Making Friends

A Great Wallby Patrick TylerThe Century Foundation/PublicAffairs. 496p $27.50

Patrick Tyler, The NewYorkTimes’s Beijing bureau chief from 1993 to 1997, begins his history of U.S. relations with China by emphasizing the risk of war between the People’s Republic and Taiwan. American presidents have sought to deter such a war and since 1972 have endorsed the idea of voluntary reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. Tyler’s account is a cautionary one, for Taiwan now seems to be center-point rather than as it was in the past: an issue both could agree to defer for the sake of other interests. Indeed, whereas other irritants in the Chinese-American relationship such as trade, human rights, nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and espionage seem amenable to a slow process of accommodation, control over the Taiwan issue may be slipping beyond the reach of both parties. The current democratically elected Taiwanese leadership appears intent on pushing the island toward some form of independence, a posture Beijing has warned would produce the direst of consequences.

Besides this fruit of democratization, Tyler’s analysis repeatedly implies that the operation of American democracy is another hurdle for the effective management of the Sino-American relationship. He focuses on individuals at the top. Policy depends upon who fills particular positions at particular times and on the struggles among individuals to shape policy. A journalist’s partiality for individuals as subject matter is at work here, abetted by extensive interviews and the effective exploitation of recently declassified documents, many of which are transcripts of meetings between Chinese and American officials.


Tyler does report on the tensions within the Chinese political leadership that affect the P.R.C.’s stance toward the United States, but he depicts a degree of constancy in its overall approach. On the issue of Taiwan, for instance, Mao Zedong and his successors have remained fiercely committed to reunification but believe that Taiwan is not likely to accept peaceful reunification. Therefore, in their view, the threat of an invasion is essential to deter any Taiwanese actions, such as a declaration of independence, that would compel an invasion. Mao accepted the historical link that the United States had with Taiwan but attempted to set the ground rules for the future. He declared that China was prepared to wait 100 years for the United States to accommodate itself to the inevitable return of Taiwan to China’s control. In the interim, if the United States wanted good relations with China, it had to avoid actions, such as selling sophisticated weapons to Taiwan, that would undercut Taiwanese acceptance of the inevitable. For Tyler this is a key problem. He sees his book as an effort to publicize several "profound truths." "First and foremost, the United States has reneged on the solemn promises of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan that America would show great restraint in providing limited defensive arms to Taiwan during the transitional era."

From Nixon’s opening to China in 1971, American policy has been hobbled by wise and foolish individuals and unrelenting turf wars. Jimmy Carter, for instance, was keen to establish diplomatic relations with China, but he allowed his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to outmaneuver the State Department and seize control of policy-making regarding China. Brzezinski did get the agreement to establish diplomatic relations with China in return for downgrading the relationship with Taiwan, but at the same time he attempted to obfuscate the American intentions to continue arms sales to Taiwan. A procession of American diplomats then had to carry the bad news to Beijing and insist that China had to accept these unilateral American demands or forego recognition. Such blackmail bargaining did not sit well with the Chinese, and Taiwan continued to bedevil the relationship. In 1992, George Bush decided to permit sales of the F-16 fighter to Taiwan over angry Chinese protests against another unilateral modification of the agreement. The national security advisor, Brent scowcroft, reportedly told the Chinese ambassador, "It is being done because the production line is in Texas and Texas is crucial to the President."

The Great Wall also describes the cold war’s momentous move by Nixon and Mao to coordinate their resistance to the Soviet Union. (Tyler apparently believes that Brezhnev’s aggressiveness made such a change in policy imperative.) Mao certainly found the American approach a correct one: "So long as the objectives are the same, we would not harm you, nor would you harm us. And we can work together to commonly deal with the bastard." The Chinese soon learned, however, that Nixon and his successors were willing to reach important agreements with "the bastard." American diplomats periodically had to sit through Chinese harangues about American weakness and unreliability. Multiple American interests seem to be at work here, rather than the inconstancy of American leaders.

This is not to say that Tyler’s concentration on individuals leads to a simplistic view of those individuals. He argues, for instance, that Nixon and Henry Kissinger initially felt that a change in relations with China was years in the future, and therefore they hinted to the Soviets that the United States would accept a Soviet attack on Chinese nuclear facilities if the Soviet Union pressured Hanoi to settle the Vietnamese conflict. Only when the Soviets seemed unwilling or unable to deliver Hanoi did Nixon and Kissinger back away from any acceptance of such an attack. China was important, but American policy makers initially defined China in light of other pressing concerns.

Tyler’s sensitivity to complexity seems to desert him, however, when he argues that Bill Clinton has failed to advance the relationship at all. His picture of the two warring factions within Clinton’s administration does continue the rather sad litany that on China policy, each administration is at odds with itself. But Tyler’s explicit judgment, reserved only for the Clinton administration, overlooks one of the lessons that his account provides: American policy toward Chinaand the Chinese responseproduces fitful success and long periods of stasis. After the successful ending of the cold war with China, Nixon and Kissinger were correctly pessimistic about the prospects of a closer relationship with China. The fact that Tyler did not predict that Charlene Barshefsky, the U.S. Trade Representative, would reach agreement with the Chinese in the fall of 1999 regarding their entry into the World Trade Organization is not surprising, given the irregular rhythm of Chinese-American relations; but his own account would have predicted that something would happen within eight years.

And the future? Tyler’s account can be read as a primer on effective and ineffective approaches to China. Some, like Winston Lord, come off badly in the telling; one probably would not want to follow Lord’s advice that "the Chinese would always cave if you hit them hard enough." Tyler’s heroes are people like ambassadors Leonard Woodcock, who could see the big picture (normalization of relations would change the landscape, he argued, so don’t worry about the little annoyances) and Stapleton Roy, who kept urging a reasonable balance between moralism and national interest when dealing with China and a recognition that unless the United States offered something to the Chinese, there would be no progress. But, still, his account suggests that there is too much hit-and-miss in American foreign policy-making to be more than cautiously optimistic.

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