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What Nixon Must Do to Make Friends in Peking

Summit meetings in the past between an American President and a communist leader have never resolved any existing problems, but they have created some basis of communication and understanding which have helped to prevent conflict. So too the meeting between President Nixon and Chou En-lai is unlikely to bring peace to Indochina or, at one stroke, dispose of Taiwan’s future. However, if it is to lead to better relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, it must go far beyond the “exchanges of view” of Geneva, 1955, and Glassboro, 1967. It must mark concrete concessions by both sides on the most fundamental clash of interests, US relations with Chiang Kai-shek and the status of Taiwan.1

Walter P. McConaughy, the present US Ambassador to the Republic of China, testified in 1969 that “any US military presence or military-related activity on Taiwan is viewed by the Chinese Communists with especial hostility, since Peking considers such activity on Taiwan as interference in its internal affairs.”2 This statement conceals a double-truth. First, we did interfere in China’s internal affairs when, in June, 1950, we interposed the US Seventh Fleet between the two sides of a civil war. And we have been intervening ever since, having supplied $2.5 billion in military assistance to one side, the Nationalists, while making a treaty commitment to defend them from attack by the other side, the Communists.

But even more direct and threatening an interference in China’s internal affairs, at least as perceived by Peking, has been what Ambassador McConaughy elliptically referred to as our “military-related activity.” In conjunction with the Chinese Nationalists we have sponsored and supported a wide range of espionage, sabotage, and guerrilla activities on the mainland. Those activities created crises in the Taiwan Strait in 1954 and 1958 and, as we shall see, furthered a revolt in Tibet in 1959. Covert operations from Taiwan heightened Chinese alarm over Indian advances on the Tibetan frontier in 1962, culminating in the Sino-Indian war that fall.

These crises produced Chinese Communist military reactions which, in turn, have been used to justify a vast network of US military bases, alliances, and military assistance programs throughout Asia, ostensibly to contain the threat of Chinese Communist aggression.

Such developments bear scrutiny by the American people and, thanks to the “Pentagon Papers,” partial documentation can now prove what journalists could previously only allege. In the past, secrecy has served primarily to conceal the facts from Americans: the details have long been known in Peking. If, however, Americans are to understand Peking’s demand that we “withdraw all US bases and military personnel from Taiwan,” the facts about the concrete provocations that underlie this demand must be known. Only if we cease all hostile operations involving the Chinese Nationalists, whether from Taiwan and the offshore islands or elsewhere in Asia, can there be real hope that President Nixon’s plan to visit Peking will result in a successful “journey of peace.”

Clandestine Chinese Nationalist Air Activity: Taiwan to Tibet, 1954-61

The Chinese Nationalists have, with the knowledge and support of the United States, carried out clandestine air, sea, and land operations against mainland China and neighboring areas for twenty years. From 1950 to 1953, hostilities between Chinese Communist and United Nations forces in Korea may have justified our support for these activities. However, our shadowy involvement with Mao’s civil war enemy steadily grew after the Korean War and the Geneva Conference of 1954.

The “Pentagon Papers” are highly revealing about the air operations in particular. According to a top secret memorandum from Brigadier General Edward Lansdale to General Maxwell Taylor, President Kennedy’s chief military adviser, a Chinese Nationalist commercial airline, Civil Air Transport (CAT), ostensibly “engaged in scheduled and non-scheduled air operations throughout the Far East,” was actually “a CIA proprietary.”3 CAT furnished, Lansdale wrote in 1961,

…air logistical support under commercial cover to most CIA and other US Government agencies’ requirements…by providing trained and experienced personnel, procurement of supplies and equipment through overt commercial channels, and the maintenance of a fairly large inventory of transport and other type aircraft under both China and US registry.

