A Word for Taiwan

Originally published June 19, 1978

THERE ARE four questions concerning the normalization of relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that have received astonishingly little attention: (1) By what right does the People’s Republic assert sovereignty over Taiwan? (2) Why is it important for the U.S. to normalize relations with the PRC? (3)Why is it important for the PRC to normalize relations with the U.S.? (4) If we should adopt the so-called Japanese formula-that is, withdraw recognition from the National Republic of China, denounce our defense treaty with it, but continue trade-would the PRC be as content with our action as it has been with Japan’s?

The persistent cacaphony issuing from both Chinese governments-not to mention our own China Lobby-has distracted our attention from the fact the PRC controls the territory it does by the right of revolution, supplemented in the case of Tibet by the right of conquest. No other show of legitimacy can be put on its accession to power. This does not mean that what it seized de facto does not now belong to it de jure; it merely means that Peking’s authority rests on a violent base. This, in turn, is not to say that the base is necessarily unworthy or corrupt; it is, however, to say that it has certain limitations.

The essential thing about territory won by revolution or by conquest is that it has to be won. As Mao said, “A revolution is not a tea’ party.” That is so obvious that no one mentions it, and in the present instance no one even thinks of it. Consider Tibet: If the invading Chinese had been thrown back at the border, would they have been given the country anyhow, for trying? Or if Chiang Kai-shek had been able to’ stop the Communists at the line of the Yangtze, and if a stalemate had developed there, would either side, for whatever reason, have been declared the winner and awarded control over the other? Right to the point, were Canada, Newfoundland and the British West Indies handed over to the fledgling United States at the Treaty of Paris?

The Taiwan stalemate has developed in Formosa Strait. There is no reason for this particular stalemate to have special consequences. True, both Chinese governments insist there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of it. Rather gingerly and informally and possibly hypocritically, we. have endorsed this extraordinary notion; and were it put to a vote in the UN General Assembly tomorrow morning, the proposition undoubtedly would pass by a greater margin than the last election for mayor of Peking.

But the fact remains that the PRC’s claim to Taiwan rests solely and nakedly on might and Peking doesn’t have the navy or the airforce or the modern equipment to make good a landing. It couldn’t even take Quemoy and Matsu (still being shelled on alternate days for no real purpose) without risking astronomical casualties. It might, to be sure, manage to destroy Taiwan with atomic bombs; but even if the Communist Chinese (like us) are not too rational to destroy something in order to save it, they of all people don’t want the idea to get around-that atomic-warfare is a Good Thing.

Thus, if the PRC is going to take over Taiwan, it will have to do so with diplomacy. That diplomacy will have to be directed at the United States, and our handling of it will be improved to the degree that we understand how tenuous the PRC claim to Taiwan actually is.

ALTHOUGH the People’s Republic has no right to Taiwan, it might be to our interest to help it prevail there. Chamberlain thought it was to the British interest to help Hitler get the Sudetenland, and we evidently think it to our interest to put pressures on Israel and Egypt and on Rhodesia and South Africa.

In the case of Taiwan, it is urged that we are specially responsible for its present status. The return of Formosa to China was rather offhandedly promised by Roosevelt at Cairo. The Nationalist forces, or some of them, escaped to the island with, and probably by means of, materiel we had given them. Misreading the import of the Korean War, we interposed our Seventh Fleet to protect them from a PRC invasion. Later, we removed the fleet and “unleashed” Chiang Kai-shek, not that it made any difference either way. We made loud diplomatic noises about Quemoy and Matsu. We fought as long as we could to keep the Nationalists in the United Nations. We equipped and trained and advised their military forces. We advised and pressured their civilian authorities into a no doubt grudging implementation of their own ostensibly liberal policies. Our giant corporations and many of our fly-by-night operators have invested heavily there. So if one has the right to destroy whatever one creates (a dubious notion, but let it pass), it can be said that the United States of America has the right to destroy the National Republic of China.

Even if the right is granted, it of course does not follow that it should be exercised, and no one suggests that it should be exercised for no reason at all. But there have been suggestions that it is not too high a price to pay for the normalization of our relations with the People’s Republic of China. Yet why is this important?

That we live in one world, and that great nations simply should have relations with each other, does not get us very far. If the proposition means anything, it means that such relations should be entered into with no strings attached. Nations have diplomatic relations in order not to have to conduct state policy by other means[1]. It is a truism that setting prior conditions to diplomacy is a sure way of avoiding it; indeed, the conditions are just what the diplomacy should be about. In the present instance everyone, including the PRC agrees[2] that Peking is setting the prior conditions.

Recently it has been strongly argued that, for a variety of reasons, we have briefly open to us a “window” (the allusion is to space probes) offering us the chance to make the PRC our ally, and if we don’t quickly take advantage of it the window will slam shut, never to open again in the forseeable future: Assuming the possible accuracy of this reading of the situation (though the window has remained open for a long time now), why should we care? The answer confronts us with a threat and a promise.

