The Boston Globe
A revelatory history of the complicated and combative relationship between the world's biggest and the world's most powerful nations--by the former Beijing bureau chief of the "New York Times." of photos.
The Boston Globe
New York Times
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THE POSSIBILITY of a shooting war between the United States and the People's Republic of China was suddenly made real to Bill Clinton in early March 1996.
"Goddamn," the president muttered as he focused on the blunt and alarming presentation that had been prepared by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili, with concurrence from the secretaries of state and defense.
On March 5, China announced that it would conduct ballistic missile exercises by firing surface-to-surface rockets from the mainland to "target boxes" just outside Taiwan's main commercial harbors.
Two days later, China began firing those missiles, and in that brief space of time, Clinton's ability to manage American foreign policy again came under siege.
Clinton had summoned his national security advisers to the White House to review a "matrix" of possible war scenarios and American responses. Shalikashvili, the four-star general whose easy wit and pragmatism had won recognition during the Persian Gulf War, had prepared a graphic presentation in the binder that was in front of the president. It charted the stair steps of escalation that might occur if one of the ballistic missiles from mainland China went off course and actually struck Taiwan, or if the mainland deliberately started aiming its missiles at targets on Taiwan, as some intelligence reports had suggested, or if the 150,000 troops that the People's Liberation Army had assembled just across the waterway from Taiwan decided to make a grab for one of the islands just off theChinese coastline that Taiwan controlled, Quemoy and Matsu being the most famous.
As China escalated the pace of its military exercises in the weeks running up to the March 23 presidential elections in Taiwan, there was a real danger that events could get out of hand, and the United States had no control over the players who would be driving the escalation.
The assessment of the American intelligence community was that China's military exercises were not a prelude to invasion. Rather, China was engaged in coercionin gunboat diplomacy. Still, the military chiefs, especially Shali, as Shalikashvili was known, wanted no one at the White House to be cavalier about real risk of an accident, surprise, or miscalculation. The general sat quietly, his hair close cut gray and chest covered with battle ribbons arrayed across the army green of his uniform. His open face had drained of its usual good humor as he sat upright, his demeanor speaking volumes about the sober assessment he had brought before the president. The joint chiefs had minced no words. They did not have high regard for the man occupying the Oval Office; they had not been consulted on the decision that had triggered the crisisgranting Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui, a visa to visit the United States the previous springthough the fact that the granting of the visa had set off a military reaction from China was enough to make the point that the chiefs should have been in the loop. Now that the consequences were at hand, the chiefs were determined to be professional in painting as clear a picture as possible, first of the risks that Clinton was facing and second of the unpleasant array of options that he would have to choose from if either side started shooting.
Clinton was sobered by what he read in Shalikashvili's binder. The risks of an accidental war were considerable. When his eyes pulled away from the general's grim accounting of what might occur, Clinton looked around the table at Warren Christopher, secretary of state, Bill Perry, secretary of defense, and Anthony Lake, his national security adviser, and told them how alarmed he was. The situation in the Taiwan Strait was a powder keg, and they were going to have to do everything they could to head off the looming catastrophe. He did not want any of the terrifying scenarios in Shali's briefing to come to pass, he said. Clinton did not have to mention that 1996 was an election year and that the specter of an unpredictable military confrontation with Chinawith the possibility of American casualtieswas not his idea of an attractive backdrop to the coming reelection campaign. Everyone in the room remembered the wreckage the Somalia mission had turned into during their first year in office.
Moreover, Clinton said, someone was going to have to get the message to Lee Teng-hui to back off, because Clinton was not going to risk taking the United States to war every time the president of Taiwan wanted to attend his class reunion in upstate New York or play golf in Hawaii. Delivering this private message was to be the task of Sandy Berger, the deputy national security adviser, and Peter Tarnoff, the undersecretary of state for political affairs. They were to arrange a private meeting in New York with a senior aide to the Taiwanese president and sit him down for a sober talk about American expectations.
But neither Clinton nor his advisers that weekend addressed the larger questionto what extent would America defend Taiwan?
In 1958, American warships escorted Taiwanese military transport ships to within a mile of the Chinese coastline so that Taiwanese forces could offload munitions and supplies for their garrisons on Quemoy and Matsu. A misguided shot from the mainland could have easily struck an American warship, triggering escalation and war.
In 1996, almost no one believed that the United States would risk war over the defense of these outlying islands if they came under attack. All through the 1990s, the Taiwanese military had steadily drawn down the garrisons on Quemoy and Matsu, leaving them exposed to reoccupation by the mainland. Pentagon officials believed that holding onto Quemoy and Matsu was an anachronism of the Cold War. The islands themselves were museum pieces with their underground honeycombs of fortifications, pillboxes, barracks, and ammo dumps, all connected by networks of tunnels. More tourists passed through these tunnels in the 1990s than soldiers.
Still, Taiwan's armed forces were prepared to retaliate for any attack on the territories they controlled, including the outlying islands. In private briefings with U.S. officials in early 1996, Taiwan's military commanders had laid out the full array of air strikes they were ready to execute against the mainland. On maps, they pinpointed the air bases, missile bases, radar installations, and supply depots that they planned to destroy with their own bombers and missiles.
It seemed as though a single match thrown into this tinderbox could set off a firestorm.
Among the men advising Bill Clinton, all of them older and more seasoned in foreign policy and crisis management, there was no doubt that they were reaping the harvest of the abrupt decision Clinton had made the previous May to allow the president of Taiwan to travel to the United States. Lee's government had promised that the trip would be a "private visit," to deliver a speech at Cornell University, Lee's alma mater, in Ithaca, New York. But when Lee arrived, Cornell was decked out as though for a political convention, and there was nothing private about the speech, which was beamed around the world. In the speech, Lee proclaimed the sovereignty of the Republic of China on Taiwan, to the cheers of hundreds of supporters waving Nationalist Party flags, the symbol of Chiang Kai-shek's government-in-exile.
