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

  • Published

Strait Talk: United States–Taiwan Relations and the Crisis with China by Nancy Bernkopf Tucker. Harvard University Press, 2009, 404 pp.

Think of the history of foreign relations between the United States and the Republic of China (ROC) as a failed marriage. After 20 years of a rocky relationship punctuated by divergent interests, the husband leaves the wife for a more attractive woman. The former couple, however, still attempts to maintain the semblance of a friendship despite vigorous protests from the new wife. This dysfunctional arrangement serves only to breed mistrust among all the parties involved and complicates the new union.

This metaphor essentially describes Nancy Tucker’s thesis in Strait Talk: United States–Taiwan Relations and the Crisis with China. She contends that, following two decades of an often shaky alliance with Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government, the marginalization of Taiwan with rapprochement and normalization of relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) further cemented the mistrust that Washington and Taipei already had for one another. Dealing with Taiwan in an unofficial status following US diplomatic recognition of the PRC further exacerbated the situation and proved problematical for this triangular relationship as the United States and Taiwan constantly worked against each other in dealing with the PRC.

As a victim of Western imperialism, China has a long tradition of distrusting all foreigners. Tucker, however, chooses to forgo explaining this historical context and begins with the Chinese alliance with America during World War II. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek often resented Washington’s intrusion into his affairs as he fought both the Japanese and communists, considering Harry Truman disloyal when the US president sent emissaries in an attempt to mediate the Chinese civil war rather than side against Mao Tse-tung. After the Kuomintang government established itself on the island of Formosa following the loss to the communists in 1949, the fear of monolithic communism, together with the PRC’s intervention in the Korean War, forced Washington to reluctantly support Chiang’s authoritarian regime for the next 20 years. It did so until the Soviet-Chinese split presented Washington cold warriors the opportunity to isolate Moscow through normalization with the PRC. The ROC was aghast at being completely left in the dark about negotiations between Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai, learning of Kissinger’s mission only 30 minutes prior to Pres. Richard Nixon’s announcing it to the world. In its zeal to accommodate the communist Chinese, Tucker argues that the United States gave away too much in acquiescing to the PRC’s insistence on strict adherence to the one-China policy. That agreement resulted in communist China’s taking Taiwan’s seat in the United Nations in 1971 and replacing Taiwan’s embassy after formal US recognition of the PRC in 1979. Banished to a liaison office, Taipei had to work with Washington through intermediaries rather than in official circles. Consequently, the Kuomintang government was forced to act as a special interest group rather than a sovereign nation, hiring private public relations firms and lobbyists to present its cases to US administrations and Congress. Tucker argues that this arrangement for dealing with a foreign nation, albeit unrecognized, further fed the environment of mistrust as the communication barriers caused unclear and misinterpreted messages.

The American treatment of Taiwan also had implications for relations with communist China. Tucker maintains that, as US-Taiwanese relations evolved within this new paradigm, the PRC became increasingly frustrated at continued US support of Taiwan just as the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 called into question the PRC’s continued strategic relevance. At the same time, the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and democratic reforms in Taiwan forced the United States to evaluate the role of American values in Chinese foreign policy. These events could have caused a realignment of US foreign policy had not the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 required the PRC’s cooperation in the global war against terror. Tucker concludes that, despite their diplomatic status, Taiwanese officials should be given direct access to US government officials in order to minimize further misperceptions and miscommunications. She presents a logical argument that the PRC should not feel threatened by direct US-Taiwan interaction; in fact, the communist Chinese should welcome another avenue of engagement to prevent future crises and facilitate cross-strait relations. However, Tucker presents no evidence that the PRC would be willing to acquiesce in its stringent demand to marginalize Taiwanese officials.

Tucker was prescient in foreseeing the recent thaw in Beijing-Taipei relations. Since the publication of Strait Talk, the two countries have established direct airline flights as well as shipping and postal services. Tourism is on the rise, along with greater investment opportunities. Beijing not only dropped its 40-year opposition to Taiwan’s entry into the World Health Organization but also assisted the ROC with the application process. The signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework agreement on 29 June 2010 represents the most significant agreement between the two nations since the Chinese civil war.

Considered one of the foremost authorities on the history of Sino-American relations, Tucker leverages her extensive 20-year experience in academia, the intelligence community, and the State Department—including an assignment in the Beijing embassy—to present a credible argument for enhancing Taiwan’s diplomatic status. She employs exhaustive research in supporting her case, particularly with archival sources and over 100 interviews over the span of two decades with major actors from the United States, PRC, and ROC. Her diplomatic history extensively covers the political, military, and informational instruments of national power employed by all three nations. Less well covered is the financial instrument, which is surprising, given the rise of China as an economic powerhouse over the past two decades. China’s status as a major trading partner and as the number-one creditor of US debt presents a powerful incentive to maintain stability in the region.

The importance of East Asia has seemingly waned over the past decade as global terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken strategic prominence. One should consider, however, that the Taiwan Strait still presents the United States with a potential strategic flash point involving a great nuclear power. In addition, China’s growing influence on the world stage necessitates that the United States begin paying more attention to this strategic competitor as it tries to solve the 60-year Taiwan conundrum. Tucker’s deft analysis of American foreign policy during this period would do much to educate strategists and policy makers on what many consider to be China’s thorniest issue.

John F. Farrell, PhD

Squadron Officer College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."