The Book of the Week is “A Great Wall, Six Presidents and China: An Investigative History” by Patrick Tyler, published in 1999.
In this tome, the author recounted the history of the relationships between and among the United States, China, Taiwan and the former Soviet Union beginning in 1969. In March of that year, the Chinese started a border skirmish with the Soviets, killing a few tens of them.
American president Richard Nixon realized that it would be advantageous to play the Soviets off of the Chinese or vice versa, by becoming friendly with one or the other before the end of his administration. His eventual secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, insinuated himself into foreign policy matters early on by marginalizing the then-main adviser, William Rogers.
The socially manipulative Kissinger, by spring 1970, working in the White House, then proceeded to convince Nixon to take the State Department out of the loop on conversations the United States was having with China through the Pakistanis, and other players in the diplomacy game– Taiwan, Japan and the USSR. Nixon feared being criticized for betraying the democratic Taiwan by flirting with the Communists. It was completely antithetical to his past rabid anti-Communist ideology and vicious behavior against them.
Nixon’s desire for reelection in 1972, however, overrode any shred of morality he ever had and any consistent political behavior he ever displayed. In early 1971, after a few telling incidents, he relaxed: travel restrictions on Americans who wanted to go to China, and the trade embargo on products from China. That spring, as a goodwill gesture, the Chinese sent their ping-pong team to Japan to compete against that of the United States.
The major issues Nixon had to tackle in order to get reelected included the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, the Vietnam War, making nice with both China and Taiwan (a very tall order), plus the Pentagon Papers; not to mention the Watergate break-in.
Kissinger tried to generate hysteria by claiming that the Soviets had designs on China, so that’s why it was a bad idea for China to officially swallow Taiwan as part of its property. China was a sworn enemy of Taiwan because its efforts to take it over had been frustrated for decades.
China’s leader, Mao Tse Tung wanted China to take over Taiwan’s seat on the United Nations Security Council. Nixon was in a tough spot because in order to become friendly with the Chinese, he needed to bow to Mao’s wishes– help to oust Taiwan from the UN and terminate all diplomatic relations between Taiwan and the United States. George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, Pat Buchanan and others disagreed with Nixon’s rejecting Taiwan to court China.
“Nixon’s credibility with America’s allies in Asia and the Pacific would depend on his reassurance that he was not making deals behind their backs…” But with Kissinger as Nixon’s point man, the secret proposed agreements kept on coming, making Nixon one of the biggest liars in the world. The ridiculously phony Kissinger deserved an Academy Award for his performances; telling the Chinese one thing, and the Taiwanese the opposite, secretly wooing the other.
The Chinese and Soviets had their complicated, internal power struggles, too. Mao got rid of his second-in-command in the second half of summer 1971 for trying to argue against fostering harmony with the Americans. For, flirting with the Americans would displease the Soviets. “Even a partial break with Moscow wasn’t popular in the Chinese military, which had been trained and equipped by the Soviets.”
The plot thickened in November 1971 when the Soviet-backed India picked a fight with the Chinese-backed Pakistan. The United States imposed economic sanctions on India. Eventually, East Pakistan became Bangladesh despite Kissinger’s United States’ failed attempt to butt into the fray.
In February 1972, Nixon became the focal point of the universe when he visited Beijing. He made headlines again when he gave a standing ovation at a musical show that had the Communists beating the capitalists (that was actually a PR gaffe).
It might be recalled that former American president Dwight Eisenhower signed the Mutual Defense Treaty, which was supposedly still in effect when Kissinger arrived on the scene. That document asserted that the United States would defend Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai Shek (in exile on Taiwan) and the territory of Taiwan in the event that China got militarily aggressive.
Therefore, Kissinger had to backpedal on a new communique he and Zhou Enlai of China were hammering out. The final version omitted any reference to the protection of Taiwan altogether. It was the least bad compromise Kissinger could muster, as many Nixon administration officials were furious that the president had sold out Taiwan.
Meanwhile, the Americans agreed with the Soviets that they didn’t want the Chinese to develop nuclear weapons, which were in the offing for China by the early 1990’s, according to futurists.
However, Kissinger whispered to China that American military contractors such as General Electric and Westinghouse might license their jet-engine manufacturing and nuclear-reactor technologies to China via Great Britain or France. But he told them the United States would publicly have to say it couldn’t do that because the sellers weren’t supposed to be offering dangerous war tools to Communist nations. However, the United States believed that helping modernize China would be economically beneficial for itself, so it did want to help.
In summer 1973, Mao was livid at Kissinger’s empty promises when the United States announced an agreement with the Soviet Union on reducing nukes and protecting the other in the event of third-party aggression. Besides, the Watergate investigation was raging. Zhou was dying of cancer. Soon, the Arabs and Israelis would be going at it. That’s good times.
