US, China: The politics of ambiguity

Henry C K Liu

First appeared in Asia Times on Line on  April 24, 2002

Foreign policy often grows out of the politics of ambiguity and geopolitical irony. Ambiguity is a state of having more than one meaning. An irony is an incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and their expected results.

Foreign policy has always been fundamentally affected by domestic politics. This is especially true for the United States, where the tradition of open debate over public policy has been one of its founding principles. Yet the US, like all other nations, is essentially ideological in its policy deliberation, fixated on political slogans such as defense of democracy, rule of law, free markets, individual freedom and God. Yes, God is always on the US side. The most reported inquiry by George W Bush about the fate of the US aircrew detained in China after the mid-air collision on March 31, 2001, involving a US Navy EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet was, "Do the members of the crew have Bibles?"

Ideological fixations are made operative in the real world by the politics of ambiguity. The term freedom is allowed many meanings, as are terms such as democracy, equality, human rights and even "rogue state" and "failed state".

There is no real domestic division in US policy toward China. Both the doves and the hawks aim at neutralizing China as a potential threat to US interests in Asia and at destabilizing China as a potential power. Their difference is only one of tactics and timing. The doves promote "peaceful evolution" through trade, while the hawks promote pre-emptive confrontation through military conflict. Neither advocates all-out war with China, a scenario rejected above all by the US military.

The hawks, even at their most extreme, advocate only a proxy war through Taiwan. For the US, a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue presupposes the introduction of US imposed Taiwan-style "democracy" and "free" market economy on the mainland, with the end of the political leadership, if not total demise, of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC). Thus, US insistence of a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue has an offensive political nature.

US policy toward Taiwan is framed in ambiguity politics. The US officially observes the "one China" policy and acknowledges that Taiwan is part of China. Yet Taiwan is to be defended by the US against potential Chinese use of force because it is "democratic". The US officially does not support an independent Taiwan, but it supports Taiwan membership in international organizations as an independent government. Officially, US supply of arms to Taiwan is rationalized on the pretext of Taiwan's defense needs, aimed at frustrating Chinese plans to reunite Taiwan by force. Yet the US is also aware that arms sales to Taiwan increase the prospect of a military solution from China.

From China's perspective, building up China's military potential to retake Taiwan by force is a purely defensive measure, the logic being that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, a fact the US officially acknowledges. There is no logical basis to label Chinese military action on Taiwan as offensive aggression in international law. Thus US military support of Taiwan is an act of war against China and that act of war has gone on for over five decades, since the beginning of the Korean War. On this point there is no ambiguity.

Prior to the updating of China's military capability toward Taiwan reunification by force, the US policy of ambiguity toward Taiwan enjoyed the illusion of natural reality through the uncontested superiority of US military might. But the trends are now clearly changing. After five decades, a US policy of military balance of power across the Taiwan Strait only increases the cost and accelerates the timing of the potential conflict, but not its outcome. The Taiwan issue will be settled on the day China decides to devote commensurate resources to Taiwan reunification. Thus, the US policy of ambiguity over Taiwan is really a by-product of Chinese tolerance. The solution to the Taiwan issue rests solely in Beijing.

The decision on US sales of advance weapon systems to Taiwan has the potential of geopolitical irony. The sales will not improve Taiwan's security. Quite the opposite, the sales will strengthen Chinese resolve to accelerate the upgrading of its military capability and retake Taiwan before the advance systems are put in place. So the decision may be welcomed by those in China who see military solution as the only option.

It is undeniable that in the past two decades China has de-emphasized its military as part of its focus on economic construction. Ironically, recent military pressure on the part of the US against China may well have served as a necessary wake-up call for China to review and strengthen its defensive capabilities. On the other hand, the irony of the appeasement of Chinese doves on US aggressive posture is that such appeasement reinforces the inevitability of an eventual military conflict.

The US supports China's reform policy in the context of ambiguity politics. The US aims to steer Chinese economic reform toward convergence with US national interests in East Asia and US political ideology. The US aims to tie Chinese economic reform to political reform, in the name of market efficiency and globalized rule of law, notwithstanding that such regimes afford the US a structural advantage over other economies and nations. While US domestic politics is beginning to raise populist opposition to corporatism and its questionable commitment to US national interest, China seems to be moving toward corporatism as the banner carrier of its national interest. Corporations care only about shareholder interest (and recent exposure known as Enronitis shows that some corporations care only about management interests at the expense of shareholders and employees) and seldom about national interests.

