Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon; drawing by David Levine

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

Taiwan is also the headquarters for Air Asia. This is a subsidiary of Air America, which has become notorious for its major role in the CIA’s secret war in Laos. Air Asia is officially described as “the only facility in the Far East (excluding Japan) with modern jet fighter maintenance and overhaul contracts.”20 Well over 600 combat aircraft were serviced by Air Asia on Taiwan in February, 1969. China Air Lines, Air Asia, and Air America all combine to support US attacks in Laos mounted from bases in Thailand.

This puts Peking’s concern with Laos in a different perspective from that commonly held in Washington, where Peking is seen as a menace to Laotian integrity. Since Bangkok and Taipei are supporting Vientiane’s forces, at times bombing up to or over the Chinese border, much of Peking’s presence in Northern Laos, including its construction of roads and its anti-aircraft operations, may be explained by its sense that its security is threatened.21 While these Chinese activities are described by Washington as posing a threat to Thailand, they can also serve to create for China a buffer zone to protect her against hostile probes of Yunnan province.

In a secret war, the evidence is inevitably fragmentary; it is nonetheless suggestive, so far as direct Chinese Nationalist involvement in Vietnam is concerned. For example, in May, 1964, special guerrilla paratroopers were reported as being trained by US Army Rangers in Taiwan, after high-level military visits from Saigon had discussed possible Chinese Nationalist assistance in Vietnam.22 Two months later Hanoi announced the trial and sentencing of seventeen alleged Taiwan-trained commandos, survivors of a twenty-six man group sent into North Vietnam one year before.23 In 1969 the Republic of China was officially acknowledged to have several dozen “psychological warfare” personnel in South Vietnam.24

Only a complete investigation of all Chinese Nationalist activities in Southeast Asia and their clandestine support by the US will make possible a full evaluation of Chinese Communist aims in supporting insurgents in those areas of Burma, Laos, and Thailand that adjoin the People’s Republic. While some of this support is independently prompted by Maoist ideology, much of it appears to be reaction against external threats of subversion posed by Taipei and Washington.

In sum, there is a credible case that overt and covert US-Chinese Nationalist activities have aroused Chinese Communist security concerns. One result is that China has increased its military deployments on and across its borders. This activity, in turn, has been used to justify increased American and allied military investment throughout Asia to guard against the so-called Chinese Communist aggressive threat. The US is most provocative, of course, on Taiwan where, only four years after the Korean War, it built a major strategic bomber base capable of serving American B-52s.25 Also at that time we sent to Taiwan Matador missiles with a range of 600 nautical miles and nuclear capability—the first in the Far East.26 No American official has ever publicly confirmed the presence of nuclear warheads in Taiwan but neither can their absence be taken for granted in Peking.

Again in 1962, when the People’s Republic was faced with unprecedented internal and external threats, we moved the first US air combat unit to Taiwan.27 Today more than 7,000 American military personnel are stationed at the $45 million base of Ching Chuan Kang, supporting operations in Vietnam. Meanwhile the Chiang regime has expanded other airfields, enabling them to be used as strategic bomber facilities. 28 In short, the past fifteen years of our military activities in Taiwan have brought a steady increase in the capability of that island to threaten mainland China.

Even if we assume that our withdrawal from Vietnam will remove the need for Ching Chuan Kang and associated personnel, the remaining American military presence also bears scrutiny. At least until recently, we had more than 660 Air Force officers and enlisted men there, unaffiliated with any specific base.29 Another 190 US military personnel comprised the Taiwan Defense Command, of whom ninety were identified as in “communications” and fifty as in “intelligence.”30

All these were, of course, separate from the US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) which numbered almost 500. Although we have furnished more than $2.5 billion in military aid over twenty years, as of fiscal year 1970 we still authorized $25 million in Military Assistance Program expenditures, supplemented by another $35 million in “excess equipment.” Deliveries in the last category are made at the discretion of US military officials without specific authorization or control by Congress, which is often ignorant of them. They promise a steady stream of cut-rate weapons from the enormous Vietnam stockpile. In fiscal 1970 these included a squadron of F-104s, more than thirty C-119 transports, fifty medium tanks, thousands of M-14 rifles, a Nike-Hercules battalion, and five destroyers.31

Obviously this is a sizable package for a military establishment that already has almost 600,000 men guarding an island only 250 miles long and less than 100 miles wide. Yet this indirect military assistance has lain beyond Congressional control, in spite of its implications for our relations with both Peking and Taipei, not to mention the relations between the Chinese and Taiwanese on the island itself.

Secrecy and censorship have badly hampered any serious assessment of our relations with the Chinese Nationalists. It is impossible to believe that the many deletions from the Symington subcommittee hearings on US security agreements denied Peking much it did not already know. Peking can easily penetrate both the local Taiwan populace and the communications between Taiwan and the mainland.32 It certainly has known more of what has been going on than has Washington, or at least Congress.

