Taiwan in 2018: Cross-Strait Relations¹

Taiwan in 2018: Cross-Strait Relations¹

Taiwan in 2018: Cross-Strait Relations¹

If they arise, nearly all issues between China and Taiwan will originate in China, though they will reverberate in Taipei, Washington, Tokyo, and other capitals. Furthermore, these issues will be either rhetorical—such as renewed insistence on “unification”—or the product of harassment of Taiwan’s trade, international activities, and so forth, from Beijing.

Let us start with what I believe to be the simple truth. Taiwan will never become part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). China had one opportunity to achieve this goal in 1979, when de-recognition has been announced but not yet taken effect, meaning that high US officials could still visit Taipei. Also Chiang Ching-kuo held complete power over Taiwan, which meant that if he could be won over, he could either make an agreement ceding authority to China, or even order the military and police to lock down the island to prepare for the opening of harbors, airports, and so forth, to receive PRC administrators and even troops. Thus, everything depended on Chiang Ching-kuo.

The high-level American delegation visiting Taiwan carried a precious document that they believed would do the magic. This was a personal, even intimate, letter from Liao Chengzhi (廖承志), a long time friend of Chiang’s and master of the United Front, suggesting in a cordial and friendly way that maybe it was time for the two sides to call it a day with Taiwan making a deal.

Henry Kissinger believed this would be easy. By now, he has probably visited China over a hundred times, but he has never been to Taiwan. His expectation was that the brutal shock of unexpected de-recognition (he had, after all, looked the ROC ambassador deep in the eyes and promised “no change”) would precipitate ‘heart attacks and strokes’ among the elderly Kuomintang elite, while causing the people of Taiwan to rise up, though whether for independence or unification he did not make clear.

This is an example of self-deluding diplomatic planning. Had Kissinger even taken a tourist weekend package tour to Taiwan from Hong Kong he would have grasped that his understanding of Taiwan was deeply defective. To this day he will not go, he tells the author of this article through intermediaries, “without discussing it with my Chinese hosts.” Compare this to American diplomat John Van Antwerp MacMurray, our representative to a China whose “Beiyang” government in Peking was internationally recognized. The State Department forbade MacMurray to deal with Sun Yat-sen or his group in Canton. Understanding that a diplomat’s job is to know everybody, MacMurray simply took the train, spent a few days with the banned Kuomintang, and returned.

The American delegation was not even aware that since 1969 Zhou Enlai, who had been Chiang Kai-shek’s right hand at the Huangpu Academy in the 1920s, called his former boss nearly every day from about 1969 to near his death, and evidently continued until Chiang Ching-kuo’s death in the late 1980s. The calls were to brief the Taipei government on developments and discuss what the Americans were really up to. Zhou suspected some sort of American trick. Kissinger was after all a bright youngish Harvard professor, Jewish (he fought in the Battle of the Bulge), whose only scholarly book was about the Congress of Vienna in 1815. He knew nothing of China and spoke no Chinese (it is not even clear that he had been to Asia by then)—could he really be the presidential envoy he claimed to be? Zhou knew that America had many diplomats and linguists that were far more qualified than Kissinger was at that time.

This secret contact, which Kissinger has not yet acknowledged, meant of course that Taiwan knew at least as much as Washington did. Some Americans walked out of meetings mumbling “those Taiwanese know a lot more than they are saying,” but this insight was never followed up.

So, the Americans were a bit taken aback when in late 1978 an upbeat and cordial Chiang Ching-kuo greeted his old friends from America. He began the session by noting that he was the president of the country that had its own plans. The Americans handed the letter from Liao Chengzhi, whom Chiang professed to be happy to hear from. After promising to act, Chiang handed the letter to his secretary, and continued to talk. The letter was never answered.