Transnational corporations, regardless of national origin, care only about profit. They look to national government support only when their business interests are threatened by other governments. Just as US transnationals are being challenged on their institutional patriotism, emerging Chinese transnationals will not be allowed to enjoy immunity from such challenges. Only national governments are structured to protect the national interest. On this principle, there is no ambiguity. Moving the government off the supervision of business is a dangerous trend, especially for weak economies, whose national interests are not adequately respected by the existing global trading regime or the world international order.

Thus the geopolitical irony of the Bush anti-China, pan-Asian policy is that it may strengthen China's self-reliance and wake China up from its illusion of benign US friendship. The Qing dynasty fell finally because it locked the nation on to the erroneous track of depending on foreign powers to solve China's domestic problems. There is a possibility that Bush's anti-China policy will help the Chinese government from falling into the same erroneous track. As Mao Zedong said, "Some bad things are really good things."

After three decades of mutual hostility, a new era in US-China relations began when US president Richard Nixon went to China in 1972. But the strategic opening for a US-China rapprochement dated back to March 1969 when Sino-Soviet border clashes at Zhenbao Island at Heilun Jiang (Amur River) provided physical evidence of a long-brewing Sino-Soviet split. Only five years earlier, in 1964, anticipating an imminent Chinese nuclear test, the Lyndon Johnson administration considered, then rejected, a unilateral pre-emptive strike against Chinese nuclear installations.

It nevertheless secretly explored "joint action with the Soviet government" toward the same objective. But Soviet preoccupation with internal power struggles at that time prevented the Kremlin from responding to the US initiative, despite the Soviet belief that the US would side with the USSR in the event of a Sino-Soviet open conflict, since China had been vocal for some time in its opposition to both US and Soviet forms of imperialism.

Nixon's geopolitical strategy sought to perpetuate a central role for the US in world affairs by forging new relations not just with China, but also with the USSR, both being prime adversaries of the US in the post-World War II world. Yet the USSR was the main target, and China was a "card" in US-Soviet "detente". The central theme of this strategy of triangular diplomacy involved a new determination at the height of the Cold War that world communism was not politically monolithic and that the Trotsky notion of world revolution did not survive any reality check.

If anything, the domino theory of contagious communism was disproved by the fact that the emergence of each communist state produced reactive anti-communist resolve among its immediate neighbors. Communist success in China, ironically acting as a political vaccine, had preempted revolutionary potentials all over Asia. Thus US "detente" with the USSR and a "linked strategy" involving nuclear arms control and economic relationships would be important tools for containing superpower bilateral nuclear confrontation, with minimum political risk to the US and potentially high profits for US business. Also, traditional Euro-centric preoccupation in US foreign policy presupposed the USSR as the prime adversary.

In this context, ending a historical adversarial relationship with China that began in 1949 had been motivated solely by the US need for leverage against the USSR. Detente was not possible without first a US-China rapprochement. While Henry Kissinger no doubt sought an opening to the People's Republic of China (PRC) as a near-term objective to generate pressure on North Vietnam toward a war settlement, the grand design was to play the China card in a new US overture to the USSR. On more than one occasion since coming to office in 1969, the Nixon administration signaled its intention to end the Vietnam War with or without the participation of China.

Thus US-China rapprochement aimed to skirt rather than resolve fundamental conflicts in the separate national interests of the US and China. The most critical of these conflicts were:
1) The Taiwan issue, an internal Chinese affair into which the US has firmly interjected itself as a historical legacy of the Korea War;
2) Ideological mismatch between communism and capitalism that anchors Chinese opposition to US neo-imperialism in the Third World, particularly in Asia, and US hostility towards a communist China; and
3) Potential conflict between rising Chinese power, regardless of ideology, and US dominance in Asia.

Of the above three, Taiwan was and remains the most central and problematic. The unresolved Taiwan issue occupied top billing in all three joint communiques signed over the following decade and continues to be the key issue that threatens US-China relations today. A resolution of the Taiwan problem is a prerequisite to resolution of the other two conflicts.

For the US, rapprochement with China was a geopolitical expediency needed to contain Soviet expansionism in a Cold War context, which few in US policy circles had anticipated ending in the foreseeable future, if ever. Advances in US-China relations prior to the end of the Cold War were directly related to progress in US-Soviet "detente". Yet progress in detente also increased the incentive and prospect of Soviet preemptive military action against China. This prospect in turn was deterred by US warnings to the USSR about determined US response against such attacks. The prospect of imminent Sino-Soviet military confrontation enables the fundamental bilateral differences between the US and China to be put aside temporarily in an overriding geopolitical context in which a strong and independent China was considered to be in the US national interest.