What Peking Is Watching For

Now, however, we must see the problem in all its ramifications. So long as we provide concrete evidence to Taipei and Peking alike that our military and intelligence interests are tied to Taiwan and the Nationalists, both Chinese regimes must doubt our expressed desire that they settle the Taiwan problem peacefully and between themselves. While President Nixon felt it necessary last spring to rebuke a State Department spokesman, Charles W. Bray, for openly suggesting that a “possible way” to break the impasse over Taiwan “would be on the basis of agreements arrived at between the two governments,” that cat was out of the bag in Washington.33 But more serious evidence is needed to convince both sides that we really mean it.

In Peking those responsible for military contingency planning will continue to allocate resources against a “US-Chiang” threat of subversion, if not invasion. In Taipei, demands will continue for increased military aid to match developments on the mainland. And in Washington, the military-intelligence complex will argue that since helping our ally helps ourselves, we must keep on supporting the Taiwan regime.

Finally, important right-wing groups in Japan will press for retaining Taiwan by any means, with or without Chiang, because of its alleged strategic importance. For some Japanese, Taiwan is seen as protecting (or threatening) sea routes to Southeast Asia and the Middle East. For others Taiwan protects (or threatens) Okinawa’s flank. Those who believe, either because of their own predilection or because they still accept the old assumptions of US policy, in the “need to contain Chinese aggressive expansionism” see Japan’s interests as indissolubly wedded to the concept of offshore island bases confronting the People’s Republic. Taiwan’s role in this concept is what worries Peking. James Reston, after a series of high-level interviews climaxed by a five-hour talk with Chou En-lai, noted, “At the nub of the problem here, if one hears these top officials clearly, Japanese economic power and military potential, and the Taiwanese independence movement—independent of both Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung—are this capital’s nightmares.”34

It is asking too much of a Presidential visit to complete such far-reaching arrangements as settling the future of Taiwan. Nor is it reasonable to expect an administration in Washington that is facing an election and is preoccupied with immediate crises in South Asia and the Middle East—not to mention its economic problems—to design a comprehensive long-range policy on such recent and scanty evidence of détente with Peking. Indeed, the fact that China policy has received even as much attention as it has after seven years of preoccupation with the Indochina war, which is by no means over, remains an amazing accomplishment for which the President and Professor Kissinger deserve full credit.

But to use the jargon of Washington, the White House must “bite the bureaucratic bullet.” It must reverse our policy of using Taiwan for military and intelligence purposes as a first step on the vaunted “journey of peace,” thereby establishing some confidence both that this island’s future prospects lie outside our strategic interests and that it will not become the tool of a resurgent Japan. Beyond this, attention must be turned from exclusive preoccupation with the conflict of interests in Southeast Asia. In settling the Indochina war, no significant achievement is possible in Peking that might not otherwise be negotiated in Paris. Instead the converging interests of the US and the People’s Republic in Northeast Asia should provide the primary focus of conversations looking toward eventual negotiation. Neither Peking nor Washington wants to replay the Korean War according to any conceivable scenario. That peninsula’s importance depends primarily on its being a strategic route for potential attack either against northeast China or Japan.

This in turn suggests that both sides could reduce tensions in Korea through mutual moves and understanding that might lead to increased security arrangements for Northeast Asia. James Reston has raised the possibility of a four-power nonaggression pact linking the Soviet Union, China, Japan, and the United States. Another approach lies in a nuclear free zone, proposed by China in 1958 without much detail but worth reviving for its mutual advantages and concessions. Its essence lies in a prohibition of nuclear weapons within a 1,200 nautical mile range of Tokyo. This would effectively guarantee Japan against an IRBM threat from the mainland (no Chinese ICBM is likely to be targeted against Japan for the balance of this decade) and thereby eliminate one argument which might be used by nuclear advocates in Japan who profess to see the US as an unreliable or deterrable ally.

If, as Chou professed to Reston, the forthcoming talks can be justified by exploration of long-range issues alone, without providing solutions for existing problems, this perspective seems best suited to the interests of both sides in demonstrating their seriousness and sincerity without either side being compelled to face settlement deadlines that cannot be met.

Twenty years of stated positions, as well as covert and overt actions, have built walls of suspicion between Peking and Washington and webs of interests, domestic and foreign, behind those walls. Twenty hours of conversation between Chou En-lai and Henry Kissinger have merely provided stepladders for both countries to peer over those walls. However, if we move to disentangle ourselves from our ties to the Chinese Nationalists, it will become evident to Chou’s critics at home and abroad that he was justified in saying to Reston, “You said in one of your articles that you felt your President lacked courage. But of course, in deciding to come to China this time…he has some courage.”35 Should the Chinese reciprocate by adjusting their own policies, the conversations in Peking could usher in the first decade of peace in the Pacific in the twentieth century.

This Issue

October 7, 1971