Both the persistent charm and the occasional hostility of American-Chinese relations come from our cultural separation, our subtly different expectations and reactions. Chou En-lai and Henry Kissinger, as supra-cultural negotiators, could bridge those differences with more success than we can expect from our Congress, bound as it is to the electorate, or from the less traveled Peking leadership of today. Lacking dominant leaders on either side, we may fall into a people-to-people Sino-American confrontation of emotional reactions, hurt pride, fear, and hostility. The People’s Republic is remote and self-sufficient enough to get Mr. Carter’s least attention. When it does come up, understanding our China problem may be too big a task for a public already overburdened by foreign policy. Our last two wars were on the periphery of the Chinese revolution. Now that it is settling down, can we work out a stable relationship? Can we recognize that Taiwan is part of One China, in theory under Peking, and still maintain our close contacts with Taiwan in fact? This is a challenge we can meet only if we have more than our usual modicum of will and wit.

However, Taiwan is the only Chinese province surrounded by water. The fact is undeniable. Can we base a policy on it?

Normalizing our relations with Peking, our current policy, means denormalizing those with Taiwan. The exact shape of each operation remains to be worked out. Some would like Peking normalized without Taiwan denormalized (or demoralized), but this possibility was foreclosed long ago by the One China doctrine that Taiwan is a province of China, the one thing on which Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung agreed. Chinese leaders thus set the ground rules for American policymakers, who are obliged to find logic in a situation contrary to fact and sell the American public on a Chinese political myth.

Since One China is the primary item of national faith for 900 million Chinese, we did well to “acknowledge” it in the Nixon-Chou Shanghai communiqué of 1972. We thereby backed away, after twenty-three years, from the even less logical myth that our ally the Nationalist government on Taiwan constitutes the One China; but after twenty-eight years we still recognize it as such. Why are we so hung up?

We should not underrate the American emotional attachment to Taiwan, the part of China that seems to be coming our way, that still receives our missionaries and their good works, sends us students, welcomes our tourists, and grows apace in our international trading world. Taiwan is not a place with which the American people will willingly break off contact. Yet it is undeniably a part of the great realm of China—detached, to be sure, but still umbilically connected with the mainland in language, culture, history, and race. We are hung up because we want to develop a future with all China while retaining our inherited contact with part of it. How are we to deal in American style with so Chinese a problem? Can the Congress grasp Chinese realities or must the effort to achieve more normal relations deliquesce into another cold war?

The cacophony of our search for a China policy might be reduced if we could think back to the early 1940s, when instead of “normalization” or “One China” the slogan was “coalition government.” Both Chiang and Mao adopted this as a policy goal because it sounded good to the war-weary Chinese people. Neither side wanted openly to espouse civil war though each was determined to rule all China after Japan had been defeated.

Pearl Harbor brought in the Americans, with their foreign ideas. They believed, first, that all problems have solutions, even in China, and second that the Chinese should be helped to avoid civil war, which in the third place (a non sequitur) would promote postwar stability in East Asia. When General Marshall went to Chungking in December 1945 to mediate between Nationalists and Communists, the Cold War had not yet taken shape, Stalin was not backing Mao but had made a treaty with Chiang, and coalition government, long advocated by the United States, did not seem impossible. Marshall tried his best but after a year gave up because neither side, at bottom, would trust the other or make the necessary compromises.

Thirty years later, in the afterglow of history’s largest revolution, it is hard to see how coalition government could have succeeded in laying the basis for East Asian stability, much less for a new China. It was a Band-Aid for China’s broken back. The revolutionary surgery that eventuated could have been less (or more) traumatic, no doubt. But after Japan’s defeat, there was no way that Mao and Chou could have dealt with Washington amicably while expelling from China, as their revolutionary aims demanded, the Western establishment which was based on longstanding treaties.


Each side, in the late 1940s, interpreted coalition government to mean either a genuine Nationalist-Communist coalition or a coalition with minor groups against the enemy party, such as Chiang eventually set up in 1948 without success and Mao set up triumphantly in 1949. “Coalition government” (lien-ho cheng-fu) was thus a protean term that each party could use for its own purposes, including or excluding the enemy party as might seem best. What a useful term!—an agreed verbal basis for actual disagreement.

In “One China” today we have bought a similarly agreed-upon ambivalent term that each side can use to denounce the other, subscribing to the term but remaining completely intransigent as to its application. In this Chinese arithmetic, One China plus One China equals One China. The US, Mr. Fixit, is left in the middle trying to end China’s civil war (as soon as we have fixed up the Middle East and South Africa). Of course the balance in China has now shifted beyond recognition until Peking outnumbers Taipei by about 900 million to 17 million. Meanwhile Peking in the Shanghai communiqué has staked out its verbal position. It is firmly against “the creation of ‘one China, one Taiwan,’ ‘one China, two governments,’ ‘two Chinas’ (or) an ‘independent Taiwan.’ ” It demands that we end our recognition of the Nationalist government, drop our security treaty with that government, and withdraw all our troops and military installations from the island.