With the death in 1988 of Chiang Kai-shek's son, Chiang Ching-kuo, Lee became the first native-born ruler of Taiwan. With a Cheshire cat smile, courtly manners, and shrewd instincts, he straddled the politics of the island, holding on to the traditional Nationalist base while also courting the proindependence vote. Educated in Japan and the United States, Lee had shown little interest in building new bridges to the mainland or in binding up the wounds of the Chinese civil war. Instead, he focused on the politics of separatism. And with a war chest of hundreds of millions of dollars, he had purchased diplomatic relations with more than a score of small nations willing to extend formal recognition to Taiwan (and break relations with Beijing). Whatever negotiations he carried on with the mainland were grudging, and, within his own party, he was suspected of undermining the cross-strait political dialogue at critical times. Lee kept the issue of reunification at arms length by insisting that the Republic of China on Taiwan would never surrender its sovereignty or unite with the mainland while the People's Republic was under monopoly rule of the Communist Party.
In 1995, he had offered to make a $1 billion donation to the United Nations in a bid to purchase a seat for Taiwan in the UN General Assembly. Further, Lee circumvented his own government bureaucracy in hiring a Washington public relations firm to make the case in the U.S. Congress that the president of Taiwan ought to be able to visit the United States, recognizing that America was the most important venue for his message. That message was simply that Taiwan shared democratic values with America and deserved its support, wherever Lee was taking it. Every American president since Nixon had refused to allow such visits, in the belief that giving Taiwan's leader a political forum in the United States undermined the "one China" pledge and needlessly provoked Beijing. Both Clinton and his Secretary of State Christopher had upheld that standard during their first two years in office. Indeed, Christopher and his assistant secretary for East Asian affairs, Winston Lord, had repeatedly promised Chinese leaders that Lee would not be admitted.
But in May 1995, Lee Teng-hui was able to exploit the zeal of an incoming Republican Congress to turn the tide of American politics and pressure Clinton to issue the visa. All of Clinton's senior advisers had concurred with the decisionincluding Christopher, Perry, and Lake. They disregarded warnings from China specialists in the State Department and on the National Security Council staff. Lake even instructed his reluctant aides to reverse their negative recommendation because the president had already made up his mind.
To Clinton, the decision had been a no-brainer, and he had dominated his advisers in making it. He believed thatto the average Americanit was a simple question of freedom of speech. The president of Taiwan held a doctoral degree from Cornell and had been invited by distinguished academics to return to his alma mater. Suppressing free speech made for terrible politics at any time, but it was especially risky after the Republicans had taken control of Congress. On May 2 and May 9, both houses of Congress passed nonbinding resolutions (97-1 in the Senate and 3960 in the House) calling for Lee to be admitted. Clinton argued that if he did not cave to congressional will, he would soon be facing binding legislation and a crisis over whether to veto it.
"I don't want my first veto to be in support of the People's Republic of China," Clinton said, reflecting the political terror he felt over being put in the position of defending the regime he had so vilified during his campaign.
In the aftermath of Lee's visit, the recriminations unfolded in stages. First there was silence from the mainland, then a muted reaction, then an eruption that seemed to originate in the Chinese military. Suddenly, all the organs of the Chinese Communist Party unleashed vituperative attacks on Lee in a campaign that condemned him as a separatist seeking to "split the motherland." The first Chinese ballistic missiles, six of them, were fired into the East China Sea nearly 100 miles north of Taiwan from July 21 to 26, 1995, causing the Taiwanese stock market to plunge. The State Department called in the Chinese ambassador and issued a strong protest. Embarrassed, Clinton's advisers tried to downplay the reaction.
In Beijing, the ruling politburo approved a program of military exercisesa whole symphony of mock amphibious assaults, air combat displays, and live fire drills to be conducted by the PLA over eight months, building to a crescendo in 1996 when Taiwan voters were scheduled to go the polls for the first-ever direct balloting for their president.
In December 1995, the Nationalist Party, which Lee Teng-hui headed, lost several seats in legislative elections, leaving it with its slimmest majority in history. Beijing took full credit; its muscle flexing appeared to be working. Mainland newspapers, whose content was controlled by the party, started referring to the Taiwan Strait as the "Nanjing war zone."
But the big shock did not come until the new year, with the short announcement on March 5 by the state-run New China News Agency that the PLA was going to conduct even more threatening and provocative ballistic missile exercises off China's southeastern coast from March 8 to 13. Longitude and latitude figures clattered across news tickers delineating "exclusion zones" from which all commercial shipping was warned to stay away. When the coordinates were plotted in Washington, the entire exercise looked like it might be an attack on Taiwan. The "target boxes" were no more than twenty to thirty miles off Taiwan's harbor entrances and smack in the middle of international shipping lanes, close enough for the Taiwanese to hear the sonic boom of incoming warheads descending through the atmosphere at 4,500 miles per hour.
After the announcement, the White House went into denial. There was no meeting of the National Security Council. Instead, the "principals"Lake, Perry, Shali, and Christophermet in the Situation Room without the president. No word came down from the Oval Office. It was as if no one imagined that the Chinese would actually begin firing the missiles. But they did, literally at the stroke of midnight on the first day they had announced for the exercises.
At 11 A.M. eastern standard time, still March 7 in Washington (Beijing is 13 hours ahead), American intelligence satellites detected the first fiery plumes of two ballistic missiles rising from mobile launchers hidden in the valleys and mountains of southeastern China. Chinese soldiers and technicians of the Second Artillery Corps, which operates the country's nuclear and conventional rocket forces, cheered the missiles into the night sky. One missile passed over the northern tip of Taiwan during its descent. On the other side of the world, White House spokesman Mike McCurry was preparing his noon briefing. Word of the launches was flashed from the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon to the Situation Room in the basement of the White House, then to McCurry.
"These missile exercisesand indeed we have some reason to believe they have occurredwe consider both provocative and reckless," McCurry said from the podium of the West Wing press room just after noon.
It was, indeed, shocking. For the first time in its history, China had lashed out with a lethal new weapon that was remarkably accurate and could threaten the vital lifelines of Taiwan's economy. No deployment of the Seventh Fleet, no aircraft carrier, no warplane could interpose itself to stop a barrage of ballistic missiles. Taiwan had no defense against them. These exercises raised the question of whether, in any future conflict, the mainland could win an air war over Taiwan without ever launching an aircraft. With accurate ballistic missiles, China could knock out the eight military airfields on Taiwan, cratering the runways and preventing the island's air force from mustering opposition to a suffocating naval blockade.