This de-emphasis of bilateral differences was enshrined in the Shanghai Communique of 1972, which states, "There are essential differences between China and the United States in their social systems and foreign policies. However, the two sides agreed that countries, regardless of their social systems, should conduct their relations on the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, non-aggression against other states, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. International disputes should be settled on this basis, without resorting to the use or threat of force. The United States and the People's Republic of China are prepared to apply these principles to their mutual relations."

Kissinger's geopolitical concept of international order required an independent and strong China to prevent Soviet expansionism from isolating the US into an unwitting garrison state - "Fortress America", as the US had done twice in the century, that resulted in two world wars. In 1999, after the disappointing congressional defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, president Bill Clinton's foreign-policy team picked up again briefly the same warning against US isolationism.

Nixon was convinced that after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), China was no longer an ideological threat to US values and that the need to isolate China as an enticing model from international forums would be overshadowed by its opportunity as a huge, needed market for Western capitalism. US-China rapprochement and US warning against preemptive Soviet attack on China were also viewed as necessary to relieve other countries in Asia from concerns about "detente" turning into a bilateral superpower global condominium, with a US-Soviet "cabal" against China as a centerpiece.

Thus, the late Cold War warming of US-China relations had been primarily externally motivated. John Hay's "Open Door Policy", designed against European powers partitioning China into spheres of influence in the 19th century, remained tacitly fundamental in US policy toward China with regard to Soviet intentions in late 20th century. It was to US interest to neutralize any prospect of a China being dominated by any European power, including the USSR. In short, US policy towards China had merely been a bargaining chip in US geopolitical grand design in the Cold War. China, infatuated with its own delusion of historical importance, mistook US overture as recognition of the importance of the Middle Kingdom.

Declassified US government documents have revealed that Nixon secretly made specific concessions on the question of Taiwan to Beijing beyond the text of the Shanghai Communique of February 28, 1972. Nixon pledged to "actively work toward" and complete "full normalization" of US-PRC diplomatic relations by 1976. He also promised not to support any Taiwan military action against the mainland or any Taiwan independence movement and to prevent Japan or any other third country from moving in on Taiwan as US presence was reduced. Nixon's calculation was that with China in the bag, there was no need for a separate Taiwan. The Taiwan problem was merely one of how to handle outdated US domestic public opinion that Nixon's own anti-communist past had help to manipulate in the 1950s.

The establishment of liaison offices in both Beijing and Washington in 1973 was accomplished with ambiguity diplomacy. Kissinger purposefully misunderstood Zhou Enlai's position that China had no plans "at this moment" to liberate Taiwan by force as having "no intention". US-China relations thus were built from the start on a purposeful ambiguity on unresolved differences over the issue of Taiwan. The bilateral World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement managed to reach its dramatic conclusion in November 1999 also on the basis of similar ambiguities on the meaning of globalization. These are classic examples of "sharing the same bed with different dreams" in geopolitics and geo-economics.

According to a declassified top-secret US government memo on a conversation held on February 18, 1973, in Zhongnanhai with Chairman Mao, Kissinger said to Mao, "Our interest in trade with China is not commercial. It is to establish a relationship that is necessary for the political relations we both have." Mao accepted this candid confession of political realism as accurate.

"Strategic dialogue", which later after diplomatic normalization in 1979 was upgraded to "strategic cooperation", was the fuel for US-China rapprochement. A downplaying of ideological, political, cultural and socio-economic differences between the two countries led to a policy of mutual tolerance based on false expectations. National differences were patched over in order to pursue larger interests in global geopolitical cooperation.

This geopolitical priority also entailed delicate compromises on the issue of Taiwan. These compromises centered on US acknowledgment and non-challenge, and later recognition, of the principle that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China, a common position held by both Taipei and Beijing.

The Shanghai Communiques of 1972 states: "The two sides reviewed the long-standing serious disputes between China and the United States. The Chinese side reaffirmed its position:
  • The Taiwan question is the crucial question obstructing the normalization of relations between China and the United States;
  • The government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legal government of China;
  • Taiwan is a province of China which has long been returned to the motherland;
  • The liberation of Taiwan is China's internal affair in which no other country has the right to interfere, and all US forces and military installations must be withdrawn from Taiwan;
  • The Chinese government firmly opposes any activities which aim at the creation of 'one China, one Taiwan', 'one China, two governments', 'two Chinas', an 'independent Taiwan' or advocate that 'the status of Taiwan remains to be determined'.

