While China’s economic leverage over the United States is limited, this kind of agreement would ratchet up the asymmetric dependence of Taiwan on the Chinese economy. Maybe Taiwan has already crossed the point of no return with regard to interdependence with the mainland — but this agreement would surely guarantee crossing that threshhold.
What would China do with this leverage? I don’t know, I really don’t. If Beijing plays the long game, they would allow for the build-up of political interest groups in Taiwan with a powerful incentive to appease the People’s Republic in order to keep the economic relationship unruffled. The thing is, China has often been clumsy in its initial attempts to translate economic power into political influence, and I could easily see such a misstep occurring a few years from now.
Perhaps I’m being paranoid about this. The one thing I’m certain about, however, is that the most likely flashpoint for a great power confrontation between the United States and China is anything involving Taiwan. So I get veeeeeeerrrrrrry nervous about anything that upsets that particular apple cart.
Concern about the US getting dragged into a militarized dispute between China and Taiwan is well taken; I share Drezner’s belief that this is the most plausible flashpoint for great power conflict between the US and the PRC. Key to this concern is democratic solidarity. I’m queasy about the idea of simply allowing an authoritarian country to devour and digest a democratic state*. Defending Taiwan from Chinese attack would be considerably different than invading Iraq in order to create a democracy; Taiwan is already democratic, the PRC most certainly isn’t, and militarized re-unification would be really, really bad for the political freedom (not to mention the physical well being) of the Taiwanese people. I’m not, however, interested in any kind of strategic rationale for the defense of Taiwan, such as the idea that the acquisition of Taiwan would mean a loss of US power relative to Beijing, or a loss of leverage over China, or that Taiwan represents China’s gateway to the Pacific, or similar arguments.
Thus, any obligation to defend Taiwan is based strictly on Taiwan’s commitment to de facto independence. If the Taiwanese people and government determine that they can reach some sort of accommodation with Beijing that results in formal reintegration without military conquest, the US has no business standing in the way. An EFCA may shift the Taiwanese calculus regarding whether or not its sensible to reach an accommodation with the PRC, but is unlikely to undermine the ability or interest of the US to respond to a Taiwanese request for assistance against China. As such, I think it works in favor of stability, rather than instability, by helping to remove the key point of contention between the US and the PRC. In short, if Taiwan wants to pave the way to peaceful reintegration with an EFCA, they’re more than welcome. “Saving” Taiwan isn’t worth a war with China if the Taiwanese don’t want to be saved.
*But then why didn’t I support military intervention in favor of Georgia in 2008? This commitment to democratic solidarity is only operative under conditions including a) the democratic state not actually having started the war, and b) a reasonable chance of success. The Georgian situation was further complicated by the facts that the population of South Ossetia favored Russia, and that Russia sought neither long term occupation of Georgia proper nor regime change in Tblisi. In the Taiwan case, I wouldn’t favor wasting a single cruise missile in defense of Quemoy, and would be reluctant to support Taiwan in the wake of obvious Taiwanese provocation, such as a declaration of independence.
Liu Chenshan, the author of a series of articles that chronicle the five times China has faced a nuclear threat since 1949, wrote that the most serious threat came in 1969 at the height of a bitter border dispute between Moscow and Beijing that left more than one thousand people dead on both sides.
He said Soviet diplomats warned Washington of Moscow’s plans “to wipe out the Chinese threat and get rid of this modern adventurer,” with a nuclear strike, asking the US to remain neutral.
But, he says, Washington told Moscow the United States would not stand idly by but launch its own nuclear attack against the Soviet Union if it attacked China, loosing nuclear missiles at 130 Soviet cities. The threat worked, he added, and made Moscow think twice, while forcing the two countries to regulate their border dispute at the negotiating table.
Even if the USSR mooted the idea of a nuclear attack on China to the United States, it doesn’t mean that such an attack would actually have been carried out. Soviet conventional capabilities greatly exceeded Chinese, although perhaps not to the degree that the Russians could have ensured the destruction of China’s (fairly primitive) atomic forces without resort to nuclear attack. Suggesting to Washington that an attack was imminent may just have been an attempt to feel out the Nixon administration’s attitude towards China.