That was the ball game, though few understood that fact. The last person who had the power to deliver Taiwan had elegantly declined to do so. The only realistic possibility had failed. As I put it in a long-ago article, we were in fact “back to basics.” The American policy of delivering Taiwan in return for Chinese recognition had failed at its only plausible chance. No issues were resolved. Only if each side would pretend would things go forward.²

Although 20 years old, that article spells out clearly that nothing substantial had been achieved beyond formal recognition of China and relegating Taiwan into an ill-defined status, expected to change quickly, but which has now lasted 39 years.

Let us quickly note what has changed ever since.

First, Japan has announced in December 2017 the building of a military facility on Ishigakijima, a relatively large island approximately 150 miles east of Hualien, in Taiwan. What this means is that Japan understands that PRC control of Taiwan would be a mortal threat for Japan. This base, which is the last of a series situated south of the Japanese island of Kyushu, will close off any possibility by China to attack Taiwan’s East Coast by crossing from the north while the range of Japanese armed forces will mean that Taiwan in its entirety is under a Japanese umbrella. Only the narrow Miyako passage, which has such a base on either side, and the Bashi channel south of Taiwan, both easily closed, allow PLA maritime access to Taiwan.  Beyond this, even were the United States to tear up 40 years of promises and fail to defend Taiwan, Japan would do so. The same is true for arms sales, intelligence cooperation, technological exchanges, and so forth. Attacking Taiwan now is the equivalent to attacking Japan.

Second, America’s Taiwan policy is slowly becoming more realistic. American “temporary” mission in Taiwan situated in a dilapidated building will soon be replaced by an ample and attractive embassy-in-all-but-name in June. Clearly, the United States does not expect to be moving anytime soon. This long-delayed opening is tangible proof that most people in Washington understand that, although appealing to some, the Nixon-Carter plan was a pipe dream that will never become real.

Third, American arms sales were long designed to meet two contradictory criteria. One was to provide Taiwan with defense weapons, as the Taiwan Relations Act prescribes. The other was to limit selling advance weapons to Taiwan as a way to reassure China that it could take the island should it want to do so. China’s militaristic expansion, however, has led to the most profound rethinking in US policy since Nixon. No longer does the United States dance to China’s tune. Rather we, and many other Asian nations, are cooperating to keep China deterred. Some in Washington still believe in the Kissinger formula, but they are now being superseded. I think Taiwan-American military relations will improve despite signs of distress from Beijing. Having long denied Taiwan serious weapons, the United States is now concerned that Taiwan may not be able to defend itself.

What then does all this mean for cross-Strait relations in 2018?

China might launch a suicidal attack against Taiwan but this is unlikely, as it knows it would not succeed. This attack would threaten whatever Chinese government had ordered it. Finally, it would alert China’s “allies” such as Pakistan, and ‘fence-sitters’, such as Malaysia, that China’s military threat is real and it could be aimed at them eventually. The result would be a military escalation by China’s neighbors, with Japan almost certainly adopting a nuclear option, probably of minimal deterrence. South Korea and Australia, among others, might well also develop nuclear deterrents. Technically, it is no challenge for these countries to do so. As for the United States, it would almost certainly become involved. The policy of sacrificing Taiwan never had Congressional or popular support in America.

What, realistically then, can China do? They can harass Taiwan. China can threaten the United States and throw around their much diminished weight in Washington, D.C. Note though, without any internationally recognized basis for their claims. When the PRC delegation replaced the ROC delegation at the United Nations, no official statement was ever made that Taiwan was part of China. This fact haunted Zhou Enlai, for he realized that no international document stated this. The only way Taiwan is kept out of international organizations is by strong-arming by China, and by the convenient fact that the United States ceased to recognize Taiwan as a state, yet the US has never agreed that the PRC had sovereignty over Taiwan.³

China can also pressure Taiwan economically, though China benefits at least as much as Taiwan from the connection.

China can also endeavor to follow her long-standing maxim that “the road to Taipei runs through Washington.” The complexion of Washington has changed since it became clear that China was a militaristic expansionist dictatorship that could not be trusted (look at the Basic Law of Hong Kong signed 1990 and how it has been abandoned).