    "The US side declared:
  • The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China;
  • The United States government does not challenge that position;
  • It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves;
  • <> With this prospect in mind, it affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all US forces and military installations from Taiwan. In the meantime, it will progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes."

    The Shanghai Communique of 1972 marked the end of US policies of hostile containment toward China and reached an initial compromise on the Taiwan issue, modifying US interference in the unfinished Chinese civil war since the Korean War. It expressed US expectation and hope that the Chinese parties on either side of the Strait would work out a peaceful solution.

    The political fall of the Nixon administration as a result of Watergate derailed "detente". Some have observed that the causal effect was the reverse, that the pending success of detente precipitated Watergate. A weakened White House permitted Henry Jackson, the anti-Soviet Democratic senator from Washington state, to interject human rights as an issue in US foreign policy in connection with detente and to extract an increased US defense budget as a condition for nuclear-arms control agreements. The linkage of human rights to the trade offensive in US foreign policy was treated with equal contempt by both Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Kissinger, who retorted with his famous "peace too is a moral imperative".

    The Jackson-Vanik Amendment linking Most Favored Nation trading status (MFN) to Soviet convergence toward US ideological values was originally aimed solely at Soviet emigration policies over its Jewish citizens. It was then subsequently transplanted to haunt US-China relations and to threaten US-China trade annually for more than two decades. The refusal to repeal the annual conditional renewal of Normal Trading Relations (NTR, renamed from MFN) became the weapon of US opposition to Chinese accession to WTO membership.

    Despite Nixon's secret promise in 1972 to Zhou Enlai of full normalization by 1976, Nixon's resignation in 1973 left the Taiwan issue unresolved. It led to a cooling of US-China relations with the brief reemergence of Deng Xiaoping as interlocutor during Zhou's terminal illness. This cooling was due mostly to Chinese aversion to progress in US-Soviet "detente" at China's expense.

    Subsequently, Beijing rejected a US offer of formal diplomatic recognition that was linked to a continuation of US military presence on Taiwan. Mao had repeatedly declared that normalization could only take place after a complete US break with Taiwan.

    On "detente", instead of the US lobbying China to accept its view that detente reduced the Soviet threat on China, China began warning the US that detente would lead to a greater Soviet threat to the US.

    US-China relations stagnated with the deaths of Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong in 1976 and the domestic political aftermath in China. Preoccupation with the post-Watergate US presidential election also contributed to it. "Detente" was also rapidly losing currency because of Gerald Ford's presidential-campaign needs to counter relentless attacks on the concept from the Republican right, represented by primary hopeful Ronald Reagan. The failure of both Nixon and Ford to live up to the promised schedule of normalization by settling the Taiwan issue caused the disappointed and insecure post-Mao Chinese leadership to slow down progress in other areas of US-China relations.

    Kissinger then offered China military technology transfer through US allies and anti-Soviet intelligence cooperation as compensatory inducement. Ford approved the first sale of American advanced computers for oil exploration that also had military dual use. These arrangements led to trails of Chinese activities that later could be construed as illicit by the US in a different geopolitical environment and new developments in US domestic politics.

    US president Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, basically followed the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger geopolitical strategy on China, but they put increased emphasis on anti-Soviet cooperation between the US and China, Carter's purported concern for universal human rights notwithstanding. Kissinger's preoccupation with "detente" was replaced by Brzezinski's hawkish attitude toward the "polar bear". Two months before the announcement of US recognition of Beijing on December 15, 1978, Carter even yielded to China's objection to pending US normalization of relations with Vietnam, against whom China would be involved three months later, in February 1979, two weeks after Deng Xiaoping's triumphant US tour, in an unsuccessful border war with US acquiescence and secret satellite intelligence support, causing Vietnam to enter an alliance with the USSR. US recognition of Vietnam would be delayed for 17 more years, until 1995.

    The normalization communique of 1978, signed by Carter two years beyond the secret Nixon deadline, states, "The United States of America recognizes the government of the People's Republic of China as the sole legal government of China. Within this context, the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan."

    In the normalization communique, the "one China; Taiwan is part of China" principle was still presented only as a unilateral Chinese position, though buttressed by US recognition of the government of the People's Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, a parallel step up from "acknowledgment" of a Chinese position. It traded form for substance in US relations with Taiwan. With the exception of military sales, it was essentially the Japanese model on Taiwan which China had adopted and demanded as a fundamental condition for normalization with all other countries.