Confronting these demands, we react naïvely as if backed into a corner. Our public discussion clings to the past instead of creating a future. It is curiously uninformed and primitive in its emotional reaction. Assuming that our minimal need is to have contact with all parts of China, can’t we find our own protean terms for a position that would flexibly represent our interest?

This brings us back to the water surrounding Taiwan province. Can we not decide to recognize Peking instead of Taipei but maintain consulates, for example, in “all provinces of the People’s Republic of China that are surrounded by water”? Or maintain our present trade rules with all such provinces? Or take an interest in their stability or even their security? It would be quixotic for us alone among the parties involved to deny that Taiwan is a province. But don’t the facts of oceanography make it a special province—not culturally separate, far from independent juridically, yet characterized by certain special administrative, commercial, and military arrangements not typical of those continental provinces that happen not to be surrounded by water but abut upon one another?

Taiwan’s insularity has been the chief factor in its political history—in its resistance to the Ch’ing conquest from 1644 to 1683, in the Japanese takeover in 1895, in Chiang Kai-shek’s refuge there in 1949. Indeed we have a mutual security treaty with the government on Taiwan because the province is an island and American naval power can protect it. (Vietnam, to our cost, was neither an island nor even a peninsula like Korea.) In 1841 Hong Kong became British because it was an island. Since naval power brought the Western empires into East Asia in the first place, it is logical that Western influence should last longest in island areas. We can assert a special American relationship with “island provinces of China,” a relation inherited from an earlier age and not easy to liquidate all at once. This geopolitical rationalizing will not be explicitly agreed to in Peking, of course, but neither will any other policy by which we avoid abandoning Taiwan. All we can expect from either Chinese side is tolerance of our position, a tacit acceptance, not agreement.

The variety of American proposals concerning China policy can serve as an index of our general ignorance and unrealism. Some prescribe a plebiscite in Taiwan. They assume that the Republic of China after sixty-six years of existence (all Taipei publications are dated by the year of the Republic, Min-kuo, which began in 1912) would trust its survival to a majority show of hands, a vulgar custom that the elite of old China thought barbarous and the party dictatorships of new China have approached with diffidence. Self-determination for one province within the nationalistic Chinese realm of today has a good deal less chance than it did for the Confederate States of America 116 years ago. Thus the American congressmen who advocate Taiwan’s independence are urging that Chinese persons as yet unknown should challenge both the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party, get the UN to reverse itself, convince Tokyo it should antagonize Peking, and secure another American intervention against the great Chinese revolution. It is a tall order. Congressmen get into this footless position by looking at the apparent facts (Taiwan may to some appear independent) instead of harking to the Chinese ideal of One China that inspired both Chiang and Mao.


Another bit of unrealism at an equal extreme is the idea that we could sever all relations with Taiwan and “abandon” its 17 million inhabitants to a mainland takeover. This prophecy of doom is put forward in a variety of worst-case scenarios which generally refuse to consider probabilities or view Taiwan in its international setting. It is utterly improbable that Peking would ever promise an outside power not to use force against a province over which it claims sovereignty; such a promise would almost forgo sovereignty. Yet it is almost equally improbable that Peking, while concerned about the Soviets, would start a chancy war of Chinese against Chinese, particularly when American and even Japanese responses to an invasion of Taiwan remained unpredictable or probably hostile.

Maintaining “credibility” is put forward as still another reason for not dropping the Taiwan treaty. It is also a protean term usable on both sides. That we should honor a treaty is desirable; that we should still back one side in a civil war that it lost twenty-eight years ago is dubious. Thus by maintaining our Taiwan security treaty we can seem both credibly constant and credibly unrealistic, even stupid. Credibility, after all, is not a concrete policy goal but is contingent upon policy results, our over-all wisdom and effectiveness. Vietnam probably damaged our credibility for being prudent more than our credibility for honoring commitments.

Journalistic policy-making adds its share of turbidity. When The Wall Street Journal asks top Peking officials for final answers to big questions on Taiwan (see its issues of October 3-4, 1977), the expectably hard-line replies can be headlined “Formulas for Taiwan Accord with US Flatly Rejected” and “China’s Vice Premier Reaffirms Rigidity on Taiwan, Calls Use of Force Inevitable.” With such reporters conducting their own guerrilla diplomacy for us, who needs a State Department?

