant” to China. They considered “the withdrawal of American forces from Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait—by far the least contentious issue” as compared to “the reversion of Taiwan.”[2] In October, 1969, Washington withdrew the Seventh Fleet’s permanent patrol from the Taiwan Strait (though Kissinger said that other Indochina-related Navy transits would supposedly continue).[3]  They also readily conceded that US forces would be removed as soon as tensions over Vietnam (not Taiwan itself) eased. Demonstrating the priority of Indochina over Taiwan in US maneuvering with China, Nixon played the Taiwan card in May 1970 after Mao condemned the US invasion of Cambodia. “[H]e ordered every element of the Seventh Fleet not needed for Vietnam moved into the Taiwan Strait: ‘Stuff that will look belligerent. I want them to know we are not playing this chicken game.’”[4] Kissinger prevailed upon the president to reconsider and as a result, “Nixon thought better of new deployments in the Taiwan Strait.”[5]

The Shanghai  Communiqué of 1972 laid the groundwork for further weakening of Taiwan’s position by articulating the “One-China” concept. Beijing claimed total political authority over the island as an integral part of China. Washington “acknowledged” that the “Chinese” entities on both sides of the Strait claimed that sovereign unity, differing only on which regime should rule the whole nation. It was understood that in Nixon’s second term the diplomatic abandonment of Taiwan would be completed.[6]

The deal accomplished the part of its geostrategic purpose that favored Beijing by keeping Moscow at bay vis a vis China, but it did nothing to mitigate the Soviet global threat against the West. Moreover, Beijing reneged on its agreement to help the US manage an honorable withdrawal from Vietnam. Nixon’s Watergate crisis and resignation from office precluded consummation of his administration’s derecognition of Taiwan in favor of China. But President Jimmy Carter, who defeated Nixon’s interim successor, Gerald Ford, was more than eager to pick up the China baton that had fallen from Nixon’s hands. With Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national security advisor, he announced in January 1979 that the US was switching its diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China and would immediately terminate the Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan.

As Brzezinski later wrote, Carter considered the China-Taiwan switch as a virtual fait accompli that just required implementation: “The United States conceded already under President Nixon its acceptance of the principle shared by both China and Taiwan that there is only one China.” [7] Brzezinski misstates the history. In fact, even Nixon and Kissinger, much as they wanted to accommodate Mao and Zhou En-lai, and whatever they may have conceded privately, merely acknowledged publicly but did not explicitly accept Beijing’s “One-China” “principle” that Taiwan is part of one China or its proclaimed “right” to use force to “reunite” the two. Thus began the quasi-official blurring of America’s ”One-China” policy, which states that Taiwan’s future status is yet to be determined and must be done peacefully and with the consent of the Taiwanese people.

Fortunately for the people of Taiwan, and for US strategic interests in Asia, the Carter-Brzezinski verdict on Taiwan’s fate was not America’s last word on the subject. The US Congress was incensed that the man who told the American people he “would never lie” to them and otherwise disdained Nixon and all his works had pulled the rug out from Taiwan in a very secretive and stealthy Nixonian way. Congress quickly passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) which restored almost all the attributes of statehood to Taiwan in its relations with Washington and committed the United States to a permanent interest in Taiwan’s security through the sale of defensive weapons.

The TRA took US relations with Taiwan, and, inevitably, with China, in an entirely different direction from what Nixon, Kissinger, Carter, and Brzezinski had intended or expected.  When Mao told Kissinger in their 1971 meeting anticipating Nixon’s visit that China could wait 100 years before using force to absorb Taiwan, Kissinger joked that he was surprised it would take so long.[8] The TRA, which passed the House and Senate with overwhelming, veto-proof margins, was essentially a Congressional rebuttal to both Nixon’s 1972 Shanghai  Communiqué and Carter’s 1979 Joint  Communiqué shifting official US recognition from Taiwan to China.  As such, it deeply rankled Beijing, particularly in providing defensive arms to Taiwan to deter an attack from China. The Chinese lobbied long and hard to roll back, or at least weaken, the American security commitment to Taiwan.