    The normalization communique contains the "one China formula" most often quoted, "The government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China."

    Some US policy analysts have argued that this is a unilateral statement of acknowledgment of a Chinese position; it is not a treaty. Nor has the United States formally accepted the Chinese position that Taiwan is a part of China. The US-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty became legally defunct after the US de-recognized the Republic of China (ROC) and broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but military relations continued, sanctified by the newly adopted Taiwan Relations Act, with the force of US law.

    The Chinese "open to the outside" policy and domestic economic reform toward a "socialist market economy" weakened the ideological basis for refuting capitalistic Taiwan's legitimacy by admitting that the Taiwan economic model is ideologically acceptable, at least within some parts of China. In fact, over the past two decades, the Taiwan economic system has taken on the unofficial role of a model for some sectors of the mainland economy.

    Thus China's domestic economic policy since 1978 exerted a heavy price on China's reunification campaign in particular and foreign policy in general.

    In the August 27, 1982, communique signed by Reagan, the second item states, "The question of United States arms sales to Taiwan was not settled in the course of negotiations between the two countries on establishing diplomatic relations. The two sides held differing positions, and the Chinese side stated that it would raise the issue again following normalization. Recognizing that this issue would seriously hamper the development of United States-China relations, they have held further discussions on it, during and since the meetings between President Ronald Reagan and Premier Zhao Ziyang and between Secretary of State Alexander M Haig, Jr and Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Huang Hua in October 1981."

    It also contained the clause, "... the United States government states that it does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, and that it intends gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan, leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution. China acknowledged that US arms sales to Taiwan would continue, and the US agreed to cap the quality of those arms sales and to reduce them step by step, leading over time to a final resolution of the dispute."

    The last of the three communiques in fact arrested the forward momentum of the previous two on moving toward a mutually satisfactory resolution of the Taiwan issue.

    With the disappearance of its geopolitical underpin after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, five months after the Tiananmen Square events, the formula of gradual US disengagement from Taiwan reversed direction. China's long-standing refusal to categorically rule out the use of force for the reunification of Taiwan became the disingenuous pretext of stepped-up US arms sales and military assistance to Taiwan, despite the Chinese explanation that sovereignty demanded the right to use force and that Abraham Lincoln had done the same in the US Civil War. Besides, it was one of Mao's paradoxical dictums: the option of force enhances the prospect of peaceful reunification. The US itself practices the doctrine of peace through strength.

    Reagan, leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party and fervent supporter of Taiwan, went to Taiwan in April 1978 as part of his second quest for the Republican nomination. After Ford's defeat by Carter in 1976, Reagan, who had lost the nomination to Ford, became the standard-bearer of a Republican Party increasingly dominated by the right wing and the legacy of the old pro-Taiwan China lobby, in preparation for the 1980 election. On regular occasions, Reagan publicly called for reestablishment of "official" relations with Taiwan, much to Beijing's distress.

    Aides led by the former US ambassador to China, George Bush, managed to persuade Reagan to moderate his extremist stand on Taiwan during the 1980 campaign. After the election, reversing the policy of previous administrations, the power dynamics of the Reagan White House challenged the idea of the geopolitical importance of China. It became more reluctant than the State and Defense departments, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in avoiding ideological confrontation with Beijing and in making pragmatic concessions on the Taiwan issue, particularly in the area of arms sales, for larger geopolitical purposes. Just as Nixon had to fight an intransigent domestic bureaucracy on his need to accommodate a fundamentalist communist China, Reagan had to fight an enlightened bureaucracy on his refusal to accommodate a liberalized communist China.

    Secretary of state Haig's attempt to offer to sell arms to both Beijing and Taiwan was rejected by both Beijing and the Reagan White House. Frantically trying to prevent a possible rupture in US-China relations, Haig, the outsider in the Reagan administration, then proposed to Reagan a US statement to the effect of acknowledging a future date when arms sales to Taiwan would end. Haig's resignation, caused in no small way by his disagreement over China policy with Reagan personally, left China without support at a high level within the Reagan administration. Yet the Haig proposal, though modified by Reagan personally, received support from the US arms industry, and it formed the basis of the Communique of August 27, 1982. However, in a secret memo, since declassified, Reagan unilaterally formalized the condition of maintaining military balance between the Strait as the defining basis for the escalating levels of arms sales to Taiwan. It was a fundamental shift from the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger approach of gradual reduction.