In November 1973, amid the full-on palace intrigue in both the United States and China, Kissinger showed himself to be a pathological liar upon his return from personal talks with Zhou. He prepared a thirteen-page memo for his boss, the president, in which he called those talks a “positive success on all fronts.” No joke.
In late 1974, when China’s new negotiator Deng Xiaoping outed Kissinger on his dishonesty, Kissinger responded with indignation, like the hubris-syndrome plagued alpha-male that he was.
President Jimmy Carter needed the support of Congress for his Panama Canal Treaties, so he trod lightly (and contradictorily as had all his predecessors) on the China / Taiwan / Soviet conundrums.
In 1979, Deng received bad publicity for perpetrating human rights abuses even though his were not nearly as harsh as Mao’s. Nevertheless, this new political football led to criticism of Carter’s failure to call him out on them. Also that year, the United States helped China start a secret spying operation in China that monitored the Soviets from Central Asia to the Far East.
The 1980’s saw other complicated issues come into play that involved the usual needless deaths and ruined lives, like the war in Afghanistan and the continuing pesky presence of the Vietnamese in Cambodia.
American president Ronald Reagan was as bad as Kissinger in his doublespeak. Not fooled, the Chinese started meeting with the Soviets. “The pro-Taiwan faction [in the U.S. government] feared that every weapon or high-tech system sold to China would end up in Moscow.”
The American president’s negotiators spent much of the 1980’s in arms-sales talks with China and Taiwan, trying not to anger one or the other. By May 1989 in China, however, dissatisfaction among university students over the authorities’ treatment of themselves and dissidents reached critical mass.
Not coincidentally, the students– because they knew the whole world would be watching– launched a hunger strike and protests in major cities across China at the same time as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing. America’s diplomatic representatives who held their reality show in Shanghai, also had their scene stolen.
Deng was embarrassed and angry that he couldn’t control the students, so he ordered law enforcement officers to disperse them with deadly weapons, arrests and executions, instead of just tear gas, water cannons and cops in riot gear. The horror and bloodshed lasted for about a month, as Hong Kong activists donated millions of dollars to the students’ cause to keep it alive.
In January 1990, president Bush vetoed a bill sponsored by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi that would have allowed Chinese students to stay in the United States as long as martial law stayed in effect in China. Further, he failed to express outrage at Deng’s tyranny because damage to America’s ties to China would result in a financial loss to America.
From a purely ethical standpoint, Deng’s behavior was horrifying. But from a purely economic standpoint, Bush was successful with the Chinese. And economics is what really matters in a reelection campaign.
Bush played a small part in convincing Deng to try some capitalist practices to see how they compared with China’s socialist ways. Also in January 1990, to distract his country from China, ironically, Bush ordered American law enforcement to arrest and try brutal Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, compliments of American taxpayers. Panama must no longer have been profitable for the United States.
The question in Bush’s administration that continued to rear its ugly head, though, was whether trade with China should have been conditional on whether China curbed its human rights abuses.
One argument that favored linking them was that: a country whose sociopathic leader ruled his people with fear and force and disregarded their health and welfare– would behave the same way– dishonestly– in business and trade.
Businesspeople in countries ruled by a dictator make a good living through the organized-crime tactics of bribery, racketeering, money laundering, etc. And low-level workers are always at risk for grave harm due to few or no health and safety laws. Yet imposing sanctions would be economically hurtful to both parties in some sectors.
So a trade agreement between or among nations is a microcosm of a political campaign (translation: propaganda war). The terms that are finally negotiated are always based on a barrage of anecdotal evidence. The specific industries that win or lose might or might not represent a significant sector of a country’s economy.
It’s an opportunity for the agreement’s signers to brag about (projected) job creation, the (projected) stimulation of domestic product purchases, and a (projected) significant resulting increase in wealth for their respective countries’ whole economy. According to them, everyone will live happily ever after with the trade agreement.
Attendant issues that might go unmentioned though, include the impact on labor unions, additional environmental pollution from the change in business practices, a numerical estimate of the rise in prices of specific products affected by additional tariffs (if any are imposed), and whether the signers or the constituents of the signers have any direct financial interests in the terms of the trade agreement (as did Kissinger late in his career, with regard to a U.S. / China joint venture).
Anyway, read the book to learn:
- the details of the aforementioned nations’ leaders’ major power struggles that led to minor changes in policy (and more blustery talk than anything else)
- of the propagandizing
- of the conversational and arms-deals shenanigans, etc., plus
- whether president Bill Clinton did any better than his predecessors at taking decisive action that would strike a balance among the complex political, economic, cultural and social issues surrounding the United States, China, Taiwan, the former Soviet Union and their neighbors in the diplomatic game.