CAT’s activities extended far beyond the confines of China. As early as 1954, for instance, Lansdale, then a colonel, organized paramilitary teams in Saigon for sabotage and guerrilla warfare in North Vietnam. He reported that “CAT provided SMM [Saigon Military Mission] with the means for secret air travel between the North and Saigon.”4 Lansdale also claimed that in 1958 CAT furnished “complete logistical and tactical support for the Indonesian operation,” an abortive CIA effort to overthrow Sukarno through an army rebellion in Sumatra.5 But most pertinent for our purposes is the revelation that by 1961 CAT had carried out “more than 200 overflights of mainland China and Tibet.”6

Lansdale’s memo forces us to reconsider the revolt against China that took place in Tibet in 1959, a revolt that had an important effect on subsequent Sino-American as well as Sino-Indian relations. At the time, Peking charged that outside help for the rebels came from Taiwan. The Chinese Nationalists openly acknowledged these charges.7 No independent verification was available, however, except through the somewhat exotic writings of a British missionary-journalist, George Patterson.8 Patterson’s claim of divine guidance and his passionate advocacy of Tibetan resistance—he favored the militant, lesser-known Khambas of East Tibet against the more passive center of the Dalai Lama at Lhasa—aroused disbelief when he wrote his dramatic accounts. He got little attention, too, when he claimed that in 1955 he had acted as interpreter for an American official who offered clandestine help to aspiring Tibetan insurgents.9 Not until 1965 did he attract publicity when he showed vivid films of a guerrilla raid against a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) convoy.10

Although Peking had officially “liberated” Tibet in 1951, pockets of potential resistance remained. Militant minority tribesmen gained new allies when thousands of Chinese Moslem troops took refuge in Tibet, led by the Nationalist Ma family, who were celebrated for their unconventional warfare in the mountains and desert of Sinkiang. In 1955 Patterson learned of joint anti-Communist activity between the Tibetans and these troops. They were, he reported, supported by airdrops arranged by radio links between the Kuomintang forces in Tibet and Taiwan.11 It was impossible for these airdrops to come directly from Taiwan, since the distance was too great for piston aircraft. An intermediate base was required, but where? That it was located in Thailand was suggested by the crash of an unscheduled CAT transport in the Gulf of Siam near Bangkok in October, 1954. Two Americans were aboard; no explanations were given.12

Although the Tibet revolt was crushed in 1959, covert airdrops continued, as we learn from Sino-Indian diplomatic exchanges concerning overflight of the disputed border. In 1960, Defense Minister Krishna Menon protested to Peking “against repeated flights of Chinese planes over India’s Northeast Frontier Agency,” declaring in Parliament that “reports of forty-three air violations had been received” by April.13 Three weeks later Chou privately informed Nehru that investigations had shown that the aircraft were American. Another Indian protest in August was publicly denied by Peking, which asserted that the aircraft

…took off from Bangkok, passed over Burma or China and crossed the Chinese-Indian border to penetrate deep into China’s interior where they parachuted weapons, supplies and wireless sets to secret agents and then flew back to Bangkok again passing over the Chinese-Indian border.14

The Chinese statement also revealed Chou to have been so confident no Communists were flying over Burma that he had notified the Burmese government it was fully entitled to move against any unidentified aircraft in its airspace, “either forcing them to land or shooting them down.” That September the Burmese did hit a Chinese Nationalist PB4Y long-distance patrol bomber (World War II US vintage) which crash-landed in Thailand. Although Chiang Kai-shek sent an apology to Bangkok, Chinese Nationalist intelligence officers in Taipei subsequently insisted that these flights would continue. Meanwhile US military attachés in Rangoon confirmed that supplies captured by the Burmese government from Chinese Nationalist guerrillas included five tons of ammunition packed in boxes marked with US aid labels.15

Renewed diplomatic exchanges over unidentified aircraft occurred in 1962 when New Delhi undertook its “forward policy,” emulating past Chinese practice by sending patrols to lay claim to disputed territory on the Sino-Indian border. The policy could not have been more badly timed so far as Peking was concerned. Three years of economic difficulties resulting from the failure of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” in 1959, the withdrawal of all Soviet assistance in 1960, and a series of natural disasters had created widespread dissidence in China. Meanwhile on Taiwan Chiang Kai-shek was trumpeting once more his call to prepare for “counterattack against the mainland,” amid a flurry of high-level American military and political visits. At the beginning of May almost 200,000 refugees flooded across the border to Hong Kong while, unknown to the world, 80,000 Uighurs and Kazakhs also moved from Sinkiang to the Soviet Union.