A blockade of Taiwan would threaten the interests of the United States and Japan. Clinton would be at pains not to challenge the closure of the sealanes around Taiwan, just as the United States was compelled to challenge Iran's attempt in 1988 to choke off the international sea-lanes in the Persian Gulf during the so-called Tanker War between Iran and Iraq. Such a challenge would require American warships to steam through the blockade zone. The rules of engagement undoubtedly would call on American commanders to attack any Chinese combatant that activated its targeting radar, signaling a preparation to fire. American forces would have to be prepared to destroy Chinese warships or coastal batteries that put American vessels at risk, just as American forces attacked and destroyed Iranian warships in 1988. The same rules of engagement that applied in the Persian Gulf would be necessary to protect U.S. forces deployed near Taiwan.
A confrontation between the United States and the People's Republic of China had the potential to undermine the Clinton presidency. The crisis struck just as the U.S. Pacific Fleet was in transition. Admiral Richard Macke had resigned over inappropriate remarks he had made relating to the September 1995 rape of a twelve-year-old Japanese schoolgirl by American sailors in Okinawa. Admiral Joseph W. Prueher, who had been named as his replacement, was in Washington for his confirmation hearing before the Senate.
General Shalikashvili called Prueher and told him that it was not too early to take some preliminary steps to mobilize for the defense of Taiwan if war broke out, but to take care not to telegraph any such moves to the Taiwanese leadership, lest they grow bolder. In great secrecy, Prueher mobilized the Pacific Fleet command staff in Honolulu to prepare for the deployment to Taiwan of a huge supply of ammunition, spare parts, and missiles, including Patriot missiles to defend Taiwan's civilian population centers from incoming Chinese rockets. These supplies would be accompanied by U.S. military advisers and logistical personnel in the event of a mainland attack.
As the Chinese were announcing the missile tests, the aircraft carrier Independence, anchored in Manila Bay in the Philippines, was recalling its crew from shore leave at the end of a port visit. The big flattop set sail the next morning, March 6, to transit the Luzon Strait and head north through the Philippine Sea toward the eastern flank of Taiwan. The Seventh Fleet commander, Admiral Archie Clemins, quietly gathered his forces.
Still, no one in the Pentagon could answer the question that hung in the air: If hundreds or thousands of American military personnel flooded onto Taiwan for the first time in nearly two decades, when and under what circumstances would they leave? Ever since the Shanghai Communiqué of 1972 and the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing in 1979, the United States had recognized that Taiwan was part of China and that Beijing was the sole government of the Chinese people. Any deployment of U.S. troops to Taiwan, however defensive, would be regarded by Beijing as an invasion. China would certainly claim as much at the United Nations, where Beijing holds one of the five permanent seats on the Security Council. That seat comes with veto authority, which could be wielded against the United States on a host of matters that were important to American security, such as preventing war on the Korean peninsula, holding the line against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and keeping peace in the Balkans.
A number of advisers to Clinton, including the departing ambassador to Beijing, J. Stapleton Roy, believed that if only Clinton had been paying attention to China policy all along, he could have foreseen the congressional steamroller in support of admitting Lee Teng-hui and preempted the crisis through early consultations with Beijing. Holding a summit with Chinese president Jiang Zemin would have allowed the Clinton administration to reaffirm the one-China principle. Then he could have explained in more relaxed circumstances why it was politically necessary to admit Lee for an unofficial visit. The sequence of the visitsJiang first as an official guest and then the Taiwanese leader as a private guestwould have inoculated Clinton against much of what ensued.
But this was the president who had little time for foreign policy. He preferred to cram for crises. In the first year of the administration, Les Aspin, Clinton's first secretary of defense, telephoned CIA director R. James Woolsey and said, "Woolz, didn't you think that when we got these jobs, we would actually meet with the president and talk about policy?" Woolsey had to laugh. He assured Aspin that he was not getting invited to any White House meetings that excluded Aspin. Woolsey knew only too well Clinton's lack of focus. In the first six months of the administration, Woolsey and his intelligence officers had spent hours in the reception area outside the Oval Office, standing by to give the president his daily intelligence briefing. Clinton, more often than not, left the CIA cooling its heels for hours, frequently then canceling the briefing altogether. In September 1994, when a small Cessna aircraft with a mentally disturbed pilot crashed into the South Lawn of the White House in what appeared to be an unsuccessful assassination attempt, the joke at CIA headquarters was that the pilot was Woolsey trying to get an appointment with the president.
Lake, the national security adviser, had a similar problem of access to the president. But Lake himself also had been inattentive to China.
At the age of fifty-six, Lake had returned to Washington with the new Clinton administration bearing the quiet but nonetheless triumphal aura of a man whose adherence to principle was getting its reward. Lake had been among the small group of aides to Henry Kissinger who were disillusioned by their realization, in May 1970, that the Nixon-Kissinger approach to ending the war in Vietnam would be to escalate and expand it into Cambodia. Ever since, Lake had been trying to reconcile moral principle and national interest.
Whereas Kissinger relied on the "unsentimental" approach of balancing the power of potential adversaries to improve American security, Lake believed in a foreign policy based on power and morality. The commingling of ideals and interests was inevitable in American society, influenced as it was by the Enlightenment. Lake considered himself a pragmatic neo-Wilsonian, not naive about the world but conscious of the moral requirements of leadership.
Kissinger's world was all about power and realism. The fate of peasants and refugees trapped in war zones, the fate of small countries that got sucked into the vortex of great-power clasheslike Cambodiawere less important than the big picture. Kissinger had learned to pay lip service to moral imperatives because it was politically expedient to do so, but he seldom acted on them. Lake, on the other hand, believed both in humanity's predisposition for virtue and in its potential for evilan apt philosophy for the grandson of Kirsopp Lake, the British theologian who had emigrated to the United States to teach at Harvard. It was the task of governments and leaders, Lake believed, to do all they could to subdue evil, knowing that it could never be completely destroyed.
