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[Martin Schram] Are these the US’ just desserts?

First came October’s ominous headlines from half a world away: China was suddenly darkening Taiwan’s air defense zone skies with record numbers of warplanes -- 150 sorties in the first two weeks of October. Their undeclared fly-by missions were far more menacing than Beijing’s eruptions of propaganda-machined war clouds.

But on Oct. 13, in case Western policymakers didn’t get what is really at stake, the wizards behind Washington’s conventional wisdom curtains just cranked out an urgent what-it-all-means: “Taiwan tensions,” alerted the Washington Post’s lead editorial’s headline, followed by a warning-siren of a subhead: “China could try to conquer the island unless the US and allies raise the costs.”

Conquer. And now, as an overwhelmingly otherwise-occupied Washington begins yet another desperation debate over how-much-how-soon, I am thinking back to a most bizarre moment in a most bizarre day, back when the foundation of our latest China-Taiwan dilemma really was poured.

I was in the White House West Wing, in the office of the happiest and clearly most excited presidential national security adviser I’m sure I’ll ever be fortunate enough to see. Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the distinguished and globally famous former professor of international affairs who was then advising President Jimmy Carter, had just scooped up a fistful of photographs that he wanted to show me. He was talking in that quick, clipped, almost giddy way he got when he was excited and also waving around about a dozen photos as he talked. And that caused the photos to fly out of his hand and all over the floor. Undeterred, Zbig kept talking excitedly. He held up one photo for me to look at:

“Here’s Cy ... and here I am ... and there is Deng right between us. ... It’s amazing, when you think of it. The leader of a billion people -- having dinner in my house just two hours after he arrived in this country! I mean, it really is rather amazing!”

It is. The photo, taken in the dining room of the Brzezinski’s spacious home in the Washington suburb of McLean, Virginia, in January 1979, shows Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Zbig, and sitting there between them is the leader of China, the physically diminutive but geopolitically massive Deng Xiaoping. The previous May, Brzezinski was in Beijing negotiating the decision by which Carter would complete the process begun by Richard Nixon -- the normalization of relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Deng kept voicing doubt that Carter would follow through; Brzezinski kept assuring him it was a done deal. Finally, Brzezinski added a personal gesture, telling Deng, “It will occur. And I want you to come to my house for dinner when it does happen.”

Deng agreed.

But the most controversial hurdle had grown from the fact that Nixon had agreed with Beijing that there was just one China and Taiwan was part of China. Deng insisted that meant the United States could not continue to have its separate defense treaty with Taiwan’s government. (Taiwan, of course, called itself the Republic of China and agreed that there was just one China -- and Taiwan was the temporary capital.) Deng insisted America’s Taiwan defense treaty must be canceled.

Both Brzezinski and Carter agreed. And when it was announced, Carter never publicly vowed to militarily defend Taiwan -- a policy that came to be known as “strategic ambiguity.” But the United States has continued to provide military equipment to Taiwan and has conducted military exercises with Taiwan, Japan and others. Beijing hates that.

Most recently, China’s President Xi Jinping has made a number of militarily aggressive moves in the region. And President Joe Biden has sold Taiwan $750 million worth of artillery. A House proposal to add 13 ships to the US Navy fleet would be the sort of action that would get Beijing’s attention -- and would please Taiwan, which remains forever desperate for reassurance.

Perhaps an even greater shot across the bow would be a non-naval coordinated effort of Western message diplomacy. Europe, the United States and assorted trade allies would do well to keep reminding Beijing it will be impossible for China to promote its global economic leadership if it moves militarily against Taiwan. Say it -- and mean it.

Epilogue: Beijing’s decades of leaders have always understood the power and subtlety of that linkage reality. On that night back at the Brzezinski’s home, there was a moment over cocktails and caviar, when Brzezinski tried his hand at some light political humor -- only to be one-upped by his guest. It began with Zbig telling Deng, “President Carter has had some domestic political difficulties with the normalization. Have you had any political difficulties?”

To which Deng quickly, yet subtly, replied, “Yes I have. In the province of Taiwan, there has been some opposition.”

Martin Schram
Martin Schram is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. -- Ed.

(Tribune News Service/Tribune Content Agency)

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