The Diplomatic Subterfuge Behind the Dangerous Standoff in Taiwan

The protracted — and deepening — crisis between China and the US is based on a policy born in deception, misunderstanding and hubris

The Diplomatic Subterfuge Behind the Dangerous Standoff in Taiwan
U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger (left) and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai at the Government Guest House in Beijing, on July 9, 1971. (White House via CNP/Getty Images)

Hoping to slow down the rush to war over Taiwan, U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s leader-for-life, Xi Jinping, met in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 14 on the sidelines of the annual G-20 Summit. On Nov. 10, the day the White House announced the meeting, Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin proclaimed in The Washington Post that the U.S. “is locked in a new Cold War with the Communist Party of China [CPC] … [that] could turn hot over Taiwan.” Although typically hyperbolic, in this case Rubio and Gallagher are not wrong, as the CPC’s latest white paper on Taiwan bristles with an almost giddy thirst for war. Aggrieved and aggressive, citing international law while planning to trample it, and invoking the notion of sovereignty while plotting to erase Taiwan’s, the document announces, “we will not renounce the use of force and we reserve the option of taking all necessary measures.”

As Biden and Xi jostle over geopolitics in Asia, and citizens on Taiwan’s frontlines ponder their fate, it is important to remember that threatening to wage war against Taiwan to achieve what the CPC calls “China’s reunification in the New Era” rests upon the party’s notion of the “One China” principle. Likewise, virtually every piece of U.S.-bashing propaganda churned out by China’s state-run media following Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August roared that her junket violated the principle. So what is this war-justifying and saber-rattling principle? How does it affect Taiwan? How does it drive the rush to conflict in the Indo-Pacific?

According to the CPC, Taiwan — a free and independent nation-state — is a renegade province working toward “reunification” with the mainland. Making China Great Again is thwarted, in this view, not by the vast majority of democracy-loving and independence-defending people of Taiwan, but by American imperialists who support a faction of Taiwanese “splittists.” Within the post-Pelosi-visit barrage of outrage and the white paper’s alternative reality, the party proclaims this version of “One China” reflects an “international consensus.” As Beijing would have it, the tensions in the Taiwan Strait have not been ratcheted up by the CPC engaging in naval and aerial war games encircling the island or its launching millions of cyber-attacks against the island’s infrastructure, but by Pelosi’s “serious, reckless and irresponsible provocation,” for by violating the “One China” principle, it was “the U.S. who provoked first” by threatening China’s sovereignty.

Riven with historical inaccuracies, contrary to international law, thwarted by the will of the Taiwanese and blocked by an array of military forces, the CPC’s goal of Taiwan’s happily “reuniting” with the motherland is sheer dream work. Yet it is also the foundation of contemporary Chinese political discourse, and so, rather than dismissing “One China” rhetoric as madness, we should try to make sense of what the CPC means by the phrase. The essence of diplomacy is trying to gauge your interlocutor’s intentions, hopes and fears, not simply to judge them as insane or wicked. And so, in the interest of seeking peace in the Taiwan Strait, let us try to understand what the CPC means by the “One China” principle and how Washington has played a key role in fostering misunderstandings around the concept.

To make sense of the phrase and its implications, we need to return to the slippery diplomacy of Richard Nixon. A lifelong anti-communist, Nixon calculated that making peace with China might help buffer Soviet ambitions. To that end, on July 15, 1971, he stunned the nation in a televised address by announcing he was ending more than two decades of animosity in U.S.-China relations by embarking to China on what he called “a journey for peace.” The conservative Republican knew he could not sustain his party’s allegiance without protecting Taiwan, which his allies then called “Free China.” Nixon thus pledged in a press conference: “Under no circumstances will we proceed with a policy of normalizing relations with Communist China … if the cost of that policy is to expel Taiwan from the family of nations.”