This moral dimension easily found a home in the war room of the Clinton presidential campaign in 1992, where Lake, a good draftsman and tireless punster, became indispensable in formulating attacks on George Bush's foreign policy. Although the campaign turned on domestic affairs, Clinton's advisers believed that they had to oppose Bush across the full spectrum of issues. During the campaign, Lake helped draft the Clinton slogans accusing Bush of "coddling tyrants" from Baghdad to Beijing. And in the fall of 1993, Lake consigned China to the heap of "backlash states." In Kissinger's equation, the massacres at Tiananmen were an unfortunate tragedy that could not be allowed to interfere with the larger balance of power. But for Lake, China's leaders were discredited by their slaughter of unarmed civilians at Tiananmen.
So it was a great personal vindication that Tony Lake should take the post in the Clinton administration that Kissinger had held under Nixon. Unlike Kissinger, however, Lake came to the office determined not to dominate the policymaking process. Instead, he saw the job as coordinating and distilling a full range of views for the president from among all his national security advisers. This evenhanded approach lasted less than a year, after which some of those who had first praised Lake now complained that more Machiavellian instincts had emerged.
When Clinton entered the White House, he had no interest in conducting high-level dialogue with the Chinese leadershipthe "butchers of Beijing," as they had been labeled. The Clinton team was more interested in putting pressure on China over human rights, weapons proliferation, and trade barriers. Winston Lord, the former Kissinger intimate and Ronald Reagan's ambassador to Beijing, was placed in charge of China policy at the State Department as assistant secretary for East Asian affairs.
Lord tutored the new administration that the Chinese would cave in to American demands if Washington was willing to play it tough. One of the first things Lord did after he was confirmed by the Senate was to fly to Beijing, in May 1993, and tell the Chinese that Clinton was going to play a very tough hand on human rights by setting conditions for the renewal of China's most-favored-nation trade status. He told them Clinton had decided that if China did not meet the conditions for improving its human rights record, Washington would react by slapping much higher tariffs on the $25 billion to $30 billion in Chinese goods then entering the American market annually, thus wiping out China's competitive advantage and undermining its economy, along with Hong Kong's.
Clinton played the State Department's tough hand until Lloyd Bentsen (Treasury), Robert Rubin (National Economic Council), Ronald Brown (Commerce), Jeffrey Garten (Commerce), and other business advocates in the administration convinced Clinton that the American agenda with China could not be held hostage to a single issuehuman rights. China was a player in Asian security, perhaps the key to convincing the North Koreans to give up their nuclear ambitions; China had a huge economy that was going to rival Japan's in a couple more decades; China had veto authority at the United Nations and could join with Russia or Europe to challenge American leadership on Iraq, on Bosniayou name it.
Out of this chaos, Lake let it be known in December 1995 that he wanted a go at directing China policy. Christopher thought that this was a grandstand play and resisted. Lake said that he would not proceed without Christopher's assent, but still Lake began calling China experts to the White House in January 1996 and seeking their counsel, knowing that they would urge him to get involved and even to travel to China. The pressure mounted until, finally, the intelligence reports suggesting that China might be preparing for missile attacks on Taiwan brought the matter to a head. Christopher's recalcitrance to Lake's initiative appeared unreasonable, and he relented.
It was just coincidence that on Thursday, March 7, the day the launching of the first two Chinese missiles shattered everyone's complacency, a senior Chinese official arrived in Washington to conduct what Lake was calling "a new strategic dialogue" with China, a new beginning.
To protect the honor of the secretary of state, Lake had conspired to inflate the title of the arriving Chinese official, Liu Huaqiu. Christopher did not want it to appear that Lake was conducting diplomacy outside the purview of the State Department, as Kissinger had done during his years at the White House. So Lake prevailed upon the Chinese ambassador in Washington to agree that Liu be called the "national security adviser" of the People's Republic of China, and therefore Lake's counterpart. Never mind that China had no such position. A fig leaf was necessary.
When Liu stepped off the plane in New York, all smiles, even as the first reports of Chinese missile launches were flashing over the news wires, Lake could hardly pretend that it was going to be business as usual. At the White House, Clinton had originally planned to drop in on a meeting between Liu and Lake, but the president stayed away to show his anger. Liu protested to Lake that the missile exercises were routine, just as the ones the previous summer had been. He admonished Lake not to overreact. The Taiwan issue, he said, was an internal affair of the Chinese people, and Beijing would not tolerate any interference. Liu's toughness reflected his status as a favorite among the hard-liners in Beijing; he had ingratiated himself to Premier Li Peng, who was pushing him as China's next foreign minister.
Lake came off looking foolish in trying to stretch his hands across the waters to the Chinese the very week they were wantonly firing missiles into Asia's international shipping lanes. He invited Liu to dine that evening at the State Department. Christopher would play host and Bill Perry would be there, too. That afternoon, the three Americans met to choreograph the dinner, dividing up their message so that it could be forcefully stated and restated. Talking points were drafted from the language of the Taiwan Relations Act.
As Perry crossed the Potomac River from the Pentagon into Washington, he was under the impression that the goal of the dinner was to forcefully convey the message to Beijing that it must immediately stop firing its missiles toward Taiwan. If they were successful, Washington might be able to resolve the matter diplomatically, along the lines that Lake was planninginitiating a new strategic dialogue. But Perry discovered it was already too late for diplomacy by itself. U.S. satellites showed more than a dozen missiles on mobile launchers being readied for firing. A stray missile might set off retaliation from Taiwan, thus triggering the outbreak of a general war that could drag in the United States.
Clinton's national security advisers gathered in the elegantly appointed Madison Dining Room on the eighth floor of the State Department, near the terrace overlooking the Lincoln Memorial, radiant under evening floodlights. At the dinner table, Christopher's brow was pursed as he reiterated in the dour tones of a corporate lawyer that the missile shots were reckless and dangerous, and had to be halted at once.