Even if the US insisted it would respond to an attack on China by nuking the USSR, it doesn’t mean that such a response would have been undertaken. Nixon would have every incentive to bluff in this situation, and I have serious doubts as to whether he would have been willing to go full Armageddon in defense of the PRC. Obviously, the US had made neither an explicit nor implicit security guarantee to Beijing, minimizing potential reputational effects of a non-response. Of course, the threat of a nuclear response against Moscow would carry its own costs without follow-through.
Launching nukes against China would have been an incomparably bad idea on the part of Moscow. Even assuming that the Russians managed to destroy the Chinese nuclear deterrent, it’s unlikely that the Russians would have been willing to completely destroy China as a political and cultural entity. We now know that the Soviet leadership was a) sensitive to international opinion, and b) at least somewhat nervous about the idea of butchering hundreds of millions of people. A nuclear attack to settle a border dispute would not have sat well with anyone in either the West or the Third World, and probably would have incurred serious resistance from within the CPSU.
Over and over again, the Bush administration tried to push the idea of these conventional ICBMs. Over and over again, Congress refused to provide the funds for it. The reason was pretty simple: those anti-terror missiles look and fly exactly like the nuclear missiles we’d launch at Russia or China, in the event of Armageddon. “For many minutes during their flight patterns, these missiles might appear to be headed towards targets in these nations,” a congressional study notes. That could have world-changing consequences. “The launch of such a missile,” then-Russian president Vladimir Putin said in a state of the nation address after the announcement of the Bush-era plan, “could provoke a full-scale counterattack using strategic nuclear forces.”
Yeah, I’m really not sure that changing to an atmospheric quasi-ballistic missile from SLBMs really helps. For one, the shift would somewhat reduce the promptness of the global strike (although probably not by much). More importantly, it doesn’t really solve the dilemma. If Putin/Medvedev/Hu/Whomever are inclined to worry that a detected launch was the prelude to an all-out nuclear attack, they’ll likely not be reassured by the news that it comes from some “special” location in the US. If the US decided to launch a preventive nuclear assault on Russia or China, wouldn’t we initiate the attack in the most deceptive way possible?
This isn’t to say that we should eschew research of any weapon that can decrease the time between order and KABOOM. Questions of strategic stability, however, need to be taken very seriously. How willing would we be to use these weapons in a war over the Taiwan Straits? In response to another Russia-Georgia War? Or, perhaps even more disconcerting, what if we decided we needed to kill Osama Bin Laden with 30 minutes notice during the midst of a Russia-Georgia War that we were otherwise uninterested in?
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President Obama secured a promise from President Hu Jintao of China on Monday to join negotiations on a new package of sanctions against Iran, administration officials said, but Mr. Hu made no specific commitment to backing measures that the United States considers severe enough to force a change in direction in Iran’s nuclear program.
In a 90-minute conversation here before the opening of a summit meeting on nuclear security, Mr. Obama sought to win more cooperation from China by directly addressing one of the main issues behind Beijing’s reluctance to confront Iran: its concern that Iran could retaliate by cutting off oil shipments to China. The Chinese import nearly 12 percent of their oil from Iran.
Mr. Obama assured Mr. Hu that he was “sensitive to China’s energy needs” and would work to make sure that Beijing had a steady supply of oil if Iran cut China off in retaliation for joining in severe sanctions.
I’m skeptical of sanctions working, if by “working” you mean to effect a direct change in Iranian behavior. However, I do think that sanctions can have a substantial atmospheric effect, to the extent that they convey the disapproval of international society, and consequently help to build international norms. In that context, getting Russia and China on board is a meaningful achievement for the liberal internationalist project.