    Meanwhile, a new breed of US policy planners were beginning to advance the view that geopolitically, China needed the US more than the US needed China. These planners, led by Paul Wolfowitz (who now plays a defining role in George W Bush's Defense Department), argued that US policy of the past decade had exaggerated the significance of China in global geopolitics and that China's importance was limited to Asia in the foreseeable future.

    They argued that past US concessions to China were unnecessary and that China had no real options but to accept US terms. This line of thinking narrowed the gap between the anti-Soviet hawks and the pro-Taiwan right in US domestic politics over China policy, a gap that Kissinger had exploited in favor of Beijing a decade earlier. Empirically, China had shown itself an ineffective military factor in the brief China-Vietnam conflict in 1979, while Reagan's new military buildup in the early '80s, particularly with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), was beginning to bolster US confidence in facing USSR threats technologically without any help from China. This was the beginning of US unilateralism.

    George Shultz (who introduced George W Bush's first foreign-policy campaign speech in November 1999), in replacing Haig as secretary of state in 1982, embraced this new thinking about China with cool determination. In addition, Shultz replaced China with Japan as the primary focus of US policy in Asia. He saw friction between the US and China as inevitable in the long run, not because of historical conditions relating to Taiwan, but because of fundamental differences between the two social systems and their national interests.

    In the Shultz vision, the newly prosperous Asian Tigers, including Taiwan and Hong Kong, led by a Japan that was "democratic" (notwithstanding that scholars have pointed out Japan's one-party rule through the LDP), capitalistic (notwithstanding Japanese state capitalism), and above all docile, should no longer be treated as American client states in the Cold War, but as important Asian elements in the new American world order of neo-liberal globalization.

    This was part of a global strategy to bankrupt the socialist economies with a high-tech star-wars arms race. This pan-Asian faction of the US policy establishment gained ascendancy in the Reagan administration at the expense of the pro-China geopolitical strategists. This faction worked to ensure arms sales to Taiwan without regard for Chinese opposition or existing US-China bilateral agreements. They began promoting the term Greater China to dilute the geopolitical importance of Beijing. Many Chinese officials, slow to grasp its policy implications, began using that term as well, much to the delight of the Shultz team. As history shows, the Asian financial crises of 1997 pulled the rug out from underneath the feet of the Shultz vision.

    Nevertheless, the Reagan administration during 1983 and 1988 managed to forge broad relations with China on US terms despite its hardline China policy in the new pan-Asian context. This is because Chinese domestic policies under Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, guided by Deng Xiaoping, had been uncompromisingly pro-Western in general and pro-American in particular. Hu even declared that chopsticks were less modern than forks as eating utensils. The policies of these two Chinese leaders provided the empirical proof that substantiated Shultz's new theory of a China without anti-US policy alternatives. China, by its own behavior, appeared to need the US more than the US needed China.

    In particular, China appeared addicted to US capital and markets and seduced by American capitalist ideology and culture. McDonald's hamburgers and Coca-Cola were hailed in China as symbols of modernity. China continued to look to the US for dual-use technology and weapon systems while accepting trade terms that were essentially neo-semi-colonial, exploiting China's excessively low labor costs and non-policies of environmental neglect. By 1985, after the Reagan administration, at the urging of the US military-industrial complex, relaxed control of high-tech exports to China, US arms sales to China reached $5 billion, albeit all in obsolete systems.

    Many US analysts considered this period the golden years of US-China relations, under the reign of a sworn anti-communist US president. While the anti-China Reagan administration was gradually relaxing trade restrictions, former pro-China US officials were busy brokering military sales from the private sector to China at handsome profit. China, hoping to influence US policy by financially rewarding its "friends", unwittingly played into the new US policy offensive of good cops/bad cops, and verified the new US proposition that anti-China policies actually improved US-China trade.

    During this period, in contrast to the "agree to disagree" and "live and let live" approach of the Shanghai Communique, a new US notion that trade will change the Chinese political system began to take shape. Reagan, the world's most prominent anti-communist, even referred to China as the "so-called communist country" after his China trip in April 1984, the title year of the famous anti-communist novel by George Orwell that warned that communism would take over the whole world by 1984.