But expelled it would soon be, in a heartbreaking manner that still haunts U.S. foreign policy in Asia. Conveyed to the world in the so-called Shanghai Communiqué of Feb. 27, 1972, Nixon’s deal with Beijing hinged on what has come to be known as the “One China” principle. If we hope to understand the trouble in the Taiwan Strait today, we must return to the darkest days of the Cold War, to see how Nixon seeded decades of misunderstanding by promising the regime in Beijing one thing, the regime in Taipei another and constituents back in America yet another. As we will see below, while the CPC likes to pretend the “One China” principle is a unified, consensual and sacrosanct pact governing U.S.-China-Taiwan relations, political leaders in the U.S. and Taiwan have always understood it as a flexible vehicle shot through with loopholes, ambiguities and wiggle room.

Before Nixon’s momentous television address, his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, engaged in extensive — and secret — dialogue with the Chinese leadership to set the terms for the negotiations to come. Party Chairman Mao Zedong’s top lieutenant and prime minister, Zhou Enlai, warned Kissinger that “the first question to be settled is the crucial issue … of the withdrawal of all the U.S. armed forces from Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait area.” Then, in their preliminary conversations in July 1971, Zhou again told Kissinger that, for the normalization of relations between the two nations to proceed, “the U.S. must recognize that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is the sole legitimate government in China and that Taiwan Province is an inalienable part of Chinese territory that must be restored to the motherland.” His eyes on containing the USSR by courting China, Kissinger responded, “We will not stand in the way of basic evolution.” Thus, even before Nixon arrived in China, before the Shanghai Communiqué was released, the CPC assumed that the future of U.S.-China relations was rooted in the understanding that China would reclaim Taiwan.

Yet neither Nixon nor Kissinger was ready to take the flak they knew would follow from saying as much, so they hedged their language. In discussions in Beijing that autumn, Kissinger reiterated how “we recognize that the People’s Republic considers the subject of Taiwan an internal issue, and we will not challenge that.” Notice that Kissinger did not say he agreed with this position but rather that he “recognized” that the CPC held it. Sensing a moment of confusion, Zhou pressed Kissinger on the details — for “recognizing” is a slippery term — to which the National Security Advisor responded, “Let me separate what we can say and what our policy is.” Kissinger was acknowledging a chasm between what he and Nixon were willing to negotiate privately and what they would state publicly. Zhou concurred, for he too feared domestic blowback from party hardliners who would attack him for even speaking to the imperialists. Agreeing, then, that what would be said in public would differ from what would be agreed upon behind closed doors, Zhou reassured Kissinger that he too could be “prudent” regarding “actual policy.”

Released from Shanghai on Feb. 27, 1972, on the last day of Nixon’s historic trip, the communiqué announced that the U.S. and China had resumed a relationship that, if not yet normalized, was inching away from perpetual conflict. Traditionally, such documents strive for a sense of comity and agreement, yet Kissinger and Zhou both knew the Taiwan situation required what the U.S. diplomat would call “an unusual communiqué.” As such, they agreed the communiqué would not announce a grand bargain but instead state each side’s views.

The part of the text representing China’s interests is crystal clear. Echoing claims first aired by the CPC as early as 1949, it states that “Taiwan is a province of China” and that “the liberation of Taiwan is China’s internal affair in which no other country has the right to interfere.” Pointedly rejecting a range of options previously explored by the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, the document adds that “The Chinese government firmly opposes any activities which aim at the creation of ‘one China, one Taiwan,’ ‘one China, two governments,’ ‘two Chinas,’ ‘an independent Taiwan’ or advocate that ‘the status of Taiwan remains to be determined.’” These lines indict U.S. foreign policy vis-a-vis Taiwan during the 23 years between 1949 and 1972. China’s position in the text was echoed outside on a billboard announcing, “We Will Certainly Liberate Taiwan.” From the CPC’s perspective, a unified China, including Taiwan, was the foundational promise of the talks.

In contrast to the CPC’s demands, Washington’s reply was couched in ambiguities. The U.S. part of the text referring to Taiwan reads as follows:

The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China … . It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves … . It affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan. In the meantime, it will progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes.