China may also create some sort of invented crisis. Unless Japan agrees, however, even US acquiescence, which seems most unlikely, will have no effect. Furthermore, generations have now changed in Taiwan. Even most of the children of Chiang’s veterans love Taiwan as their place of birth, while lacking the powerful nostalgia—literally “pain of the old”—from which their parents, like all immigrants, suffered.

One more possibility remains since there is no way for Taiwan to willingly join the PRC on Beijing’s terms. The situation that will now persist indefinitely, given Japan’s role as well as that of the United States, and given that war is unpopular on both sides of the Strait, is the possibility that some Chinese politician recognize the present situation. For example, by establishing diplomatic relations between the ROC and PRC governments. In doing so, the ROC would be ushered back into the international community. Actually achieving that could perhaps even make the politician very popular in China. Even so, one senses that Beijing has let too many opportunities pass, and with an entirely new generation and political class in Taiwan, what would have been brilliant a few decades ago, is now at least ‘a dollar short and a day late’. However, one can dream.

Finally, this coming year may see the gradual displacement in the US government, State Department, academies, and so forth, of adherence to Kissinger’s misconceptions (though he deserves much credit for refusing to accept the principle of Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan). After all, if the United States does not have the fortitude to get serious with Taiwan, what other country will? If we have courage, who won’t? I don’t think that getting back to basics will require yet another half century.

The main point: The fact that Taiwan will never join the PRC is now clear. The people of Taiwan will never vote for such a thing. Equally important, the military option for China has now been eliminated, not least  by Japan’s base building in the area where China would have needed to carry out such operation. The question remains, though, when does the curtain finally come down on perhaps the greatest American foreign policy failure of this author’s lifetime? It must and will. Letting go will not be easy for some. Facing reality, however, will require conclusive discarding of decades of mistakes, and to take up the difficult task of crafting new policies that deal comprehensively with both China and Taiwan.

[1] This essay is based on 40 years of study, conversations, and so forth, since the author first set foot on the then American recognized Republic of China in 1971. Some talks have been confidential, some knowledge comes from government service, some from chats in Taiwan. Though much cannot be revealed about sources, what is written here is true to the author’s knowledge, based on decades of experience. Briefly though, footnoting every assertion is impossible, I should mention several sources that lie behind this summary. First, are the transcripts of Kissinger and Nixon’s visits, in their entirety, now held at the USC-US China Institute, and available online. Second, are the first serious books about the Chiang family, by a master diplomat and now author, Jay Taylor, notably The Generalissimo’s Son (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000) and The Generalissimo (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), as well as the authoritative Zhou Enlai by Gao Wenqian (Public Affairs, 2007). Finally, for the details of how Jay Taylor discovered the secret conversations of Zhou and Chiang Kai-shek, see the two books cited. I managed to confirm this independently from an authoritative PRC source. See also: Arthur Waldron, “How secret were Washington’s talks with China?” Taipei Times (July 21, 2016): 13-19. Interestingly, this very important discovery was confirmed independently by two distinct sources (two scholars then not personally acquainted), and has never been picked up generally.

[2] James R. Lilley and Chuck Downs, eds.,“Back to Basics: The U.S. Perspective on Taiwan-PRC Relations,” in Crisis in the Taiwan Strait (Ft. McNair, Washington, DC, in cooperation with the American Enterprise Institute: National Defense University Press, 1997), 327-347.

[3] This is clear from the intentionally vague wording in the Shanghai Communique, and President Reagan’s “Six Assurances” to Taiwan (1982). Senate Committee – Foreign Relations, “S. Con. Res. 38 – A concurrent resolution reaffirming the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances as cornerstones of United States-Taiwan relations,” Congress.gov, May 19, 2016. See also: Karoline Kan, “New Push for Taiwan’s Representation at the United Nations,” The New York Times, Sept. 8, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/09/world/asia/china-taiwan-united-nations.html