American neoconservatives tend to get hostile when you make the point that every country has its neocons. The response typically runs something like this:
How can you possibly compare me with those Russians/Chinese/Iranians? Don’t you understand that I cloak my hawkish right wing nationalism behind a thin veneer of concern for human rights!?!?
Neocons also tend to get hostile when you point out that hawkish foreign policy pronouncements and actions feed hardliners in foreign countries. The ideology of toughness extends beyond the borders of the United States; the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian versions of Chuckie Krauthammer are at this very moment insisting that the projection of power, resolve, and toughness will force the Americans to back down/give up/stop poking us/do something.
The implications of handing foreign policy to people committed to the rhetoric of toughness should be obvious. A demonstration of “resolve” on the part of the United States is matched by a similar demonstration on the part of the Chinese; a weapon system intended as a “bargaining chip” spurs development of a corresponding system by the Russians; insistence on “regime change” in Iran empowers the people who have always argued that the United States intends to conquer Iran. And then we get things like this:
China said late Monday that it had successfully tested the nation’s first land-based missile defense system, announcing the news in a brief dispatch by Xinhua, the official news agency. “The test is defensive in nature and is not targeted at any country,” the item said.
Even if news accounts on Tuesday did not provide details about the test — and whether it destroyed its intended target — Chinese and Western analysts say there is no mistaking that the timing of the test, coming amid Beijing’s fury over American arms sales to Taiwan, was largely aimed at the White House.
In recent days, state media have been producing a torrent of articles condemning the sale of Patriot air defense equipment to Taiwan. China views the self-ruled island as a breakaway province, separated since the civil war of the 1940s, and sees arms sales as interference in an internal matter.
I’m of the opinion that carefully managed and limited US arms sales to Taiwan are both wise and appropriate. However, even if you agree with the Chinese position, or at least believe that the US should stay out of the relationship, how could you think that a Chinese ABM test would have an even vaguely positive effect on US behavior? Does anyone now believe that it is less likely that the US will transfer F-16s and Patriot missile systems to Taiwan?
I appreciate that weapons need to be tested and domestic constituencies need to be appeased, but it seems clear that the Chinese intended this test as a warning to both the US and Taiwan. I suspect that the Chinese intended this message to say:
Please respect China’s territorial integrity, and right to manage its sphere of influence.
I very much doubt that this is the message Americans will hear. More specifically, I doubt that the right people will hear this message in the way the Chinese want. Instead, those voices who have always insisted that the Chinese are an incorrigible threat, that they cannot be dealt with, and that they only understand the language of force will be enabled. To manage the next foreign policy dispute with China in a wise and measured fashion will become “appeasement of the aggressor.” Voices in Beijing will be making precisely the same argument.
I suspect that international franchising of the Weekly Standard might be an excellent investment opportunity.
A few years ago, a student of mine worked out the implications of a large scale Chinese SRBM (short range ballistic missile) attack on Taiwan. He argued that the attack was, based on the historic resilience of regimes to coercion by air assault, unlikely by itself to break the will of the Taiwanese government to resist. It won’t surprise readers of this blog to learn that I agreed with this conclusion. However, he didn’t really go into the implications of a conventional ballistic missile attack launched against military targets on Taiwan, in particular Taiwan’s air bases and fighter aircraft. At Foreign Policy, David Shlapak has an article based on the recent RAND study he co-authored on the likely course and outcome of a PRC-Taiwan conflict. Shlapak argues that a preparatory ballistic missile assault on Taiwan would stand a very high chance of devastating the Taiwanese air force, and of giving China air superiority in any conflict. GPS guidance has rendered SRBMs radically more accurate, improving their ability to strike air bases and other military infrastructure.
Although I haven’t read the RAND study, the argument seems pretty compelling to me. I would suggest a few caveats:
It seems highly unlikely that a PRC-Taiwan war would result from a surprise Chinese attack. Rather, Taiwanese forces would probably be at high alert. This means that a larger percentage of the fighter force would be aloft at time of attack. However, if the airbases themselves are rendered unusable, this doesn’t matter very much.