While the text “acknowledges” a position “maintained” by some citizens in China and Taiwan, it does not agree with or confirm this view. Rather, the text “reaffirms” the United States will support a “peaceful settlement” only as agreed to by both sides of the question. In essence, then, the passage created indefinite breathing room for Taiwan — saying America could see the Chinese side but would support a change in the status quo only as agreed to by the Taiwanese. While awaiting some unspecified solution, the “ultimate objective” of demilitarizing Taiwan would be linked to “diminish[ing]” “tensions” “in the area.”

While those key phrases were left beguilingly vague, they suggested the U.S. would continue to “militarize” Taiwan as long as it deemed the CPC to be threatening any non-peaceful resolution to the issue or continuing to engage in hostilities in Vietnam and elsewhere. In this convoluted way, peace was cited as an eventual goal, but the actions of war — militarizing allies with arms sales and troop deployments — would continue unchanged.

The parts of the Shanghai Communiqué conveying Washington’s positions are therefore meant to defer any decision. They are vague, opaque and couched in complex variables and evolving conditions. The result, as Kissinger later observed, created a framework for ongoing U.S.-PRC dialogue while “put[ting] the Taiwan issue in abeyance.” The question, of course, is why the CPC would agree to such a document. The answer is straightforward: because Kissinger and Nixon promised more in private than what could be said in public.

Despite his reassurances to Republican allies that he would protect Taiwan, Nixon entered the negotiations ready to deal away the island nation’s independence. In a White House conversation from October 1971, the president said to Kissinger: “The Taiwan thing, we know what has to happen.” In fact, when Nixon sat down for his first conversation with the Chinese prime minister, he dutifully repeated what he knew were the CPC’s key requirements for proceeding toward diplomatic normalization:

Principle one: There is one China, and Taiwan is a part of China.

Second, we have not and will not support any Taiwanese independence movement.

Third … We do not want Japan moving in on Taiwan.

The fourth point is that we will support any peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue… And we will not support any military attempts by the Government on Taiwan to resort to a military return to the mainland.

Finally, we seek the normalization of relations with the People’s Republic.

And so, in neat order, Nixon told Zhou that the prime minister’s preconditions regarding Taiwan would be met. A comparison of Nixon’s first four points with Zhou’s preconditions indicates why the Chinese were thrilled from the start of Nixon’s “journey of peace.” Without any jostling, absent any rancor, devoid of any threats, the U.S. opened the weeklong visit by signaling that it was ready to consider Taiwan’s return to the mainland. From the CPC’s perspective, Nixon had just pledged American support for “One China.”

Nixon was painfully aware, however, that this news would not play well in America, where it would be interpreted as a sell out to communism, enraging the Republican base. And so Nixon continued: “The problem here, Mr. Prime Minister, is not in what we are going to do, the problem is in what we are going to say about it. As I said yesterday [in his talks with Mao], my record shows I always do more than I can say, once I have made the decision as to the direction of our policy.” Echoing his prior White House comment to Kissinger regarding “what has to happen,” Nixon made it clear to Zhou “what we are going to do”: His mind was made up, the “direction of our policy” was settled — Taiwan was finished. The only issue, Nixon demurred, was that “what we are going to do” depended upon his reelection in 1972, meaning the U.S. Left and Right (Nixon was disparaging of both) could not be allowed to destroy his initiative with China. “Our problem,” Nixon said, “is to be clever enough to find language that will meet your needs yet does not stir up the animals so much that they get to gang up on Taiwan and thereby torpedo our initiative.”

In other words, Nixon was promising one thing to Zhou (the return of Taiwan) but planning to say very different things in public via the layered complexities of the communiqué. In fact, in a remarkable passage, the president said to Zhou, “Now, if someone asks me when I return, do you have a deal with the prime minister … I will say ‘no.’ But I am telling the prime minister that is my plan.” Nixon thus made a secret “plan” with Zhou even while warning him that he would disavow the deal in public.