    "Peaceful evolution" then became US strategy on China, contradicting the fundamental basis of the Shanghai communique of non-interference and co-existence. Winston Lord, Reagan's ambassador to Beijing, parted company with his mentor, Kissinger, to become the most fervent advocate of peaceful evolution and human rights as prerequisites for progress in US-China relations. Around the world, China lost its revolutionary image and the support of leftist forces everywhere, which were experiencing a general decline of their own at any rate in an era of emerging free market fundamentalism.

    In 1982, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's ill-fated attempt on the heels of victory in the Falkland Islands to perpetuate British colonial rule over Hong Kong ended with Deng Xiaoping applying the "one country, two systems" (OCTS) formula to a Sino-British Joint Declaration for the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. That formula had been originally fashioned as a solution to the Taiwan problem as a Chinese internal affair. Subsequently, Deng directly approached Washington for acceptance of the same formula for solving the Taiwan problem. The Reagan administration summarily turned the idea down as a non-starter. Nevertheless, the OCTS formula became official Chinese policy for the reunification of Taiwan, with wholesale Chinese political compromise on Hong Kong in deference to its implication on Taiwan.

    More ominously, Beijing's overture opened the way for US interference on the future of Hong Kong; up to that point Washington had been officially neutral in a bilateral problem between China and the UK involving the redress of historical colonialism. The issue of Hong Kong was thus transformed from one of righteous termination of British colonialism to official Chinese acceptance of colonial institutions for 50 more years. Moreover, the issue of Hong Kong prompted Congress to adopt the Hong Kong Relations Act, which provides a legal basis in US law for self-righteous US monitoring on Chinese acceptance of Western democracy and capitalism in Hong Kong and, by extension, within Chinese territory.

    In the fall of 1985, anti-Japanese student demonstrations broke out in China. These, officially inspired by the 50th anniversary of Japanese invasion of Manchuria, had complex undertones, not the least involving the new US policy tilt toward Japan at the expense of China. Domestic political opposition to Hu Yaobang's reform policies, which included close cooperation with Japan, exploited the student demonstrations for its own purposes. To preserve reform momentum, Hu Yaobang was forced to resign as Community Party secretary and replaced by Zhao Ziyang. Li Peng, while supporting economic reform within socialist ideological limits, emerged as the leader of the movement against bourgeois liberalism and "peaceful evolution".

    US business was delighted by the anti-Japanese development in China since it had been growing apprehensive about Japanese competition operating under a more supportive Japanese government policy than Washington's ideology-linked trade policy, which was out of sync with US business interests. In his first China trip as secretary of state, Shultz had told US business executives in Shanghai that if they did not like US policy on China, they should move to Japan or Europe, advice that many US transnational corporations followed by conducting China trade through their European subsidiaries.

    Politically, the Reagan administration also welcomed the reemergence of anti-Japanese sentiment in China, as Sino-Japanese friction would strengthen US separate bilateral dealings with both China and Japan. In contrast to Nixon's China card strategy against the USSR, Reagan was playing the Japan card against China.

    Regionally, China at first saw the US-Japan defense alliance as an insurance against incipient Japanese militarism. After Vietnam, the Nixon Doctrine, born of painful lessons from deploying US troops in Asia, ordained the provision of US military assistance to regional Asian powers to enable them to police their immediate areas, with an aim of relieving the US of the need to play global policeman with its own troops in distant locations, particularly Asia.

    George W Bush's first campaign 2000 speech on foreign policy echoed elements of the Nixon Doctrine. The younger Bush declared in November 1999, "We must show American power and purpose and strong support for our Asian friends and allies; for democratic South Korea across the Yellow Sea; for democratic Japan and the Philippines across the China Seas; for democratic Thailand and Australia. This means keeping our pledge to deter aggression against the Republic of Korea and strengthening security ties with Japan. This means expanding theater missile defenses among our allies. And this means honoring our promises to the people of Taiwan. We do not deny there is one China, but we deny the right of Beijing to impose their rule on a free people. As I have said before, we will help Taiwan defend itself."

    Bush did not mention the need to honor promises made to Beijing by three previous presidents. Yet he did not say the US will defend Taiwan, only it will help Taiwan defend itself. The distinction is subtle but important. It confirms the principle of the Nixon Doctrine of not committing US troops.

    Throughout the 1980s, the CIA purchased arms from China for the mujahideen in their war against the Soviet Union. The Afghan War was the beginning of US-China military cooperation, a policy advocated by US right-wing Republican senators Orrin Hatch and Gordon Humphrey and defense secretary Caspar Weinberger, and carried out by State Department intelligence head Morton Abramovitz and the Pentagon's Michael Pillsbury. But the subsequent Chinese sale of Silk Worm and CSS-2 missile systems to opponent Middle East countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, led Reagan to impose on October 24, 1987, the first of a series of restrictions on high-tech exports to China.

