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Sunday Book Review: Strait Talk

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Nancy Tucker’s Strait Talk, published earlier this year, is a detailed examination of the triangular relationship between Washington, Taipei, and Beijing between the 1970s and today. Tucker focuses on the role that Taiwan played in the negotiations that normalized relations between the United States in China, both as object (how the US and CCP participants discussed what to do with China), and as participant (how Taipei and its allies tried to influence negotiations). The result is a remarkably detailed and interesting account of one of the key diplomatic relationships in the world today.

Broadly, Tucker’s argument is that the United States has repeatedly given away too much in negotiations with Beijing, especially with regards to Taiwan policy. During the Cold War and in the immediate post-Cold War period (although perhaps not today), the United States could offer China far more than China could offer the United States. Tucker suggests that a better appreciation of this fact could have made it possible for Nixon, Kissinger, and their successors to take a harder line on Taiwanese autonomy and on the nature of the US relationship with Taiwan. Tucker discusses repeated incidences of US preference for Beijing across several Presidential administrations, including both Democratic and Republican.

Tucker’s argument is most sound when we don’t consider the problem of imperfect information. Viewed with the benefit of hindsight, it does appear that Beijing had much to gain from cooperation with the US, and that it might have been willing to display greater flexibility over Taiwan’s eventual status. Indeed, from some theoretical perspectives it should have been apparent at the time that the US could push Beijing around a bit, given the former’s strength and the latter’s weakness in 1972. Much depends on whether you believe client states bring patrons to heel, or the other way around. I don’t think, however, that Tucker sufficiently conveys the opaqueness of Chinese decision-making to US policymakers, especially in the early 1970s. Nixon and Kissinger rightly believed that a shift in Chinese alignment could bring substantial gains to the United States, both strategically and (eventually) economically. They could have played negotiations with an eye to relative gains with Beijing, which is to say that they could have accepted the argument that Beijing needed Washington more than vice-versa, and structured the resulting settlement accordingly. One reason they didn’t is that they were happy to accept relative loss vis-a-vis China in order to pursue absolute gains against the Soviet Union; Tucker covers this quite well. The other reason is that US policymakers didn’t have a good sense of the Chinese decision calculus, and therefore of how far the Chinese could be pushed before breaking. The rationality (in the traditional realist sense) of Chinese foreign policy behavior post-1949 was not evident to Americans of 1972, even if such behavior is more understandable through historical lens. I don’t think that Kissinger or Nixon knew precisely what Mao wanted, or what would happen if they pushed Mao too much on Taiwan and other areas of dispute. As such, accepting losses on certain negotiating positions was a way in which US diplomats and policymakers managed uncertainty about the Chinese decision-making process.

I think that later Presidents can be more justly accused of failing to negotiate assertively enough with Beijing than Nixon and Kissinger, but we should remember that Chinese decision-making and governance structures remained volatile until at least the early 1990s. Looking back its easy to see continuity, but there were always reasons for the US to be concerned about China’s leadership politics. In contrast, United States policymakers understood fully that Taipei had no options; despite a very brief flirtation with the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, Taiwan depended for survival on the generosity of Washington.

This didn’t mean, however, that Taiwan lacked advocates in the United States. Tucker’s other major contribution is a detailed discussion of the decline and fall of the China Lobby. As most know, the China Lobby wielded substantial influence in the United States for several decades. It represented an alliance of American evangelical and missionary groups, American businessmen interested in the China market, and a certain segment of the Chinese Nationalist political elite (although not, apparently, much of the Chinese-American community) . The Lobby helped structure the terms of US relations with China prior to World War II, steering the US towards Nationalist China and against Communist China and Japan. This is not to say that the Lobby was fully determinative of US policy; the US government had good reasons to oppose Japan and the CCP in any case. The Lobby helped, however, to turn a realpolitik decision into a moral crusade. The influence of the Lobby couldn’t save Nationalist China on the mainland, but nevertheless remained potent after 1949.

The language that the China Lobby used to preclude US rapproachment with China will be familiar to contemporary readers; China was a rogue state that could use its nuclear weapons randomly at any given time, and as such wasn’t fit for diplomacy. At one point, Chiang Kai Shek claimed knowledge of the location of the most important Chinese nuclear facilities, and suggested that he could take them out, if only the US would loosen the leash a bit. The PRC, it seemed, was full of atheist maniacs who didn’t believe that 72 virgins would be waiting for them when they died, and consequently could do ANYTHING. Lousy atheists. Anyway, strategic considerations (and sanity) precluded any meaningful unleashing of Chiang, but the influence of the Lobby in the executive branch and in Congress helped prevent a Sino-American dialogue over Vietnam, the final status of Korea, the role of the PRC at the UN, and the potential for collaboration with the Soviet Union. When any President hinted at acknowledging the PRC, the Lobby could arm Congressional opponents with money and righteous rhetoric about the dangers of appeasing Beijing. Nixon was able to break the cycle, in part because the most vocal China advocates came from within his own party, but also because of the shifting strategic situation of the early 1970s. Concern about increasing Soviet power and the need for a way out of Vietnam eventually overwhelmed the story that the Lobby was trying to sell. Even so, when news of Nixon’s China trip became public, Ronald Reagan (a member in good standing of the China Lobby) was dispatched to Taipei to allay Nationalist concerns. This was Reagan’s first major foray into foreign affairs, and it ended in embarrassment; Nixon essentially deceived Reagan as to the extent of concessions promised to the PRC, and Reagan himself later backtracked from generous campaign rhetoric with regard to Taipei. The influence of the Lobby waned in the 1980s, in part because the old guard died off, in part because the ideological force of the rhetoric progressively rang more hollow, but mostly because the US-PRC relationship was wildly successful. Beijing, and American business interests that favored engagement with Beijing, eventually were able to counteract and neutralize pro-Nationalist forces in the United States.

Understated in the discussion of Nixon’s opening with China is that one of Nixon’s key goals was to secure economic relations between the US and the PRC. Nixon believed that US-China trade could alleviate the economic difficulties that the United States faced in the early 1970s. On this point, while Nixon was probably too optimistic about the immediate effects (US trade with the PRC did not surpass US trade with Taiwan for a very long time), he pretty much nailed the long-term impact. The US trade relationship with China has become one of the cornerstones of US economic growth, and indeed of the entire world economy. It’s difficult to imagine what the world would look like without this relationship; had China remained isolated (not difficult to imagine in 1972), worldwide economic growth rates would undoubtedly have suffered. Tucker doesn’t delve deeply into this aspect of US relations with the PRC, but it’s nevertheless critical to an evaluation of the performance of US diplomacy in the 1970s and 1980s.

In spite of a few quibbles, I found Nancy Tucker’s Strait Talk enormously valuable. It’s very detailed, well sourced, and compellingly constructed. I highly recommend it to China specialists, and to anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of strategic policymaking.

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