Kissinger’s role in this drama is even more complicated, for, if Nixon was willing to dissemble in the short run with his eyes on a grand alliance to come in the future, Kissinger’s version of “abeyance” hinted at a more subtle game based on a gamble about the arc of history. In his November 1971 memo to the president summarizing his first round of talks with Zhou, Kissinger described how putting Taiwan into “abeyance” would create evolutionary space, political wiggle room, an open-ended course of inaction that would eventually bend toward America’s interests. “The Chinese are willing to pursue their objectives by banking on the thrust of history,” Kissinger wrote. “They will continue to be tough, but they essentially accept our arguments that we can often do more than we can say, that the process must be gradual, and that some issues must be left up to evolutionary pressures. This involves great risks for them … they are clearly gambling on your reelection.” From this perspective, Kissinger sensed that Zhou could be patient about reunification with Taiwan because the prime minister believed both that Nixon would be reelected and hence make good on his promise, and that “evolutionary pressures” — the inescapable “thrust of history” — made it inevitable that Chiang Kai-shek’s dictatorship would succumb before the majesty of the PRC. Taking the long view, Zhou believed history was on his side, meaning that putting unification in a temporary “abeyance” posed no great threat to achieving his and Chairman Mao’s ultimate vision of one China.

It is important here to note how Kissinger reinforced Zhou’s assumptions regarding the arc of history. In a key meeting in Shanghai in the final hours that produced the communiqué, China’s vice minister of foreign affairs, Qiao Guanhua, questioned the ambiguity of the communiqué’s passages regarding Taiwan. Qiao sought to separate the literal messages of the document from what he had been told was “the direction” of U.S.-China relations, as promised by Nixon and implied by Kissinger. Qiao found the discrepancies puzzling, so Kissinger eased his mind by saying, “I agree with the direction and we will carry it out scrupulously. … We will do our part and in the spirit of the communiqué unilaterally carry it out.”

When Qiao pressed him for details, Kissinger again used the cover of avoiding a domestic backlash to argue for the need for ambiguity. Then, in a crucial moment, Kissinger said to his Chinese interlocutors, “We can’t lay down exact rules here. We have to do it on the basis of mutual trust.” Kissinger thus pledged that his government would uphold the implied “direction” of what had been promised in private, which, as Nixon made so clear, was more encompassing than what the communiqué would state formally. China’s ultimate aim, then, while not embedded literally in the communiqué, was a matter of “mutual trust” between these leaders, who understood that a little secrecy in the short run would grease the wheels for changing history in the long run.

When the three leaders reconvened in Beijing in June 1972 — with Nixon’s reelection looking likely, and thus with Zhou’s reunification goal looking imminent — the repartee felt almost jovial, with the old friends surveying the globe and bantering about the fate of the world. In a self-congratulating moment, Kissinger said to Zhou that “the secret to our relationship is we were prepared to start an evolution in which the prime minister has expressed great confidence.” Whether described as the direction, the thrust of history, evolutionary pressures or an evolution, Kissinger lathered Zhou — he celebrated their mutual trust and Zhou’s great confidence — with the sense that the premier’s singular wish, to unify Taiwan with the mainland, was about to be met.

The record on Kissinger becomes even more complicated when we encounter his comments from a Nov. 15, 1971, meeting in Washington with James Shen, Taiwan’s then-ambassador to the U.S. It takes no great imagination to envision Shen as a terrified man. Having fought against the communists for decades and served as the key diplomatic representative to the U.S. of a government that had heroically (if brutally) built a new regime on Taiwan, he came to Kissinger with hat in hand, wondering if his world was about to be torn to pieces.

The Shanghai Communiqué would not be made public until the end of Nixon’s trip to China, in February 1972, but the Taiwanese were fully apprised of the dealings taking place in Beijing, so Shen assumed he was seeing the writing on the wall. Yet, lo and behold, to the ambassador’s great surprise, Kissinger reassured Shen that what had been happening in Beijing “was less than meets the eye” and that Washington would continue to stand firm in its “defensive commitments to Taiwan.” Based on his intelligence reports regarding what the communiqué might say, Shen asked the obvious question: Doesn’t promising a coming unification when in Beijing while talking about defending Taiwan when in Washington amount to “an inconsistency”?