The threat is that, disillusioned by our unwillingness to take the next step toward handing over Taiwan, and convinced thereby of our perfidy and our animosity, the PRC will be forced back into the arms of the Soviet Union. We will then have recreated the Communist monolith, and the Russians will become even more intransigent than they have been of late. We need not consider the implausibility of this outcome; we need only wonder whether diplomatic recognition would in any way alter it.

The first Communist monolith (if there actually was one) came into being without our say-so and fell apart without our say-so, without any of our doing or any of our knowing. CIA and all, we read about it in the papers some 15 years after it happened. It is idle to imagine that we would have any more control over the second monolith. Geography and imperial ambitions made the PRC and the USSR enemies. If they could compromise their imperialisms – Who gets Outer Mongolia? Who gets Sinkiang? Who gets Vladivostok?-geography could make them friends again, just as we became friends with Canada after we decided not to fight for 54-40. An American ambassador in Peking wouldn’t have a clue not now available to our representative, Leonard Woodcock.

The promise is increased trade. But despite a century and a half of enthusiastic propaganda, the fact remains that the United States and China are not now, never have been and never will be significant trading partners. In 1898 we held onto the Philippines, and later shamefully fought Anguinaldo to retain our hold, partly to protect our trade with China-which was then all of $10 million annually and represented one-tenth of 1 per cent of our Gross National Product. Americans now boosting normalization hold out the prospect (not, so far as is known, based on anything but the number’s satisfying roundness) of a billion dollars in trade-or roughly one-twentieth of 1 per cent of our present GNP. In other words, if we do what the PRC wants, we can hope to see trade rise to about half of the slight importance it had for us when we first became enmeshed in Asia.

Basically, the two countries are too similar in resources. Beyond that, we have no use for their tractors, and they are determined not to use ours except as models. They are afraid of our books and movies, and we are bored by theirs. They can use our wheat, when they can’t get Australian or Canadian, and we can use their carved jade and ivory and ginseng root. Their new “practical” leaders will graciously buy our guns on credit, normalization or not.

That is how things are and how they’re likely to remain -with one significant difference. The $2 billion of trade we now do with Taiwan would, if the PRC got what it wants, go to the mainland. The factories might produce somewhat different goods and the workers might get somewhat different wages, but that is where the trade would go. The PRC would continue to have very little trade with us, and our total world trade would be $2 billion less.

Looking at the question from the other side, why is it important for the PRC to normalize relations with us? Does it have a big stake in the matter? If not, the whole endeavor will come to nothing. It is axiomatic that no treaty will be long respected that doesn’t have in it something the high contracting parties want to maintain.

Taiwan, of course, is the mainland stake here. Peking makes no bones about that. And until Taiwan is de jure and de facto the PRC’s, relations between Peking and the U.S. will not be truly normal. But what would truly normal relations amount to?

There is for the People’s Republic, exactly as there is for the U.S., the ideal that great nations should have diplomatic relations. The past behavior of both sides has left something to be desired. We rebuffed their overtures in the mid-1940s. In 1950 each of us misread the other’s intentions, and we came to blows in Korea. Thereafter there was no thought of diplomatic relations until a conversation between Mao Tse-tung and Edgar Snow, coincident with some skirmishing with the Soviets on the Usseri, led to the Nixon visit. Now Peking could have diplomatic relations if it wanted them, but it seems to put more store by its prior conditions.

As we do, the Communist Chinese also have reason to fear the Soviet Union; and as we fear the recreation of the Communist monolith, they fear that a U.S.-USSR détente will enable the Russians to cause them more trouble in Sinkiang and possibly elsewhere. All Over China elaborate systems of air-raid shelters have been built. All over China schoolchildren are trained in close-order drill and rifle marksmanship-often shooting at silhouettes said to represent imperialist Russian soldiers. The American Rifle Association would be simultaneously envious and shocked. One of the reasons for the overthrow of the Gang of Four was the Army’s concern that Chiang Ch’ing and her comrades were too committed to the Thought of Mao that a primitively armed but politically indoctrinated mass is inevitably victorious. The fear of Russia is real enough.

Once normal relations are entered into, the normal desire for normality and the need for neocontainment of the USSR should tend to keep the relationship alive. But these reasons are operative today, and the PRC evidently does not consider them good and sufficient. Perhaps there is no cause here for surprise. The experience of 4,000 years is not lightly discarded. The Middle Kingdom got along for millennia without noticing the outside world, and the People’s Republic itself got along for a quarter of a century sometimes isolated from everyone except Albania. It is, moreover, certainly not to the advantage of a totalitarian state to have its people in free contact with citizens of other lands. There is, in short, little reason to expect that normalized relations with the People’s Republic would be close or even lasting.

THE SO-CALLED Japanese formula has been well publicized. Its underlying (though unstated) theory is that Orientals are chiefly stimulated by face, and that the Chinese, being a very old race, are very patient in the pursuit of it. It would thus be an intolerable loss of face for the People’s Republic to renounce its claim to Taiwan after having been so vociferous about it for 30 years. On the other hand, all the PRC really cares about is having its claim recognized; there is no hurry about enforcing it; it will enforce itself in a hundred years anyhow, if not sooner. Chou En-lai said as much. There is, moreover, the example of their restraint regarding Hong Kong and Macao, particularly the latter, for even the hapless Indians made bold to take Goa back from the Portuguese.