Shlapak suggests that US air bases would also be vulnerable to Chinese SRBM or MRBM attack. While this is technically possible, I suspect the Chinese would be deeply reluctant to escalate the conflict through attacks on US targets, including airbases in friendly countries. While we couldn’t necessarily expect to have full freedom of action from Guam or elsewhere, I doubt that US forces would fall victim to a surprise attack.
Shlapak argues that dispersing assets, hardening shelters, and increasing missile defense capabilities are the only real options that the Taiwanese have. In this context, I concur with the last point; missile defense may be nearly useless in a strategic nuclear sense, but it’s helpful against a large scale conventional ballistic missile attack. However, SRBMs are cheaper than interceptors; it seems likely that the Chinese will simply be able to overwhelm any Taiwanese system with sheer numbers.
I think that the takeaway is this; there was a long window in which Taiwan was probably capable of preventing a Chinese invasion, even assuming no US intervention. That period is closed, or closing; the balance between Taiwan and China, sans the development of Taiwanese nuclear weapons, is moving inexorably in China’s direction. This does not mean that war is inevitable, as China has lots of fabulous reasons for not launching a war of conquest. I think that it does, however, mean that China has greater leverage over Taiwan on a whole host of issues of dispute between the two states. It also means that the United States faces a more difficult choice regarding its level of engagement if the PRC-Taiwan relationship goes hot.
Speaking of Chiang Kai Shek, I have a short article up at Foreign Policy comparing the Chinese and (purported) Iranian nuclear weapon programs:
Even the Soviet bloc worried that the Chinese were crazy. The causes and course of the Sino-Soviet split are complex, but nuclear weapons were near the heart of the dispute. Chinese brinksmanship in the 1958 Quemoy crisis prompted the Soviets to suspend nuclear cooperation. In a ridiculously entertaining series of pamphlets issued between 1959 and 1963, China and the Soviet Union sparred over the role that nuclear weapons were to play in defense of the socialist world. The Chinese displayed on almost casual disregard for the atomic bomb, dismissing it as a “paper tiger,” and argued that peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism was a fantasy. The exasperated Soviets responded with a question: “We would like to ask the Chinese comrades who suggest building a bright future on the ruins of the old world destroyed by a thermonuclear war whether they have consulted the working class of the countries where imperialism dominates?”
The Wall Street Journal (as flagged in the NRO web briefing) reports on rioting in China by Uighur “students” that has left scores dead and hundreds wounded. The “students,” described elsewhere in the story as from a “predominantly Muslim ethnic group[, which has] long chafed at restrictions on their civil liberties and religious practices imposed by a Chinese government fearful of political dissent,” expressed their dissent by torching cars and buses, as well as — according to accounts of some witnesses to state-controlled media — rampaging “with big knives stabbing people” on the street.
No reason for non-Muslims in Bermuda, Palau, or the United States to worry, though. The lovable Uighurs are merely trying to address “economic and social discrimination.” Once they get social justice, I’m sure they’ll stop.
It’s hard to figure out where to start… for one, there was a time at which movement conservatives were mildly skeptical of the claims made in Chinese state media. Apparently this is no longer the case. There was also a time at which conservatives would have celebrated a provincial rebellion against our communist superpower existential foe*, but apparently there was a memo or something to the effect that “Anyone from any ethnic group that has members who have ever been incarcerated in Guantanamo deserves the swift, brutal justice of the Chinese state. Pass it on.” I also like how McCarthy has tossed aside the values of democracy and self-determination just to score points against liberals; this doesn’t even rise to the level of coherence displayed by Chucky “Bring back the Shah” Krauthammer.
The rest of the Corner crew, it appears, has tactfully declined comment.
But which was the runaway favorite in two polls conducted earlier this month? Mao Zedong.
He may have been a monster to you and me. The number of Chinese who died as a result of his policies runs into the tens of millions. But to many, if not most people here, Mao remains – for all his faults, even when they are admitted – the father of the nation; his memory is endowed with supernatural powers.