Liu was far more animated than his host. He repeated that the missile exercisesand the naval and air exercises that would followwere routine. The United States should not overreact. He reminded them how the crisis had begun, with the visa issued to Lee Teng-hui, and how the Clinton administration had broken its word. At that point, Perry had been scripted to level Liu with a controlled outburst. But Perry, an owlish and soft-spoken scientist, even at his toughest still sounded like he was conducting a college seminar. Still, he represented the full force of the U.S. military, and his role was to lay down the ultimatum. The others at the table would then back him up.
These were not routine exercises, Perry said as sharply as he could, looking directly at Liu with a serious expression. They were anything but routine.
"You know, I am an old artillery man," he said, "and I can tell when someone is bracketing a target." He pointed out that the first missile landed to the north and second near the southern tip of Taiwan. That was bracketingestablishing the range so the missile commander could then hit any target in between.
How could that be considered routine, Perry wanted to know.
Furthermore, by firing ballistic missiles into international sea-lanes, China was not just threatening Taiwan with dangerous and reckless military acts but was also threatening the vital interests of the United States and its allies in the western Pacific. Japan received more than 60 percent of its energy supplies through those sea lanes. Japan was an American ally.
If the missile firings continued, the United States was going to respond to protect its interests. Perry told Liu that he needed to get that message back to Beijingthat very night. If the missiles did not stop, there was going to be an American response; if there was an attack on Taiwan, there would be grave consequences, he said.
Liu did not flinch. He had a reputation for bluster, and he could give as good as he got. When he was younger, he had participated in the fierce battles within the Foreign Ministry during China's Cultural Revolution. In any case, Bill Perry's "outburst" would have barely registered on his Richter scale. And, in response, Liu laid out the full menu of Chinese recriminations over the visa issue, over the sale of F-16s to Taiwan, over sanctions, and over American churlishness with regard to providing the technology that China needed for its development.
Lake and Christopher repeated their warning, and when Liu departed, he returned to the Chinese embassy on Connecticut Avenue. By morning, U.S. intelligence was able to confirm to the White House that Liu had sent a report to Beijing.
But nothing came back. American satellites saw continued preparation by the Chinese military for additional missile launches. There seemed to be no change in orders on the Chinese side. By Friday, March 8, a barely controlled panic was spreading among the Taiwanese, who rushed to the banks by the thousands to withdraw their cash or convert it into dollars. Every China Airlines flight leaving Taiwan for the United States and Canada was overbooked. People swarmed the airports trying to get a seat out.
Meanwhile, Taiwan's air and missile forces went to maximum alert in preparation for retaliation.
In Washington, Lake, Shalikashvili, Christopher, and Perry agreed that it was time to escalate. Shali, as the president's top military adviser, insisted that the planning be run out of the Joint Staff, the labyrinth at the core of the Pentagon where, in a military crisis, streams of information and resources merge through a funnel of communications, planning, and transport all connected to the war-fighting commands of Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East.
The joint chiefs met Friday morning and reviewed their plans for the resupply and defense of Taiwan. The USS Independence was on station east of Taiwan. The USS Bunker Hill, an Aegis class cruiser whose powerful radar could project far over the horizon, had steamed to the southern approach to the Taiwan Strait, where its crew could monitor missile launches as well as track all Chinese military activity in the area. A Los Angeles class attack submarine was helping to monitor subsurface movements in the strait with its passive sensors. A variety of other satellite and airborne sensors were brought to bear on the potential war zone by the Pacific Command.
When Shali arrived at the secretary of defense's suite on the outer ring of the Pentagon, he was confident that he had anticipated every contingency.
But Perry came on aggressively. He was visibly upset that the Chinese had ignored the warning that he had forcefully presented to Liu at dinner the previous evening. More missiles were set to fly, and each pass of U.S. reconnaissance satellites brought further evidence of Chinese mobilization. More naval and air exercises had been announced, with a new set of coordinates defining the latest "exclusion zone." When the coordinates were plotted, it looked as if China was coming perilously close to shutting down all shipping in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan's military forces were on razor's edge.
Perry wanted to hit the Chinese hard. Sending the Independence out into the distant Pacific only to steam around in circles was not a strong signal. In fact, it might be interpreted as weakness. He wanted a carrier to sail right into the Taiwan Strait, right up against the exclusion zone. He wanted to let them know that the United States meant business by launching aircraft from the carrier deck right there in the strait, right in their faces.
Perry could see Shali's face collapsing in an expression of horror. The two men were friends and had learned to read each other well. Perry seemed jolted by Shali's reaction and paused. They were obviously not on the same wavelength.
Shali replied that sending an American carrier into the Taiwan Strait was asking for trouble. The risk of an accident was very high, in direct correlation with the rising emotions. If a Chinese shore battery fired a cruise missile at the carrier, the carrier's commander would have a right to defend himself by attacking the shore battery. That might also touch off a Taiwanese attack on Chinese coastal batteries. Then where would they be? At war.
But Perry was frustrated. He wanted a tougher, more aggressive response than sending the Independence to steam in circles out in the middle of the ocean. The Chinese had to get the message that the United States was serious.
Shali argued that the Independence could initially show the flag east of Taiwan; if the Chinese got more aggressive, they could then consider escalatory steps such as sending the Bunker Hill through the straiteven the Independencebut such a move should not be the first card they laid down.
Still, for Perry, it was not enough. The situation presented the classic dilemma between military symbolism and military action. The symbolism had to be strong enough to deter escalation, but not so provocative as to incite further escalation and trigger a war they wanted to avoid. Perry was seized by the former option and Shali by the latter.
What about a second carrier? Perry asked.
There was no other carrier available, Shali replied.
Perry asked about the USS Nimitz. Shali said that he was under Perry's own orders to keep the Persian Gulf fully covered to enforce the no-fly zone against Saddam Hussein's air force. This was the Nimitz's current mission. But Perry replied that he was willing to relax the order.
Still, Shali was worried that even if they diverted the Nimitz, the carrier might not reach the Taiwan area by the March 23 presidential election.
For Perry, these timing considerations were not as important as the decision to mobilize a second carrier. If the Chinese saw that the United States was willing to pull an aircraft carrier out of the Persian Gulf and send it at flank speed across the Indian Ocean, they would realize that Washington took their missile launches very seriously.