When Ronald Reagan defeated Carter for the presidency, China assiduously cultivated relations with Alexander Haig, yet another national security advisor who believed that foreign policy “realism” justified sacrificing Taiwan’s interests in the larger cause of improving US-China relations. In 1982, having failed to persuade Reagan to accept an early and complete end to arms sales, Haig masterminded his agreement to the Third  Communiqué, which committed Washington to gradually reduce its weapons sales to Taiwan until they were eliminated at some undetermined date.

Reagan, irritated at the diplomatic trap Haig led him into, decided to mollify critics and state his own personal commitment to Taiwan. In August of 1982, he issued a statement of Six Assurances which pledged that Washington would not:

Set a date for ending arms sales to the Republic of China;
Hold prior consultations with the PRC regarding arms sales to the Republic of China;
Play a mediation role between the PRC and the Republic of China;
Revise the Taiwan Relations Act;
Alter its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan;
Exert pressure on the Republic of China to enter into negotiations with the PRC.

Generally, the US has honored those commitments, though it has blocked or slow-walked arms sales it knows Beijing would protest most vehemently, e.g., advanced fighter aircraft and diesel submarines. Also, though Washington doesn’t explicitly pressure Taipei to negotiate with Beijing, it makes clear in more subtle ways that it favors increased cross-Strait dialogue. Sometimes pressure can be exerted by former US officials who may or may not be carrying a message from Washington, as when Kissinger warned Taiwan at the Asia Society in 2007 that it should come to terms with Beijing because “China will not wait forever.”

Of the four architects of the shift in US policy on China and Taiwan, the only one who ever expressed second thoughts was the creator of the opening, Nixon himself, who said in 1994, ‘We may have created a Frankenstein[‘s monster].’”

Nixon also adjusted his views to the changing reality on Taiwan, saying “The situation has changed dramatically … The separation is permanent politically, but they are in bed together economically.”  Kissinger, on the other hand, never wavered in his adherence to the bargain he and Nixon had struck with Mao and Zhou En-lai.  On the question of Taiwan, which Kissinger has avoided visiting despite his scores of shuttle trips to China, he sometimes seemed more Catholic than the Pope.

Kissinger has proudly proclaimed that the China initiative “marked America’s return to the world of Realpolitik.”[9] By that cramped understanding of political “realism,” abandoning Taiwan for a historic rapprochement with China may have seemed advantageous at the time. But, given China’s now-clear regional and global ambitions and Taiwan’s geostrategic position in the first island chain, a serious reassessment is in order. Moreover, the writings of both Kissinger and Nixon reflect their apparent understanding of Taiwan’s strategic importance in any conflict in the region. General MacArthur once called the island, from which Imperial Japan launched its attack on the Philippines on December 7, 1941, “an unsinkable aircraft carrier” that should never again be allowed to fall into an enemy’s hands. Aside from the moral and political imperatives of America’s commitment to Taiwan, that realpolitik consideration should weigh heavily with US policymakers.

Kissinger is now advising his ninth president on what to do about China and Taiwan but it is not yet known what he is whispering into the president’s ear. Hopefully, like Nixon and unlike Carter and Brzezinski, he has come to recognize that trading Taiwan’s interests for better relations with Communist China was not the wisest exercise of realpolitik. As Nixon warned about China if it were not welcomed into the international community: “We simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors.[10]

After “the week that shook the world” when President Richard Nixon made a surprise visit to China in February 1972, and four decades of generous Western engagement, the Communist China we face today looks disturbingly similar to Nixon’s nightmare scenario, except infinitely more powerful.

The main point: The principal cause of the miscalculation leading to the Korean War may be found in the lack of clarity over US vital strategic interests in Asia. History will judge Nixon’s opening to China, and the decades of Western engagement that followed, as a valiant but flawed effort to turn world events in a positive strategic direction. Greater clarity may forestall future conflicts.

[1] Henry Kissinger, On China, (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011), 132.
[2] Ibid., 233
[3] Henry Kissinger, White House Years, (Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1979), 187.
[4] Kissinger, On China, 695.
[5] Ibid., 696. (author’s emphasis)
[6] Ibid., 271.
[7] Zbigniew Brzezinski, Strategic Vision: America and Crisis of Global Power, (New York, Basic Books, 2012), 178.
[8] Kissinger, On China, 307
[9] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, (New York, Simon and Shuster, 1994), 724.
[10] Richard Nixon, “Asia After Vietnam,” Foreign Affairs, October 1967.