The major lack in our public discussion of Taiwan is hopeful imagination. Few can view the future except as a menace. China and America: The Search for a New Relationship is welcome accordingly as a collection of expert appraisals that are not without hope. Ralph Clough, a long-time Foreign Service specialist on Taiwan, now at the Brookings Institution, describes the strong Japanese interest in the island, the strengths and vulnerabilities of the Republic of China, and the variety of arrangements that might give Taiwan security whenever Peking is recognized: so far as representation is concerned, the US could retain a liaison office in Taipei, or a consulate, or a nonofficial trade office like the one maintained by Japan. If our government-to-government agreements with the Taiwan regime terminate, we should need “immediate legislative and administrative action to provide a new legal basis for the provision of military equipment and to ensure uninterrupted economic relations,” specifically concerning most-favored-nation tariff treatment, civil atomic energy, air transport, textile import quotas, investment guarantees, and the like—a formidable agenda. (Why not simply pass a blanket law that all previous legislation concerning the Republic of China hereafter applies to island provinces of China?)

About normal relations with Peking, Mr. Clough concludes that “failure to move ahead probably would lead to regression, for the present status is inherently unstable.” We shall have to “cope with an ambiguous situation” for a long time to come.

Other chapters of China and America round out the picture of complex future relations between Washington and Peking. Professor Akira Iriye of the University of Chicago, a leader in studies of American-East Asian relations, shows how Chinese foreign policy since the 1930s has tended to treat the United States “not in a strictly bilateral but in a broad international framework,” depending on how the Chinese “perceived the international system.” He hopes that Peking may share with us the perception that in the late 1970s “greater changes are likely to take place in economic and cultural, rather than in military and political, spheres of international affairs.”

The late Alexander Eckstein of the University of Michigan, who did so much to help develop study of the Chinese economy and our public relations with the People’s Republic, surveys the course of US-PRC trade and the impediments to its growth. The prospects he feels are only modest because China as a big country is not very dependent on foreign trade and wants to be self-reliant; the Maoist left has especially opposed going into debt abroad; even the economic developers seek specific imports rather than extensive sales overseas; consequently their demand for American planes or fertilizer plants will fluctuate; and unless they make more effort to sell to us, even most-favored-nation treatment would not create such big exports to us as to offset China’s probable deficit in the trade. We must have full diplomatic relations before we can expect much growth of economic exchange.

Professor Lucian Pye of MIT traces the course of cultural exchanges: from 1971 to 1975 some 8,000 Americans visited China, about one-half being Chinese-Americans, but of this total only about 550 were facilitated by the two governments. Meanwhile some 650 Chinese came to the US, of which 450 were official. Both sides have shown marked sensitivities: the Chinese want to acquire our scientific technology, not our capitalist culture, and sometimes distrust our China specialists as possible troublemakers. American scholars want exchange opportunities in the humanities and social sciences but seldom get them. Facilitated exchanges are still at the two- or three-week go-listen-look stage with no cooperative projects in research or residence abroad such as we have in Soviet-American exchanges. Organizational and protocol pitfalls abound between the American private agencies and the politically sensitive People’s Republic officialdom. One gets a feeling that only the innate superiority of Chinese food and hospitality plus the innate American curiosity have kept the exchanges going. But they lie at the center of the ongoing issue, how is the People’s Republic to be related to the international world?

William Barnds, of the Council on Foreign Relations, introduces and concludes this volume, well aware that “there are important forces in China and the United States that regard the costs of hostility as bearable and the benefits of detente as modest if not illusory.” It is therefore all the more noteworthy that his sober assessment of pros and cons comes down positively on the side of normalization as of “overriding importance.” He spells out the American interest in getting beyond the Chinese civil war of the late 1940s by having full diplomatic contact with Peking and yet ensuring the continuity of our relations with Taiwan. This quest for contact with all parts of China expresses an inveterate American tendency on our side of the cultural gap. We can pursue this interest only if we can avoid challenging the Chinese revolution’s ideal of One China—for example, by acknowledging that Taiwan is a province, but still a special province with which we retain a special relationship much like the present one.

In addition to the problems impeding our economic and cultural relations with Peking, we must face the possibility of Sino-Soviet rapprochement sooner or later. An international hostility that has already lasted two decades is a weakening reed on which to support the present degree of Sino-American togetherness. Sino-Soviet hostility can’t be counted on forever, and this suggests that, for all its difficulties, we may never have a better climate for normalization than we do now.

Oil provides another imponderable that may make the future less malleable than the present. Selig S. Harrison in China, Oil, and Asia: Conflict Ahead? has pulled together the most thorough, thoughtful study yet available of China’s oil potential. He assembles very extensive estimates from many sources, with maps, recounts the history of foreign and Chinese survey and drilling efforts, and explores the potentialities for conflict or cooperation affecting Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan as well as China and ourselves. Whether or not the East China Sea is another Persian Gulf or only a Gulf Coast, Harrison’s neat and yet comprehensive work makes it plain that oil rivalries, claims, hopes, and fears will complicate the East Asian future and our Taiwan problem accordingly. “Peking is gradually enhancing its regional military superiority, notably in the critical area of naval power most directly relevant to potential conflicts over offshore resources.”

We can only conclude that time is not standing still, after all, but actually running out, and if we want normalization with Peking on terms to our liking, we had better face the issues and not wait around.

This Issue

January 26, 1978