Kissinger replied that the communiqué would be ambiguous by design, that Zhou “knew this,” and that where history took the facts on the ground was “Zhou’s problem.” Shen was stunned, finding that the man he thought was the architect of his nation’s demise might in fact be a sneaky friend. Rocked by what he thought might be happening, Shen pressed Kissinger on the details, asking, “Was the status of Taiwan going to change?” This is where Kissinger’s notion of “abeyance” comes into focus:

According to Mr. Kissinger, one of two possible situations could occur: the first was that there could be negotiations between Peking and Taiwan, and the other was that Taiwan would develop more and more in the direction of a separate state… Kissinger spoke of a third possible situation: that of civil war breaking out on the mainland, with Taiwan aligning with one of the factions later on… Whatever happened would happen slowly. They [the Taiwanese] would be very foolish to commit suicide in order to avoid death… Kissinger’s judgment was that if [Taiwan] could maintain itself, the situation could change in a dramatic way.

So while Zhou, Nixon and Kissinger spoke openly about seeking “normalization” between the U.S. and China by 1976 — which, as Zhou had made perfectly clear, was dependent upon the PRC’s unification with Taiwan — Kissinger here made plain that, in contrast to what was promised in Beijing, he envisioned the “abeyance” opening onto a number of long-term options, none of which entailed unification. Indeed, Kissinger knew the Taiwanese would not negotiate their own annexation by the PRC, meaning the first option was a nonstarter. The second option implied Taiwanese independence. And the third option indicated that Kissinger assumed the imminent passing of Zhou and Mao would plunge China into chaos, and perhaps civil war, at which time all bets would be off. In Beijing, Kissinger implied that his notion of “abeyance” would work in China’s favor, as the return of Taiwan to China jelled with the evolutionary thrust of the arc of history. Back in Washington, he clarified that his notion of “abeyance” was in fact a slow-motion knife in Zhou’s back.

The extent of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s deceptions comes into focus via another conversation in the White House, on March 6, 1972, when they hosted Shen in the Oval Office. By now, the Shanghai Communiqué had been circulating publicly for more than a week, and while Nixon and Kissinger were basking in the glow of their triumph with China, the Taiwanese remained alarmed. Kissinger again made the case for “abeyance,” emphasizing that the temporary non-decision regarding unification with Taiwan would become, on his reading of the arc of history, a permanent fact on the ground. With Nixon listening, an annoyed Kissinger told Shen, “You are under no pressure to settle. Mao could disappear. Zhou could disappear. … It would be a mistake for you to panic or do anything rash.” The president, finally beginning to understand the ramifications of Kissinger’s rhetoric, jumped in: “This isn’t like the Arab-Israeli thing, where we are attempting to try to broker it. … I wouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to produce an agreement.”

From the distance of 50 years, it seems that Zhou was conned. While Nixon asked for ambiguity and “running room” in order to secure his reelection, and while he had no compunction about lying to the American public about his intentions, he was genuine in seeking a rapprochement with China, for which he was willing to jettison Taiwan.

Kissinger, on the other hand, used phrases like “mutual trust” while insinuating that he concurred with Zhou’s vision of the arc of history, only to reverse himself when speaking privately to Nixon or Shen or to the reporters whom he so routinely tried to sway. Regardless of what Watergate would eventually do to the Nixon White House, it is clear that Kissinger never had any intention of nudging “the thrust of history” in China’s direction as regards Taiwan. In this sense, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Kissinger was a duplicitous and dishonest broker, who, when speaking to Zhou, treated him like a trusted friend and fellow man of honor, all the while planning to renege on the single most important part of the emerging U.S.-China relationship: the unification of Taiwan with the mainland.

