There’s no denying that U.S.-China relations have hit a new low, but that’s only part of the picture. The relationship has long been a dynamic one, subject to abrupt swings of the pendulum. What’s more critical is that the new “low” doesn’t become the new normal. The balance of pros and cons to a cooperative U.S.-China relationship levels out in favor of continued engagement, not just in economic terms, but in the face of shared civilizational burdens like climate change, pandemics and disruptions of trade.
What goes up, goes down, goes left, goes right; the relationship is a dialectic, always in motion, always seeking a new equilibrium. Call it love-hate, call it temperamental; U.S.-China relations, like any relationship, need constant work, fine-tuning and residual goodwill.
History is full of tragic misunderstandings and inadvertent wars, so both vigilance and restraint are called for. Patience, persistence and recognition of mutual benefit, and maybe even a bit of mutual respect, can go a long way to getting things back on course again.
Taiwan is at the crux of the current crisis. As the early Portuguese explorers evocatively termed it, Taiwan is “Ilha Formosa,” the beautiful island, was home to aboriginal peoples, Chinese traders and fishermen, descendants of whom still live there. It was incorporated, if not in full, at least in part, by various dynastic claimants in late imperial China, the Qing being the most recent high-water mark of mainland control, but also the dynasty that lost it in a war with Japan. From 1895-1945 Taiwan was incorporated into the Japanese Imperial Empire. After Japan’s defeat, Taiwan was claimed as Chinese territory by opposing sides in China’s civil war.
The KMT got there first, and they have held onto it tight, even after losing nearly every other foothold they ever had on the Chinese mainland. Since 1949, it has remained in legal limbo. Neither the KMT nor CCP was party to the San Francisco Peace talks in 1951 that were supposed to settle the sovereignty of former possessions of Japan, so Taiwan’s disposition was left unresolved. Claimants from both sides of China’s civil war have long agreed that Taiwan is an integral part of China, but they view it in mutually complementary ways. The KMT wrested practical control of the former Japanese colony while maintaining a wholly imaginary control of the mainland. Conversely, the CCP wrested practical control of the mainland, but has held Taiwan only in theory, not practice.
The One-China policy has been a surprisingly sturdy concept, both because of, and despite its built-in ambiguities.
The crisis of 2022 is the fourth triangular crisis involving Taiwan, the U.S. and the mainland. As in earlier cycles of threats and hostilities, it engenders strong feelings on all sides.
The first crisis was in 1954-5, also known as the Quemoy-Matsu crisis, involved military clashes on small islands close off the coast of China between troops loyal to Mao Zedong on the mainland and Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan. The U.S. Seventh Fleet, positioned in the Taiwan Straits, initially served to maintain the status quo, which prevented aggressive Nationalist attempts to invade the mainland. When this blockade was lifted at the behest of Chiang Kai-shek’s supporters in Congress, the KMT started a major troop buildup in Quemoy and Matsu which was eventually answered with military bombardment from the mainland.
On May 1, 1955, the PLA abided by a peace-fire, but both sides dug in and continued to strengthen their positions. A new crisis boiled over in the same area just a few years later.
The second crisis, in 1958-9 saw the clash of Nationalist and Communist troops on Dongding Island after an amphibious assault from the mainland. The U.S. Navy, no longer pretending to keep the two sides apart, began to escort KMT vessels to within three miles of the mainland and the U.S. Air Force engaged in numerous overflights. The U.S. supplied Sidewinder Missiles to the KMT forces which shot down 31 MIG jets, of Russian vintage, flown by PRC pilots. U.S. forces did not see action but were dispatched from Japan to colonial era airfields in Pingtung and other parts of Taiwan in a show of support.
Although the first two periods of crisis in the U.S.-Mainland-Taiwan triangle were limited in geographic scope and did not seriously impinge on either the main island of Taiwan or the mainland proper, both flare-ups had their white-knuckle moments, none more frightening than the repeated U.S. threat to use nuclear weapons if Mao’s forces did not back down.
Mao, for his part, ignored advice from Moscow and pressure from the U.S. with an idiosyncratic, half-hearted offensive in which Quemoy and Matsu were bombarded with propaganda leaflets every other day. This allowed Beijing to maintain pressure without increasing tensions, and the other side to resupply and avoid injury, an anomalous practice that continued to simmer on a low boil for the next twenty years.
The third crisis broke out in 1995-6, starting unexpectedly on the beautiful rural campus of Cornell University in upstate New York. Taiwan leader Lee Teng-hui, who received a PhD at Cornell in 1968, received special permission from the U.S. Congress to attend class reunion activities on campus, and a huge diplomatic flare up followed. The kinetic reaction from the mainland, echoes of which can be seen in the current crisis, involved missile tests and troop mobilization in the Fujian Province. In response, an armada of powerful U.S. naval ships passed through the Taiwan Straits, upping the stakes. Again with an echo of the current crisis, Premier Li Peng went to Moscow to seek support for advanced weaponry. The PLA was widely expected to attack some offshore islands, but in the Jiang Zemin administration, cooler heads prevailed. The third crisis involved virtually no armed conflict, but it provoked Beijing to double-down on its military spending, modernization and deployment in the Eastern Command region facing Taiwan.
Tensions are undeniably high this time around, arguably more so than in 1995-6, so it can only be hoped that responsible politicians in all parties put their egotistical tempers aside and work to calm things down, to restore normalcy of trade and peaceful coexistence for the common good.
History suggests that swings of the pendulum must be taken seriously, but they must also be taken in perspective. What swings one way, can swing back the other way, too. The last crisis (and the unrelated but grave crisis provoked by the U.S. bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade) were both followed by high-minded diplomacy and renewed bouts of close U.S. and China cooperation.