In early June diplomats in Peking spoke of “panic.” The sudden deployment of Chinese Communist divisions opposite Nationalist garrisons on the offshore islands was immediately followed by an emergency Sino-American ambassadorial meeting at Warsaw, summoned at Chinese request. The Chinese message was forthright: the US must not back Chiang in an invasion of the mainland.

In this tense atmosphere the air link between Taiwan and Tibet took on added importance. In July and August Peking stepped up its already sensitive responses to “Indian air intrusions” and explicitly noted the coincidence in timing between increased Indian military activity and the alleged preparations of Chiang to invade the mainland.16 Moreover, while Chinese Nationalists airdropped weapons to potential Tibetan insurgents, New Delhi provided refuge for the Dalai Lama, symbol of the 1959 tragedy. The Indian military patrols themselves were more a political challenge to Chinese territorial claims than a military challenge to its vital security interests. Peking, however, saw them in the context of hostile threats on both the US-Chiang and Soviet-Sinkiang fronts. The Indian patrols had to be halted. When “signals” and ultimatums failed, the People’s Liberation Army unleashed two short offensives at both ends of the long Himalayan front and smashed the “forward policy” in a few weeks of controlled combat.17

Taiwan and US Actions in Southeast Asia

US activities making use of Chinese Nationalist facilities or forces carry a latent threat to mainland security, whether or not they are immediately aimed at part of China, such as Tibet or the coastal provinces of Fukien and Chekiang. In this respect, Taiwan’s participation in the Indochina war has doubtless been of particular interest to Peking. CAT gradually gave way to a new competitor, China Air Lines (CAL), formed in 1960. In 1961 CAL began charter operations in Laos; the next year it moved into South Vietnam.18 CAL supplied almost half the pilots and planes for Air Vietnam, Saigon’s “commercial” air line which has been active throughout the Vietnam war, and it contributed pilots to Royal Air Lao. In addition it carried out “clandestine intelligence operations” frankly characterized by CAL officials as “more dangerous missions.”19

  1. 1

    I am indebted to J. C. Thompson, a former Defense Department analyst now doing graduate study at the University of Michigan, for research assistance.

  2. 2

    Hearings Before the Subcommittee on United States Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad of the Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate, 91st Congress (1970), Volume I, Part 4, “The Republic of China,” testimony of Ambassador Walter P. McConaughy, p. 1128; hereafter cited as US Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad.

  3. 3

    The Pentagon Papers (Bantam Books, 1971), p. 137.

  4. 4

    Ibid., p. 57.

  5. 5

    Ibid., p. 137.

  6. 6


  7. 7

    The New York Times, March 27, 1959.

  8. 8

    In addition to articles in Life, Foreign Affairs, and The Reporter, books by George Patterson pertaining to Tibet include Tibetan Journey (1954), God’s Fool (1957), Tragic Destiny (1959), Tibet In Revolt (1960), and Peking v. Delhi (1963).

  9. 9

    Tragic Destiny, pp. 136-8.

  10. 10

    For a written account see “Tibet: Khamba Tribesman” in The Reporter, March 25, 1965.

  11. 11

    Tragic Destiny, p. 109.

  12. 12

    The New York Times, October 21 and 24, 1954.

  13. 13

    Ibid., April 7, 1960.

  14. 14

    New China News Agency (NCNA) dispatch of September 17, 1960, in The New York Times, September 18, 1960.

  15. 15

    The New York Times, February 17, 18, and 24, 1961; also March 4, 1961.

  16. 16

    This summarizes research by Liao Kuang-sheng and myself concerning Chinese media, diplomatic, and military behavior during 1962 with special attention to India; the study will be published in the near future.

  17. 17

    For an authoritative account of Indian planning and the “forward policy,” based on firsthand interviews and access to unpublished government papers in New Delhi, see Neville Maxwell, India’s China War (Pantheon, 1971).

  18. 18

    The New York Times, April 3, 1967.

  19. 19


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