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Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Rethinking the Triangle: Washington-Beijing-Taipei

This week, the Miller Center will host an international workshop on "Rethinking the Triangle: Washington-Beijing-Taipei.” The workshop is an attempt to bring the three sides of the Washington-Beijing-Taipei triangle together to discuss the possibility of moving from the Cold War model of an exclusive security triangle to a more realistic inclusive, opportunity-driven triangle. Public sessions on Thursday, March 28 will feature three perspectives from experts from China, Taiwan, and the United States in an attempt to explore a new paradigm for these interrelationships based on inclusiveness and opportunity rather than each hedging against increasingly unlikely crises.

Brantly Womack, the Miller Center’s C. K. Yen Chair, Professor of Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia and the workshop’s organizer, recently published an article in the Asia Times Online explaining the need to rethink the relationship between China, Taiwan and the United States. Although the Cold War defined the relationship between the three states for several decades, since 2008, the relationships have become fundamentally unstable and more complex. According to Womack:

The rivalry in the relationship between Washington and Beijing has become more global but also more cautious since each needs the other in many facets of global governance.

Meanwhile, the relationship across the Taiwan Strait has become a mainstay of Taiwan's economic prospects, and avoiding crisis is now vital to the careers of the leadership on both sides. The Washington-Taiwan relationship was strained by the brinksmanship of Chen Shui-bian, president of Taiwan from 2000 to 2008, and currently doubts are raised about continuing arms sales.

Meanwhile, China has developed the military capacity to render American military assistance to Taiwan either ineffective or too costly. Thus many American analysts consider "the Taiwan problem" the greatest strategic flashpoint in Asia.

Womack argues that the relationships between the states have been too focused on the security aspect and should instead shift to creating new opportunities. Womack asserts that the United States can take concrete steps to facility the transition from a security triangle to an opportunity triangle.

This Day in History: Only Nixon could go to China

President and Mrs. Nixon visit the Great Wall of China and the Ming tombs.

President and Mrs. Nixon visit the Great Wall of China and the Ming tombs. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. Photo by Byron E. Schumaker. PD.

On this day in 1972, President Richard M. Nixon and his entourage, including National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Secretary of State William Rogers, landed in Beijing for an historic trip to China. It was "The week that changed the world," as President Nixon called his eight-day trip that included official meetings, cultural visits, and sightseeing in Beijing, Hangchow, and Shanghai. According to Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose:

He knew that when his old friend John Foster Dulles had refused to shake the hand of Chou En-lai in Geneva in 1954, Chou had felt insulted. He knew too that American television cameras would be at the Peking airport to film his arrival. A dozen times on the way to Peking, Nixon told Kissinger and Secretary of State William Rogers that they were to stay on the plane until he had descended the gangway and shaken Chou En-lai’s hand. As added insurance, a Secret Service agent blocked the aisle of Air Force One to make sure the president emerged alone.

The trip was widely televised and viewed. On February 27, the U.S. and China issued a joint communiqué, later known as the Shanghai Communiqué, which pledged both countries to work for "normalization" of relations, and to expand "people-to-people contacts" and trade opportunities and for the United States to withdraw gradually from Taiwan.

In October 1967, when he was running for president, Nixon wrote in a Foreign Affairs piece:

Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.

But the depth of Nixon’s commitment to a new relationship with China was difficult to judge. During his first years in office, Nixon sensed an opportunity as relations between the Soviet Union and China continued to deteriorate. Reversing Cold War precedent, he publicly referred to the country by its official name, the People's Republic of China.

In Spring 1971, Mao Zedong invited an American table tennis team to China for some exhibition matches. Following the breakthrough of sorts, Nixon sent Kissinger to China to engage in secret meetings with Chinese officials, thus laying the ground for Nixon’s trip the following year.

As one of the most anti-Communist politicians of the Cold War, Nixon was in a unique position to launch a diplomatic opening to China, leading to the birth of a new political maxim: "Only Nixon could go to China." It was only a first step, but a decisive one, in the budding rapprochement between the two countries.

Read more about Nixon’s presidency, including his trip to China, here.

Beyond Tiananmen: Managing Sino-American Relations

Beijing:Tiananmen Square 180 degree overview picture

Beijing: Tiananmen Square 180 degree overview from Tiananmen gate looking south.

While the economy is central focus of most presidential elections, foreign policy serves as proxy for demonstrating presidential leadership. A strong record on foreign policy can help to bolster re-election prospects, but challengers can also use foreign policy failures for electoral advantage or to distinguish their policy platforms. In a series of posts this week, Riding the Tiger will examine the implications of foreign affairs for the presidency and the presidential election.

Today marks the 23rd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in China. Students sparked the popular demonstrations following the death of liberal reformer Hu Yaobang on April 15. The students called for economic and political reform and expressed grievances over inflation, limited career prospects for students, and corruption of the party elite. Military suppression ended the demonstrations just seven weeks later on June 4.  It is unclear how many protestors were actually killed by the military action and some are still serving prison sentences for participating in the demonstrations. The anniversary remains a sensitive subject for the party leadership in China. Twenty-three years later, censors continue to prohibit public commemorations, except in Hong Kong, and numerous internet search terms related to the date are blocked. Meanwhile, the Shanghai Stock Exchange opened on Monday at 2346.98, which looks like the date of the crackdown written backward, followed by the 23rd anniversary, prompting Chinese censors to block search terms related to the stock market. The Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index also fell 64.89 points, which of course looks like June 4, 1989.

American foreign policy toward China has been a careful balancing act between managing the economic relationship, human rights, and democracy for decades.