According to the scenario, then, all we have to do to achieve peace in our time in Asia is endorse the PRC’s understanding of the Shanghai Declaration, denounce our defense treaty with the Nationalists, withdraw the 800-900 troops we still have on the island, close the diplomatic missions, and win kingly open “unofficial” trade missions. After us, things will work themselves out in some way, surely short of a deluge, and in the meantime everything will go on pretty much as before. This is what a psychiatrist or games theoretician would call the Best Outcome.

There is also a Worse Outcome, however, that is worth a moment’s thought. For once we recognize Taiwan as de jure a province of the People’s Republic of China, we will have to recognize the PRC’s laws there. And a sovereign power has the undisputed right to decide where and under what conditions it will trade with other powers, as well as the right to enforce those conditions through inspections and fees. In these circumstances, it is not hard to imagine the Worse Outcome scenario.

The PRC agrees to go along with our use of Taipei as a port of entry; it merely asks that for appearances sake any company coming in get a permit at the nearest Chinese consulate. Pan Am and the others shrug and pick up their permits.

No trouble at all, really. After a discreet interval little regulations are added that are irritating and productive of much diplomatic correspondence (that’s what normalization is all about), but not worth making a real fuss over. Eventually, the PRC notices that we acquiesce in humiliating Arab boycotts. So when (let us imagine) ITT signs a contract to build the Soviets an electrical plant in Vladivostok, the PRC announces that no entry permit and no exit permit will be issued to any ship or plane carrying goods, mail, or people having anything to do with ITT. The first ship denied a permit will no doubt be of Liberian registry, and a Chinese gunboat will intercept it. ITT, having (let us again imagine) heavy investments in Taiwan, screams for Uncle Sam.

There is no doubt that we could bull it through. An aircraft carrier or two and a half dozen destroyers could see to it that our trade was not interfered with, even if we didn’t want to reconstitute the Seventh Fleet, and the admirals would be delighted to get the exercise. But normalization would be gone, and so would the last shreds of our reputation for respecting the rule of law.

It may be objected that the PRC has not acted in this way with Japan or France or Canada or the rest of the world. It is nowhere written, though, that the Chinese must be consistent. Beyond that, a modicum of prudence would suggest to the PRC that any untoward behavior, before we are in the bag, would scare us off forever. Neither the Japanese nor the French nor the Canadians can keep the PRC from Taiwan. Only the United States of America can do that, unless we become fatally entangled in the net of normalization.

It may be further objected that there is a simple way to guard against the Worse Outcome. Since the People’s Republic does not scruple to impose conditions for normalization, we could do the same. We could honorably declare our willingness to agree that Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic if the People’s Republic would publicly agree never to take any step, direct or indirect, to enforce its abstract right. No doubt Peking would continue to reject any such formula. It is unwilling to do more than smile or scowl inscrutably and allow us to hope it will not cause trouble.

THIRTY-ODD years ago we participated with the British in turning more than 2 million refugees (that is, people fleeing for their lives, then known antiseptically as Displaced Persons) back to Russia in furtherance of our desire to prove our good will to the dictator of that land, who made the legalistic claim that these people were his subjects. There is no evidence that our action contributed to the peace of mankind or even to the dictator’s favorable opinion of us. But there is heartbreaking evidence that almost all those 2 million human beings-men and women like ourselves-were subsequently done to death in misery describable only by a Solzhenitsyn.

We as individual Americans may not have been aware of this horror, and our leaders may not have had ground to anticipate it, but it was done, and done in our name, and we must, if we are human, feel pity and terror and shame. By the same token we may be proud of our refusal to force the repatriation of some 48,000 of the Chinese and North Korean prisoners we took in the Korean War. And now we should at least be sure beyond a reasonable doubt that a truly noble purpose would actually be served by putting Taiwan at risk. We don’t have to conjure up a horrible fate prepared by the PRC for the people on Taiwan (though the Communists do boast that politics comes out of the mouth of a gun). We certainly do not have to pretend that China would have been better off if the Nationalists had won. We merely have to have respect for the self-determination of peoples.

We Americans have sins to match our virtues: Two that beset us are knowing what is best for others and imagining that there is someone deed which, though inconvenient (we casually admit) for some people, will enable everyone else to live happily ever after. The temptation exerted by these sins is powerful. But we cannot allow ourselves to be unaware of the evil our arrogant glibness can compound. It may have been a mistake to help create the present situation on Taiwan; it would be an outrage to help destroy it.

GEORGE P. BROCKWAY a new contributor to these pages, is chairman of the board of directors of W. W. Norton & Co.

[1] The original text reads “devices” but GPB hand note reads “means”

[2] The original text reads “denies” but GPB hand note reads “agrees”

Note: Although most of the articles George Brockway published in The New Leader were in a series titled “The Dismal Science” this first article, before he had a regular column, is published as part of the “Thinking Aloud” series.


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