Shali agreed. The second carrier would send a more powerful message, but not so provocative as to give the Chinese any pretext to react. To solve the problem of how the world would see this deployment so far out in the ocean from the Chinese shore, they agreed on a news media strategy to mobilize reporters and film crews and fly them in military transports to the deck of the Independence, from where their reports would affirm American resolve.
This was the logic that impelled the two-carrier deployment of March 1996, one that avoided intervention in the Taiwan Strait and one that respected the boundaries of the Chinese exclusion zones for their naval, air, and missile exercises, as long as they didn't target Taiwan.
The deployment would be devoid of any military mission, and, significantly, it would not assert freedom of navigation in the Taiwan Strait, though no one was abandoning that option altogether. Shalikashvili believed that there would be time after the crisis to send one or more American warships through the strait, to show the flag in the international waterway.
On Saturday morning, Christopher and Lord were called to Perry's office at the Pentagon for a briefing by Perry and Shali on the warship deployment plan and on plans for resupplying Taiwan if war broke out. Christopher discussed State's intended diplomatic messages to Beijing and Taipei about what the American deployment meant and what it did not mean. The messages would emphasize that America was not taking sides and that both parties should avoid acts that could trigger further escalation. Christopher planned to tell Beijing that he was calling Taiwan's national security adviser to New York for some sober talk about restraint.
When they finished at the Pentagon, they took the whole package over to the White House, where Lake presented it to Clinton. The president could see the potential for the conflict to spin out of control; for a war in the Taiwan Strait that would cause death and suffering on all sides; for American casualties and body bags coming home to a president who had evaded the draft; and for the destruction of his presidency due to his bungling the relationship that had been nurtured and handed down by his five immediate predecessors.
As he signed off on the military recommendations, Clinton said, "We've got to do everything we can to make sure none of this happens."
The next day, Christopher broke the news on a Sunday talk show that the United States had moved an aircraft carrier closer to Taiwan in case it should be needed. The following day, China conducted its fourth missile test and then announced that the tests were concluded, having launched fewer than half the missiles that it had readied for firing.
This stand-down was the first sign that the Chinese were moderating their coercive posture. They went ahead with sea exercises, but poor weather in the strait limited their scale and duration.
China's hard-line premier, Li Peng, warned American warships to stay out of the Taiwan Strait or face a "sea of fire" from PLA weaponry. The warning may have been mere bluster, delivered only after the Chinese realized that American warships had no intention of steaming through the strait. But once the warning was stated, it would have been far more provocative for the Seventh Fleet to trample on China's dignity by sending an aircraft carrier into the waterway.
Over the next two weeks, as the Independence steamed in circles far out at sea, hosting a series of landing parties from the American news media based in Tokyo, the Nimitz raced out of the Persian Gulf, trying to reach the western Pacific before the March 23 presidential elections.
The deployments did nothing to settle the war that still loomed between America, the People's Republic, and Taiwan. But they did strip away the long-standing American doctrine of "strategic ambiguity," a bureaucratic phrase that American officials had used to evade the question of what military actions they would take if Taiwan were threatened militarily by the mainland. There was no longer any ambiguity. America was bound by law, politics, and moral imperative to act in the face of blatant coercion or unprovoked aggression. Now that this position was out in the open, the risks had escalated, along with the incentives for all sides to intensify military planning.
America had declared its intention to use force in the defense of Taiwan. The deployment of March 1996 was the first act of American coercion against China since 1958, and certainly since President Nixon opened up relations with the People's Republic in 1972. The display of American military power was seen as a victory by the Clinton administration, a demonstration of force blended with diplomacy. Bill Perry would later call it "preventative defense." But many China specialists who served under Clinton understood something different about this show of force. It deeply humiliated the new Chinese leadership and the People's Liberation Army. The significance of the confrontation would radiate out across the decades, marking, perhaps, a profound moment in which China's leaders realized that in order to fulfill their own aspirations for national unity, in order to emerge as a great power in Asia, they would have to stand up to the United States militarily, especially near their own shores.
After a month of tension, the American carriers steamed away. But many specialists in the intelligence community and elsewhere believed that Beijing's civilian and military leaders had resolved that such a humiliation would never happen again.
Shortly before the State Department issued the visa to Lee Teng-hui, a senior Chinese official, Wang Jisi, told an American visitor that he had just returned from a retreat for Chinese specialists on America. These specialists served as a collective advisory group to the Communist Party leadership, including Li Peng and Jiang Zemin.
"I want to tell you the consensus of this retreat," he told the visitor. "The first point was that America is in decline and, therefore, it will try to thwart China's emergence as a global power. In the opinion of the participants, the United States is the only country that poses a threat to China's national security." He then cited a litany of "evidence," which included calls in Congress to give Taiwan a forum for pro-independence activities by inviting its leaders to America, as well as public sympathy for Tibet, which was portrayed by Congress and by Hollywood as a separate country under Chinese occupation, a status the Dalai Lama did not even claim. This evidence also included the American penchant for painting an unfair portrait of China's human rights record, for treating Chinese claims over islands in the South China Sea as expansionism, and for imposing onerous conditions for China's entry into the World Trade Organization.
"You know," Wang told his visitor, "for historical reasons Japan has always been the most unpopular country for the Chinese, but I can tell you that among China's senior leaders, the United States is the most unpopular country."
So much had changed since Richard Nixon's opening to China ushered in an era of goodwill between America and the People's Republic. So much had changed since Chinese and American table tennis teams conspired to stage a match that would bring them together in Beijing; this "Ping-Pong diplomacy" captured America's imagination, as if it were another walk on the moon.
So much had changed since Nixon's journey to Beijing during the week that shook the world in February 1972, when he and his wife, Patshe in that brilliant red coat that seemed the only speck of color in a whole country of monochromatic Mao suitsstepped out of Air Force One and headed down the stairway toward Zhou Enlai. The scene transported all of America away from the agony of Vietnam, but more, Vietnam suddenly was subsumed in a grand new strategy, and it seemed certain, for the first time, that the war would end. After all, it had been launched to contain communist China, which was bent on toppling the nations of Southeast Asia like so many dominos. But now, thunderously, Nixon and Mao were together and smiling. The image suggested that America was seizing control of its destiny, pulling itself out of the quagmire. In Saigon, the front page of one major newspaper displayed a cartoon of Nixon and Mao making love.