Indeed, his name alone “has deterrent force,” believe some of the respondents, according to the International Herald Leader, a daily paper owned by the official Xinhua news agency, which commissioned one of the polls.
But there could be a drawback. “Aircraft carriers are used in battle, and they could get damaged,” the Herald Leader points out. “If that happened to a carrier named Mao Zedong, it might hurt ordinary people’s feelings.”
In such a naming scheme, would Mao be followed by Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping? Then maybe Chen Yun and Yang Shangkun? Would an aircraft carrier serve as the ultimate redemption for Liu Shaoqi or (less likely) Lin Biao? Or is Mao singular enough that you could name the rest after cities or provinces? A note of caution to the Chinese; you start out by giving an aircraft carrier the name of a legendary leader, and you end up with the Carl Vinson and the John C. Stennis.
What follows is a long, largely unoriginal rumination on the state, coercion, the Odessa Steps, and Tank Man. Skip to the end for trivial observations about the current situation in Iran. Or just skip entirely…
The modern nation state is an extremely efficient killing machine. We know this from our Tilly; the nation-state replaced its competitors, such as empires and city-states, because it could develop and support institutions of internal and external domination. The nation-state successfully extracted a large surplus from its population, which it transformed into the coercive means for acquiring even more internal surplus and for waging external wars.
The most common interaction we have with the state is thus; the state demands property that we regard as our own, and if we refuse to hand this property over it sends men with guns to our house. If we resist these men with guns, they imprison us. If we resist too effectively, they kill us. This is true of every modern nation-state. Liberal democracies differ from authoritarian states in that they allow us to complain loudly about the process, to minimize its arbitrariness, and to have some (very) small say in how our property is reallocated. This difference isn’t trivial, but it isn’t as large as normally assumed.
The modern nation-state is nevertheless tolerable because it substantially reduces private coercion (replacing it with less arbitrary public coercion), creates a relatively safe space in which commerce and the production of wealth can be undertaken, provides regulation necessary for the conduct of a modern (socialist or capitalist) economy, provides social services, and because it creates a sense of identity and political efficacy. Its murderous tendencies notwithstanding, I’d rather live in a nation-state than not, and would prefer a more complete and capable state to the rump that libertarians envision.
The long century (1789-1914) can be regarded as the period of consolidation of the institutions of the modern nation-state. The last competitors were either eliminated or co-opted, small statelets were amalgamated, and the lower and middle classes were fully integrated into the domestic processes of the state. The perfection of these institutions, as much as anything else, allowed European states to conquer the rest of the world, and to apply the institutions of the modern-state to heretofore unfamiliar populations. This was, it is fair to say, a bloody process. It saw untold colonial depredation, from the conquests of Africa, South Asia, and North America to the “opening” of China and Japan. The Wars of the French Revolution exceeded any previous conflicts in size and destruction, largely because of the increased extractive and warmaking capacity of the state. Still, the old ways were not wholly replaced; in Europe, at least, much of the traditional elite continued to hold the reins of the state.
This process of perfection would culminate in 1914, when the truly destructive nature of the state would be unleashed. Internally and externally, the major states of the world set about the task of murdering as many people as possible. Eighteen million or so were killed in World War I. In 1917, the Russians had a Revolution designed to hand their state to right thinking people, and those right thinking people murdered dozens of millions more. Between 1939 and 1945, the German state murdered six million Jews, along with roughly twice as many Poles and Russians. The Japanese state murdered about 20 million Chinese. The good guys in that war (and I use the term with no ironic intent) saw fit to incinerate millions of German and Japanese citizens by dropping bombs on them as they slept. Following World War II, the Chinese state killed some fifty million of its own citizens, concentrated in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The various combatants in the Vietnam War killed about 4 million altogether, and the Khmer Rouge killed probably 2 million. All of this was made possible by the institutions of the modern nation-state; its extractive capacity, its efficient bureaucracy, and its ability to maximize military power.
