On February 22, 1972, Richard Nixon sat down with Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, along with eight other U.S. and Chinese officials. It was during Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing, and the U.S. president and the Chinese premier were about to fashion the communique they would issue at the end of the presidential visit. What followed is worth pondering in the wake of President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial phone conversation the other day with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. This was promptly assailed as a diplomatic blunder of the first magnitude, a product of geopolitical naivety or perhaps just bad manners. These things just aren’t done, said the critics.
Back in that February 1972 meeting between Nixon and Chou, the sticking point, as everyone knew, was Taiwan, essentially an American protectorate since the Chinese Nationalists had hunkered down there following the successful communist revolution on the Mainland in 1949. For China, which considered the island an integral part of its territorial birthright, this was a sharp bone in the throat.
Chou asked if the president wished to begin the discussion with Taiwan and then move to larger geopolitical matters or begin with broad issues and work through to Taiwan.
“Taiwan,” replied Nixon without hesitation. Then he launched into a remarkable peroration that lasted an hour and a half as he tossed out powerful policy decisions he had made in solitary fashion in his hideaway office in the Old Executive Office Building.
“The President was direct,” wrote Richard Reeves in his history of the Nixon presidency, President Nixon: Alone in the White House, “and more candid than he ever was with his own staff and Cabinet.” Reeves added that Nixon “went right to the main points—and China’s main point was acknowledgment that Taiwan was theirs, perhaps not tomorrow or even in twenty years, but part of China forever.”
Powerful political forces throughout America resisted that idea. This was the Cold War; the enemy was communism; China represented Asian communism; Taiwan was aligned with the West; therefore, there could be no compromise on Taiwan. This view even had its own powerful lobby in Washington, known as the China Lobby, a collection of ardent right-leaning Cold Warriors bent on someday assisting Taiwan’s Chinese Nationalists in their dream of retaking the Mainland. The leaders of the China Lobby had always considered Nixon to be one of their champions. But not on this day.
“Principle one, there is one China, and Taiwan is part of China,” said Nixon. “There will be no more statements made—if I can control our bureaucracy—to the effect that the status of Taiwan is undetermined.” He added the United States would not support any Taiwan independence movement, would discourage Japan from exploiting any U.S. retreat from the island, and would “support any peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue that can be worked out.”
This was breathtaking diplomacy, so thoroughly a departure from conventional thinking and prevailing policy that it rendered inevitable a powerful rupture in American politics. But Nixon had that problem firmly in mind as well. He explained to Chou the political difficulties he would face if the wording of the communique weren’t sufficiently vague. He spoke of an “unholy alliance” of the far right, the pro-Soviet left, pro-Japanese factions, and supporters of India—all poised to heap abuse upon his historic mission.
“What we are trying to find,” said Nixon, “is language which will not give this strong coalition….the opportunity to gang up and say in effect that the American President went to Peking and sold Taiwan down the river.” To seal the point, he added: “Our problem is to be clever enough to find language which will meet your need yet does not stir up the animals.”
Behind Nixon’s diplomatic audacity was a recognition that the world had changed, had moved beyond the issues and passions that had dominated America’s China policy for the previous 23 years. Most Americans didn’t understand this, as indeed most people everywhere are slow to recognize seminal changes when they overtake a polity or a global situation. The status quo always exerts a powerful pull on the consciousness of people.
We may be at a similar point today with respect to our relations with China. The policies and perceptions that Nixon unleashed so audaciously in the early 1970s, in the process smashing the status quo of that time, now are well congealed into a new status quo, and part of that status quo is the view that Taiwan belongs to China and, so long as China doesn’t seek to effectuate that presumption through force of arms, America will give implicit recognition to it. Since 1979, the United States has embraced a “one China” policy, and that one China is the People’s Republic.
But China is seeking methodically and inexorably to bolster its diplomatic, economic and military presence in East Asia, and it is clear that its primary geopolitical aim is the removal of the United States as the key player in the region. Consider the words of John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, one of the country’s leading “realists” in the realm of geopolitical thinking:
My argument…is that if China continues to grow economically over the next 30 years, much the way it has over the past 30 years, that it will translate that wealth into military might. And it will try to dominate Asia, the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere….Of course, the United States will not allow that to happen if it can [prevent it]. And the United States will, therefore, form a balancing coalition in Asia, which will include most of China’s neighbors and the United States. And they will work overtime to try to contain China and prevent it from dominating Asia. This will lead to a very intense security competition….And there will be an ever-present danger of war.
Mearsheimer is describing here an emergent status quo that will replace the one created by Nixon, who sought in 1972 to lure China out of its “angry isolation” and encourage it to become a member in good standing in the world and in the global economy. He also sought to set up China as a valuable counterweight to the Soviet Union, America’s most menacing adversary in the Cold War. He did all this while also fashioning a strong informal coalition of Asia’s economically progressive nations (Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Malaysia) that could serve as a counterweight to China should it become too powerful and too ambitious.
Now China is powerful—and certainly seems ambitious, with its methodical efforts to gain dominance over what is called the “first island chain,” stretching from the Aleutians in the north to Borneo in the south, essentially sealing off the Yellow Sea, South China Sea and East China Sea. If this can be accomplished, China essentially would be in position to kick America out of those crucial expanses of Asian waters and islands.
Thus does it seem that increased tensions with China are inevitable—unless the United States chooses to retreat from those waters of its own accord. This may be the new status quo, unseen and unwelcome by many who cling to the world as they have known it for years or decades. And, if that is true, why would America cede to China the island of Taiwan, described by Douglas MacArthur as “an unsinkable aircraft carrier” just off the coast of that rising nation. If Mearsheimer is right, and U.S.-China frictions will rise inexorably, and America must nurture a “balancing coalition” of China’s neighbors in order to retain its position in Asia, then we are in a new era or soon will be.
This doesn’t necessarily argue that Trump’s phone conversation with Taiwan’s president was a good idea. It might well prove to have been unnecessarily provocative at the wrong time. But it also may have reflected new geopolitical realities that the United States won’t be able to avoid much longer.
Robert W. Merry, author and longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the editor of The American Conservative.