Everyone sensed that it was over.
A new era was beginning, an era that would be dominated by a buoyant mythology of America's relationship with China. And it would last for decades. In 1972, anyone could see that underneath the bold Nixon stroke was the realpolitik of using Beijing to undermine Hanoi, of burdening the Soviet Union with a new strategic dilemmathe fear that Beijing and Washington might ally themselves against Moscow. The split in the monolithic communist bloc had suddenly relieved Americans of the Stranglovian nightmare of global war pitting both the Soviet Union and China against the United States. It was more than relief, because in the nuclear age, America's very survival was at stake.
Because ordinary Americans were much more willing than their leaders to project morality into foreign policy, they believed that the real breakthrough in 1972 was that the Chinese had come to see the goodness of America. And goodness, the moral strength of doing the right thing, was at the core of American identity. Most Americans believed that the Chinese had been led astray, in part by the Soviet Union, in part by utopian nonsense and revolutionary excess. Historical grievances had seemed to generate rage and sustained hatred. The first targets had been landlords and Chiang Kai-shek's spies, but soon the list expanded to encompass world imperialism and foreign devils, those who had invaded and humiliated China so many times since the Opium Wars. Nixon compared the virulence of Chinese communism to "the more explosive ghetto elements of our own country." He felt their rage and it reflected his own deeper fearone that seemed racially tinged by his "ghetto" commentof the angry yellow horde swarming out of Asia.
Americans had been alarmed by the ferocious Chinese human-wave attacks that overran American positions in Korea. And they had been even more alarmed when China exploded its first atomic bomb in October 1964, so much so that President John F. Kennedy had sought a way to prevent it, sending W. Averell Harriman to Moscow to secretly explore the possibility of a joint attack on China's nuclear complex. Four days before Kennedy's assassination, General Maxwell Taylor, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, circulated a single copy of a top secret planning paper to each of the military service chiefs entitled "Unconventional Warfare Program BRAVO," aimed at preventing or delaying the Chinese bomb. "Nuclear development, at best, is fraught with troublestechnological, scientific, economic and industrial," Taylor told the chiefs. "If these inherent problems are intensified by a coordinated program of covert activities, there is reason to believe that the date on which the Chinese nuclear program matures may be materially deferred."
But in the summer and fall of 1963, as American U-2 flights out of Taiwan recorded the construction of the shot tower where the Chinese bomb would be hoisted for detonation, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev proved unwilling to risk the backlash in the socialist campand in the Kremlinthat would surely have followed a Soviet attack on a fellow communist state, however estranged they happened to have become through mistrust and ideological differences.
President Lyndon Johnson also was tempted. In April 1964, the National Security Council staff, under Walt W. Rostow, laid out for the president the results of a year-long study on how the United States might stop the Chinese nuclear weapons program. The only question was "when pre-emptive action against Chi-com nuclear facilities would be feasible and desirable."
Johnson's top advisersRostow, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and CIA director John McConetold him in September 1964 that although they did not favor an "unprovoked" and "unilateral" attack on China's nuclear weapons facilities "at this time," they nevertheless "believe[d] that there are many possibilities for joint action with the Soviet Government if that Government is interested," including "even a possible agreement to cooperate in preventative military action." Rusk was dispatched to discuss the matter with the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly F. Dobrynin, but, again, the Soviets were not ready.
Most Americans feared the Orwellian vision of the future that Rusk had verbalized when he publicly warned of "a billion Chinese armed with nuclear weapons." The American strategy toward China had been one of containmentbuilding a defensive arc around the Asian landmass by maintaining alliances with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand.
China and the United States were in a barely arrested state of war, ever since their armies had collided on the Korean peninsula and since Mao had thrown China's defense industries in support of Ho Chi Minh's drive to unite Vietnam under socialism. Matador nuclear missiles, which could be launched from American bombers, were moved in great secrecy to Taiwan so that they would be available for use against the mainland. They were still there when Nixon went to China.
A secret war between the communist Chinese and American proxies had been waged throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and the bloodletting on both sides only added to the mutual enmity, hatred, and fear. Thousands of American-sponsored guerrillas perished in the mountainous regions of Tibet, Sichuan, and Yunnan. In Tibet, the CIA monitored the Dalai Lama's flight in 1959, when the Tibetan uprising drew a crushing military response from Beijing. In April 1955, the intelligence wars nearly claimed the life of Zhou Enlai, who later would play such a critical role in opening U.S.-China relations. A plane that was to have taken Zhou to Jakarta for the Bandung Conference was sabotaged. It crashed, killing eleven Chinese diplomats. Zhou was saved when he changed his travel plans at the last moment. Hong Kong police identified a suspect, but he fled to Taiwan.
The opening to China represented a great relief from fear. Americans knew that terrible things had occurred in China during its long isolation after the Communist victory. The Communists had encouraged the peasantry to join in overthrowing the landlords, because Mao understood that shedding blood was critical to binding the masses. The virulence of Mao's revolution was confirmed by refugees fleeing to Hong Kong. They told of landowners being clubbed to death, buried alive, or dismembered. Later, Mao's Great Leap Forward had caused the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese through policy-induced famine. Even at the moment of Nixon's triumphant opening, Mao was still engaged in secret purges that resulted in the deaths of rivals and innocents alike. It was a marvel that China was ready to emerge at all. But that its leaders were also extending a hand of friendship was phenomenal. A great redemption was underway, and it was awe inspiring.
