A New Book: Nancy Bernkopf Tucker's "Strait Talk" on Taiwan's Unresolved Status

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Friday May 08, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Taiwan's status after World War II remains unresolved, how true. Yet while Dennis Wilder of the US State Department could say this, Japan's representative to Taiwan, Masaki Saito, recently got into trouble for saying exactly the same thing. Rebuked and admonished by both the Republic of China (ROC) and the People's Republic of China (PRC), Saito was nevertheless applauded by others. Why? Because it is about time that the world faced this unfortunate residue of San Francisco Peace Treaty (1952). I have written on it numerous times but am pleased to say that Nancy Bernkopf Tucker's new book goes into the full background. Her work, "Strait Talk: United States--Taiwan Relations and the Crisis with China" both documents and points to the numerous causes of this problem and how we got saddled by it. I present an excellent review of that book below. Anyone involved with Taiwan should read it.

"Strait Talk: United States-Taiwan Relations and the Crisis with China"

Reviewed by Julian Baum for the Far Eastern Economic Review Posted there May 1, 2009

One of Taiwan's foreign ministers under former President Chen Shui-bian (2000-08) commented recently that his ex-boss did not understand that relations with Washington depended on the actions of individuals. Instead, the former minister lamented, Mr. Chen foolishly acted as if the policies were self-enforcing and the human interactions of diplomacy were of little importance.

No one can read Nancy Bernkopf Tucker's admirably researched and jam-packed diplomatic history of United States-Taiwan relations and come away believing that diplomats and policy advisors do not make a difference. Indeed, the record shows that the people who have the leader's ear have been as important as the national interests and breaking events that usually drive decisions.

The author announces in the introduction to this landmark study that she aims to "examine unsparingly" the "history of mistrust, the damage it has caused to U.S.-Taiwan relations, and the jeopardy in which it has put both sides." Thus she begins a purposeful narrative about the dark side of this diplomacy, with fresh material from official records, memoirs, academic studies and more than 100 interviews. Ms. Tucker's spare writing and trenchant judgments on six decades of policies and especially the policy makers themselves, spanning the administrations of 10 U.S. presidents and five Taiwan presidents, often dissents from conventional views.

At the outset, she is agnostic about Washington's stance of "strategic ambiguity," which became doctrine under former President Dwight Eisenhower and leaves unspecified what the U.S. would do in the event of military conflict across the Taiwan Strait. The policy has often been disputed since Taiwan democratized because it assumes there is equal justification for keeping both Beijing and Taipei guessing about U.S. intentions. In early chapters, Ms. Tucker probes the "normalization mythology" surrounding President Richard Nixon's opening to China in 1972, and the unreciprocated concessions and excess secrecy of his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger. She concludes their decisions were shortsighted and "bred mistrust everywhere," leaving the U.S. weaker for acting rudely toward an ally, whatever its distaste for Chiang Kai-shek and his authoritarian regime. "This collateral damage to U.S. integrity, diplomacy, and democracy, at home and abroad, constitutes the most serious indictment of the policies they pursued," she writes.

Although we now know that the inevitability of formal relations with Beijing was recognized even by Eisenhower in the 1950s, the false sense of urgency that Presidents Nixon and Jimmy Carter brought to the project and their eagerness to accommodate Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai deepened insecurity across East Asia. Ms. Tucker shows that Mr. Kissinger and Brzezinski, his counterpart in the Carter administration, shared a fixation with the Soviet threat and an ignorance of, and indifference toward, Taiwan. Neither fully understood the importance of Taiwan to their interlocutors in Beijing.

Meanwhile, the absence of candor between the doomed allies could be surreal. A U.S. National Security Council staffer commented in 1965 that the atmosphere of his meetings in Taipei was "rather eerie." He reported that the Republic of China officials knew that the U.S. did not believe their rhetoric about "recovering" the Chinese mainland, and that he suspected that many of them did not believe it either, but that no one would talk about it. "The result is that our every relationship is affected by the unmentionable dead cat on the floor."