The modern nation-state could murder at such an efficient rate because competent, well educated, healthy, efficient people staffed its bureaucracies. The medical systems of the modern state kept its soldiers and policemen healthy and capable. The educational institutions created unprecedented literacy, which maximized its killing capacity; soldiers and police who can read can also fight more effectively. The microfoundation of the story of the twentieth century is, thus, that the state created citizens, and those citizens made possible the murder of vast quantities of other citizens. This isn’t a particularly new idea; it’s more or less Arendt, and it’s something that I talked about in the context of Battle of Algiers a few years ago. Twentieth century evil is the efficiency and enthusiasm of capable bureaucrats.
Tank Man was not the first person to stand up to the coercive power of the state. People defying other people holding guns has a long and distinguished history, from Napoleon forward. The survival of Tank Man and of every other such protester depends on a decision made by the state employee carrying the gun. What distinguishes the few moments near Tiananmen from the Odessa Steps, thus, is not the heroism of the protester, but rather the decision by the tank commander not to run Tank Man down, or to shoot him. The video has always been more compelling to me than the shot; the tank commander actively tries to carry out his job without running over tank man, and eventually decides to hold up an entire tank column while Tank Man clambers on to his vehicle.
I feel that I can understand why Tank Man risked his life to stand in front of the tank column. I have less of a sense of why the tank commander decided to stop. For all I know, Tank Man may have been Tank Commander’s brother. Tank Commander may have been afraid that his superiors would have been pissed if he ran over a guy while cameras might be watching. He may not have wanted innocent blood on his hands, or on the treads of his tank. He may have sympathized with the demonstrators; perhaps his father or mother had been a victim of the Cultural Revolution. Or perhaps he identified the Tiananmen demonstrators with the Cultural Revolution, and sympathized with them. I really have no idea.
The thing is, Tank Commander is far more dangerous than Tank Man. Tank Man can simply be shot; most seem to believe that Tank Man was later executed, far out of sight of the international media. The regime survives if Tank Man dies, even if the death of Tank Man isn’t the optimal outcome. The regime dies, however, if Tank Commander refuses to run over Tank Man. Eisenstein used the Odessa Steps to demonstrate the corruption of the Czarist regime, but the regime didn’t die until the soldiers refused to shoot the demonstrators. The successor regime didn’t die until Boris Yeltsin climbed on a tank in August 1991. While there’s some mystery as to the fate of Tank Man, I don’t doubt that the CCP found Tank Commander and put a bullet in the back of his head at the first opportunity.
1989 is the end of the Short Century, in large part because of the collapse of the Eastern European empire of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War. Although the People’s Republic of China survived, I think that the moment that Tank Man and Tank Commander shared symbolizes the end of the era; the image and video of the moment, spread across the world by 24 hour news networks, signified a shift in the way that the state could interact with its citizens. It made the relationship between state and citizen explicit, and also exposed the weakness at the core of the state. States can still engage in brutal behavior, and horrible things can still happen, but the relationship has changed; the reliability of the bureaucracy of murder is in greater question now than it has been since the creation of the modern state system.
1989 is not 2009. The media trends that allowed the dissemination of the moment between Tank Man and Tank Commander have, if anything, accelerated; the ability of individuals to create their own narratives, independent of the state, is remarkable. At the same time, the state has developed new strategies for dealing with its citizens. This is as true of liberal democratic states as it is of authoritarian. I think, however, that the center of gravity of the state remains with Tank Commander. To the extent that the United States, other Western regimes, non-governmental organizations, and pretty much anyone else want to affect the course of events in Iran, the key is to convince Tank Commander not to shoot. The Iranian state has not deployed its full coercive resources against the demonstrators, and there’s no indication that it really wants to; even the CCP is said to believe that the massacre in Tiananmen Square was a serious mistake. The news to watch for is something like this, in which several members of the Revolutionary Guard were purportedly arrested for collaborating with dissident elements. Without the obedience of the security forces, the state collapses.
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.