All of this emotion was written on a clean slate because, by 1972, Americans had little stake in China. The isolation and trade embargoes over the preceding two decades had put the two countries, truly, on different planets. When Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused to shake Zhou's hand at Geneva in 1954, it was a reflection that America, the preeminent global power in the wake of World War II, had constructed a world where Mao's China did not exist. Instead, America enforced the global fiction that Chiang Kai-shek was China's leader, and as a result the Nationalist government on Taiwan held China's seat at the United Nations. Mao's China had no legitimacy and Mao was caricatured as a fanatical megalomaniac. So when the opening with China occurred, it was not enough to think of it as an act of self-interested geopolitics. Pragmatism alone could not account for the gush of human emotion, the amazement at the spectacle of Mao and Nixon together in the Forbidden City. Americans were astounded that after all those years of war, after the searing vituperation of "running dog" capitalism and "godless" communismafter all of that, the Chinese did not really hate them.
China had been terra incognita for so long that the American public had forgotten much of what was there. And so Americans fell in love with Mao and with the elegant Zhou, with the Great Wall, with those amazing pandas and with chopsticks. It was said that the Great Wall was the only manmade structure that could be seen with the naked eye from space. It did not matter that this also was myth, in fact a physical impossibility. To believe it, however, was a tribute to Chinese civilization and its 5,000 years of recorded history, all of which had been denied during the Cold War. China once again, as it had in the previous century when hundreds of American missionaries built lasting bridges between the cultures, captivated the American psyche. And if Chinese Communists were no longer a threat, they must be a different order of being than once thought. One newsmagazine coined the term "cuddly communism" to describe the Chinese political theology. That was the mood.
Such was the landscape of American mythology that sprang from the opening with Beijing. As for the Nationalists, the generalissimo's political allies in America and his defenders in Congress were suddenly marginalized. Walter Judd and the Committee of One Million seemed as out of date as Bishop Fulton Sheen. They were finished; their vision repudiated. If Nixon, the ultimate conservative, the anticommunist doyen of the Republican Party, now was embracing Mao, everyone to the right of Nixon had lost credibility. Republicans whispered profoundly the new conventional wisdom that only a Nixon could have gone to China. Of course that was also a myth.
In fact, Johnson had tried to open lines of communication with Mao, if only as a desperate act to rescue his presidency from Vietnam. But the stars had been aligned against Johnson. For one thing, Chian was not ready for an opening to America. Mao was at the height of his purges during the Cultural Revolution. The CIA's map of China showed every major city in turmoil and the country headed for civil war. Army units were turning on other army units, and even in security organizations radical commanders were trying to overthrow their leaders, encouraged by Mao to "bombard the headquarters" and purge the party of "capitalist roaders" and "revisionists." But instead of being revitalized, the country just descended into violence and chaos. The sudden radicalism led to every manner of excess, as manifested by the floating corpses that began appearing in rivers.
Johnson had no time to wait for better circumstances. In the summer of 1967, he orchestrated an authoritative probe.
During a private lunch at his Texas ranch with Max Frankel of The New York Times, Johnson surprised the White House correspondent. "Max, I want you to write a story." Johnson explained that he wanted to open a dialogue with China. The United States, he said, was not out to change China's government. Although conservatives would oppose him, Johnson reckoned that with his record (for toughness) on Vietnam, he was the president with the ability to stage an opening to China, and no one would dare call him an appeaser. In other words, only a Johnson could go to China.
At the end of the encounter, Frankel asked how he should attribute Johnson's remarks.
"Don't quote me," Johnson said.
Frankel's dispatch"Johnson Reviving Bid for Contacts with Red Chinese"led the front page of The Times on July 11,1967, citing authoritative White House sources.
Nixon, then living in New York, could not have missed this thunderbolt. He had just returned from a fact-finding trip through Asia that served as the basis for a long article he was writing for the journal, Foreign Affairs, about China policy.
The fact that Nixon later succeeded where Johnson had failed changed all perception of history. The reason for Nixon's success was not to be found in America, but in Beijing and Moscow. His advantage was not so much his skill as a statesman, though he showed great skill in exploiting the opportunity in China, but rather the convergence of geopolitical forces. The first great shift in those forces occurred in August 1968 when the Soviet military crushed the incipient rebellion in Czechoslovakia, and the Brezhnev Doctrine, with its threat to bring wayward socialist states forcibly back into line, incited Mao to turn more forcefully against Moscow. Because Mao feared that Moscow's growing power would eventually be used to dominate China and because Mao could see that America was getting out of Vietnam, the Chinese leader had to consider reconciling with the American superpower as a countermeasure to growing Soviet pressure.
Another important factor impelled Mao. Cut off from Moscow by a decade of ideological divergence, China was falling further and further behind in technological development. The country badly needed to update its industries if the Communists were ever to succeed in building a new nation that could compete economically in the modern world. Opening up to America and the West offered a solution.
Nixon, first and foremost a political man and an opportunist, could also see the unfolding logic. Moreover, powerful Democratic voices in Congress were calling for a reevaluation of America's China policy. Preeminent China specialists like John K. Fairbank, A. Doak Barnett, Ezra F. Vogel, and Jerome A. Cohen argued that China's worst instincts could be contained without isolating the country's 700 million people. "Containment, without isolation," as Barnett had termed this approach.
Nixon sought to align his ideological rhetoric with this centrist view and wrote in his October 1967 essay in Foreign Affairs that "the threat [from] Red China is clear, present and repeatedly and insistently expressed. The message has not been lost on Asia's leaders. They recognize that the West, and particularly the United States, now represents not an oppressor but a protector. And they recognize the need for protection." For Nixon, that protection would come from a new Asian security alliance against China to replace the American role in Asia of providing armies to fight Communists.
"The world cannot be safe until China changes," he concluded. China had to be persuaded "that it must change: that it cannot satisfy its imperial ambitions, and that its own national interest requires a turning away from foreign adventuring and a turning inward toward the solution of its own domestic problems." And further, "Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors."
But, Nixon admonished, any short-term strategy of rushing into China's arms would be an act of political cowardice. Coming to grips "with the reality of China," he argued, "does not mean, as many would simplistically have it, rushing to grant recognition to Beijing, to admit it to the United Nations and to ply it with offers of tradeall of which would serve to confirm its rulers in their present course. It does mean recognizing the present and potential danger from Communist China, and taking measures designed to meet that danger."
So it began.
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