More than a decade later, poor communications delayed dealing with the inevitable trauma to come. U.S. Diplomat Roger Sullivan told the author that even in discussions with Yale-educated Frederick Chien, one of Taiwan's most respected U.S. experts, he was often told, "You are not going to establish diplomatic relations with the communists so forget about it." In such circumstances, Mr. Sullivan said, there was nothing to discuss. "By February 1978 or so we were talking nice to each other and not communicating." The unintended consequence was to leave the U.S. free to ignore Taiwan's interests while resentment boiled over in the streets of Taipei.

And so went the miscalculations, reversals of declared intentions and the barely concealed contempt that accumulated over the years, even amid ardent expressions of goodwill and common interests. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency began to doubt Taiwan's ability to maintain air superiority over the Taiwan Strait even before derecognition, and the focus of relations during the next 30 years was on military sales to deter the Chinese People's Liberation Army and to keep Taiwan's options open. Ronald Reagan and his successors all wrestled with issues of the quality and quantity of weapons sales, eventually ignoring an agreement with Beijing on arms sales that had little support outside the State Department. After the 1995-96 missile crisis, the U.S. rose to the challenge of re-engaging Taiwan's defense establishment after nearly two decades of isolation, despite an abiding distrust of Lee Teng-hui, who was trying to consolidate Taiwan's democracy in ways that Washington did not appreciate.

This history is familiar, but the policy debates and conflicts among the participants have not been so richly narrated elsewhere. Ms. Tucker sometimes lapses into Washington's self-interested assessments of Taiwan's leaders, including the view that Ma Ying-jeou, now in office for one year, has at long last opened the way to reconciliation across the Taiwan Strait, while discounting the considerable risks to the island's sovereignty and democracy. But most of her judgments are broadly sensible and her dense documentation shows exceptional commitment to getting the details right.

What drives the story forward is the reality that Taiwan has not collapsed, but rather has rebuilt its legitimacy as a sovereign state through political reforms and competitive elections. Unfortunately for its citizens, the island's democratization has not fundamentally altered the official parameters of its constrained relations with the U.S., because of China's chauvinism and Washington's notorious inertia. The book comes in the wake of an especially disastrous low point in relations under President George W. Bush, which weakened U.S. resolve. Meanwhile, a China-friendly government in Taipei is piling up agreements which suggest outward reconciliation and cooperation across the Strait, but mask deeper uncertainty and potential instability, unless Beijing shows more flexibility. Taipei's shadowy process of party-to-party talks with Beijing avoids public scrutiny and the troublesome need for domestic consensus. For some critics, this stealth and camouflaged intentions reprise Washington's own behavior of an earlier time.

Dissenting from Washington's current passivity in these unprecedented circumstances, Ms. Tucker advocates a more active and engaged U.S. presence, not at the negotiating table but in the near background, to prevent Taiwan from being overwhelmed. The U.S. can stabilize the status quo and support the island when its dignity and equality are challenged or when its democracy is violated during the inevitable periods of flux and volatility that lie ahead.

Ms. Tucker urges Washington and Taipei to break from past attitudes and reach for a more authoritative diplomacy with greater trust and honesty than has been the norm. She asserts that the U.S. has an obligation not to be a mere bystander, as it "can protect its interests only if it participates in the process of resolving cross-Strait tension." At this critical point, her book is not only a useful tutorial in past worst practices in U.S.-Taiwan relations, but also a paradoxical record of the how diplomacy has worked to ensure the island's durability as a free-standing society, decades after many experts and strategists had written it off.

"Strait Talk: United States-Taiwan Relations and the Crisis with China" is published by Harvard University Press (2009).

Nancy Bernkopf Tucker is a Professor of History at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Julian Baum, a former Taiwan correspondent for the REVIEW, is based in Virginia.