What are we to make of Jimmy Carter's stunning about-face on US policy toward China? Most liberals (including Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon) praised the move, calling it a recognition of reality. Most conservatives denounced it, as the spurning of an ally for an enemy and a usurpation of Congress's treaty-making authority. Both views, it seems to us, are off-base.
To begin with, the conservatives are on target in criticizing Carter for abandoning Taiwan (though not for recognizing China). It is quite true that the Nationalist dream of retaking the mainland and its claim to be the true government of China are mere fantasies—fantasies that US policy tacitly encouraged up till now. But facing those realities need not have meant accepting—as Carter did—the Chinese claim that "there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China."
The fact is that Taiwan is a country, in every sense of the word. Economically, it ranks second only to Japan in all of Asia. In 1978 its economy grew by 13 percent, with inflation of less than 7 percent and unemployment of only 2.5 percent. Taiwan's exports totaled $12.5 billion last year—more than double those of China. Yet that incredible output was accomplished by only 17 million people, compared with an estimated billion in China. And despite the fact that only 22 governments now maintain full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, it engages in trade with 140 countries.
Carter could have held out for a two-China policy—a policy of full, normal diplomatic relations with both China and Taiwan. The Chinese government had far more to gain from "normalization" of relations than did ours, given Teng Hsiao-p'ing's urgent drive to modernize the country and bolster it against Soviet threats. Expanded US trade, free of political restraints, is essential to Teng's campaign for the Four Modernizations. A tough, professional negotiating stance by Carter and Brzezinski would very likely have yielded concessions on this point—especially if linked to a phase-out of the US-Taiwan defense treaty.
Indeed, a US policy that insisted on full recognition of the legitimacy of the Taiwan government, and allowed continued sale of US arms for its defense, indefinitely, would probably have done as much to guarantee Taiwan's survival as would continuation of the treaty itself. It is doubtful that the Chinese would take lightly the presence of an official US embassy, together with hundreds of American industrial plants. Would they mount an attack on Taiwan that could be interpreted as an attack on American officials, personnel, and assets?
Holding out for such a policy would have earned Carter no points with professional liberals but would have gained the respect of decent people both here and abroad.
Nevertheless, despite the weakness of Carter's deal, the future of US-China-Taiwan relations may not be as bleak as it appears to many conservatives. To begin with, Taiwan's very economic strength—and the interests of its 140 trading partners—may spare it from outright Chinese attack. Not to mention the Taiwanese air superiority over the 100-mile Taiwan Strait and China's present lack of amphibious troops and landing craft.
The turmoil now taking place in China offers further hope that the rhetoric of reuniting "all of China" may give way to more important economic realities. In the past few months, wall posters in Peking and other cities have openly praised the economic achievements of, first, Japan; later, the United States; and even…yes, hated Taiwan. In Tien An Men, for example, one poster last December acknowledged that "Taiwan now has one of the highest standards of living in all of Asia. Why is it that our national economy has not been able to catch up with the one controlled by the Chiang Kai-shek clique?" Even six months earlier, to raise such a question would have been unthinkable.
Besides such minor straws in the wind, and questionable Peking assurances that it will not invade Taiwan, there are two solid precedents for a policy of peaceful coexistence between China and its prosperous neighbor. The first is that in the past few years China has learned to live in harmony with its ancient enemy, Japan. Not merely wall posters but official pronouncements, from Vice-Premier Teng on down, endorse the idea of learning from Japan, of borrowing not only technology but other aspects of industrial organization. The Kwangming Daily, journal of China's educated class, has predicted that China could "advance by leaps and bounds" by following Japan's example. Since the resumption of diplomatic ties in 1972, 150,000 Japanese business and professional people have visited China and 10,000 Chinese have traveled the other way. Two-way trade has soared from $1 billion to $3.49 billion, and a new eight-year trade agreement should lead to another doubling shortly. Taiwan's economy closely resembles that of Japan of about a decade ago. It would make an equally logical Chinese trading partner.
The other precedent for coexistence is a "nation" that is something of a Taiwan-in-miniature: Hong Kong. Though nominally a British colony, Hong Kong is considered part of China by the Chinese; the Peking regime has never accepted the legality of the 19th-century treaty ceding the territory to the British. And although the tiny colony is defenseless against a Chinese takeover, such a move has not happened—and will not. Why? Because it is in the interest of the Chinese to leave Hong Kong alone. Through supplying the colony's food and water, and operating a growing network of banks, shipyards, and factories, China is earning over $2 billion a year from Hong Kong. And the pragmatic Chinese are unwilling to tamper with the colony's success by imposing political or economic controls—even though they claim its territory.
Will Teng Hsiao-p'ing and his technocratic allies recognize Taiwan's similar value as a freeport and window on the world? Or will they allow ideology and national pride to prevail? No one can say for sure, but at this point, it looks as if economists and technocrats have the upper hand. If they continue to hold it, the odds are good that they will allow free-trading, entrepreneurial Taiwan to become a sort of super Hong Kong. Close contact with such a trading partner would bring the Chinese face-to-face with the benefits of free-market economics.
More than anything else, what Asia needs now are two, three,…many Hong Kongs. And Taiwan is ideally suited to such a role. Let us hope that, despite Jimmy Carter's sell-out, Taiwan will be free to become the super freeport of Asia.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The China Decision".