    For Chinese restraint on missile sales, the Reagan administration approved an export license that permitted US commercial satellites to be launched by Chinese rockets. These restrictions were at first used as leverage to induce Chinese geopolitical cooperation on non-proliferation, rather than as the later anti-China strategy did with China itself as a direct target. Nevertheless, the export of a new generation of Chinese solid fuel missiles known as M-9 (375-mile range) and M-11 (180-mile range) became a central concern for the Bush Sr and Clinton administrations. From the Chinese perspective, Chinese arms sales to the Middle East is not unrelated to US arms sales to Taiwan. The US had no business objecting to Chinese arms exports while it sold arms to Taiwan.

    Within weeks of becoming president, the senior Bush made an ill-prepared trip to China as part of his attendance of the state funeral of the Emperor of Japan in February 1989. Bush had hoped for close working relations with "his old friend" Deng Xiaoping. This hope was dampened by Ambassador Winston Lord's controversial handling of the invitation of dissident Fang Lizhi to the presidential banquet at the Great Wall Hotel on Bush's second night in Beijing. Bush had never forgotten the awkward position Kissinger and Lord put him in in 1972 over Beijing's admission to the UN while he was US ambassador to the United Nations. Bush had been left out of the loop to futilely defend Taiwan's membership in the UN while Kissinger was making a deal with Beijing to support the PRC's replacement of Taiwan at the world organization. Now Bush saw Lord's bungling as another deliberate sabotage of the his presidency.

    The subsequent publicity and recrimination between the Embassy in Beijing under Lord and the Bush White House over the Fang Lizhi incident brought Lord's career in Republican administrations to an abrupt end. But it marked the beginning of "human rights" as the overriding obstacle in US-China relations.

    As Washington searched for a proper response to the visit to China by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was expected to reduce Sino-Soviet friction, the 1989 Tiananmen Square situation developed and culminated in the June 4 incident.

    The Chinese leadership's handling of Tiananmen was arguably necessary to prevent China from potential chaos and civil war. Whatever its domestic implication, Tiananmen altered US-China relations fundamentally. Because of the presence of Western live television to cover the Gorbachev visit, Tiananmen unfolded as a global media spectacle. The complexities of counterrevolutionary politics were overwhelmed by simplistic images that climaxed in unarmed students defying and eventually crushed by armed soldiers. China suffered a major defeat in a propaganda war on live television. The widely televised images forged a strange coalition of the left and the right in US domestic politics into a new anti-China and anti-communist alliance. The subtle government-to-government relationship of the past two decades lost ground to a new dynamic of moralistic congressional hostility based on wide public support.

    The senior Bush administration was put on the defensive by the events in Tiananmen on its attempt to put back on track a China policy already derailed by Reagan. To ward off more damaging congressional action to punish China over Tiananmen, Bush moved to suspend all high-level government contacts and imposed economic sanctions, including a freeze on World Bank finances for China. At the same time, he arranged two secret trips within six months by national security adviser Brent Scowcroft to salvage the two-decade-old relationship. Congressional opposition crystallized into partisan policy over the Bush veto of the Pelosi Bill to grant blanket visa extension after Tiananmen to Chinese students in the United States. Ironically, the Pelosi student bill prevented the return of China's brightest who might eventually bring about a better understanding between the two different social systems in their motherland.

    Moreover, the Chinese students unwittingly became, for a brief but crucial period, an articulate anti-communist lobby in US politics whose members saw the demise of communism in China as vindication of their accidental personal fate of political emigration. Supported by Winston Lord, the rich, newly unemployed reincarnated human-rights champion, the new post-Tiananmen anti-China lobby took on bipartisan tones, while US policy on China lost its bipartisan backing.

    Since November 1990,
    the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of communist governments in Eastern Europe, which vindicated the Chinese leadership's calculation of its decision on Tiananmen, had vacated Washington's geopolitical basis for tolerance toward communist China. Thus it is not surprising that with the fall of the USSR, US-China relations, devoid of its geopolitical underpin, have floundered aimlessly over the past decade. This relationship had begun at the outset of the 1970s out of a common strategic concern with Soviet expansionism based on geopolitical principles that have been altered with the dissolution of the USSR.

    April 2002

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