The notion of “One China” was thus born in deception, misunderstanding and hubris. The CPC hoped it would mean Washington’s acquiescence on China absorbing Taiwan, a result supported by Nixon in private and possibly inferred from the slippery language of the Shanghai Communiqué. Yet Kissinger never envisioned such an outcome and Nixon’s presidency soon devolved into catastrophe, meaning China’s dream of the U.S. backing its version of “One China” died with Watergate.

Over the coming years, as the full extent of Nixon and Kissinger’s dishonesty was realized in Beijing, and as the U.S. continued to arm Taiwan — thus indefinitely extending any notion of “abeyance” — successive generations of Chinese leaders were left baffled at how “the earnest Americans [were] blatantly rescinding the most important commitment they had made,” as Jay Taylor writes in “The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan.”

It took years to come to this realization, but it eventually dawned on the Chinese: Nixon and Kissinger had used them. As a result, the CPC reached a devastating conclusion: They would henceforth jettison any acknowledgement of the rhetorical subtleties discussed and, turning ambiguity into certainty, would claim that their demands regarding Taiwan had been met. If Nixon and Kissinger could say one thing in private, only to say other, different things in public, so would the CPC. Thus, when the “normalization” of relations between the U.S. and China was finally announced by President Jimmy Carter on Dec. 15, 1978 (effective Jan. 1, 1979), the CPC released a statement that read, in part:

The government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government of China, and Taiwan is a part of China. The question of Taiwan was the crucial issue obstructing the normalization of relations between China and the United States. It has now been resolved.

Despite Kissinger’s efforts to put Taiwan into “abeyance,” the CPC was now claiming the debate was over. The warm embrace of the motherland, extended in an effort to “reunify the country,” would henceforth proceed with the understanding that Taiwan’s fate was “entirely China’s internal affair.”

At the same time, the U.S. Congress, loath to let the White House commandeer foreign policy, passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), a remarkably complicated document that reserved for the U.S. the right to enable Taiwan to defend itself from possible Chinese encroachments. Thus, when Biden said in September on the program “60 Minutes” that the U.S. would defend Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion, he was merely reiterating what was implied in the TRA. By upholding what the Americans have come to call their “One China” policy, the CPC fumed that Biden had just trampled the Chinese “One China” principle. Yet as both the above historical arguments and this recent dust-up indicate, the debate has been a mishmash of confusions ever since 1972, with the U.S. and PRC talking past and against each other.

From the CPC’s side — having been disappointed by Nixon, deceived by Kissinger, stunned by how the TRA appeared to contradict prior White House intentions and flabbergasted by Taiwan’s evolution into a thriving democracy — they are left to harp on about an agreement that never existed. For Washington did not, and will not ever, consent to China’s militarily invading Taiwan. What the CPC calls its “One China” principle is therefore not a legally binding international agreement but a statement of nationalist aspiration and, increasingly, imperial frustration.

From the U.S. side, all that remains for the historical record are the published documents — the Shanghai Communiqué and the TRA — and, as we have seen here, those texts make clear that no unification can happen without the consent of the Taiwanese, which is not forthcoming. In this sense, Nixon’s secret promises have died with him, while Kissinger’s “abeyance” has become the hard fact of Taiwan’s independence. And so China’s “One China” principle and America’s “One China” policy now stand in opposition, the former claiming a right to invade Taiwan in the name of national “reunification” while the latter defends Taiwan’s national independence.

For the U.S. and China to pursue peaceful relations in the future, then, we must begin by understanding that any talk of a mutually-binding version of “One China” is empty posturing, for Taiwan will not surrender its independence and the U.S. will not tolerate an invasion.

Yet the PRC seems locked into its anachronistic claim that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the motherland, for despite their progress on other issues, in Bali this week Biden and Xi ended their talks about Taiwan at an impasse. Xi reportedly blustered that “‘Taiwan independence’ is as incompatible to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as fire and water.” And so the alternative reality of “One China” slogs along, the once-useful fiction now signaling a diplomatic deadlock.

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