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Home > East Asia > 

Reagan as viewed by some others
Paul Lin
7/4/2004

Former US president Ronald Reagan passed away on June 7 and a state funeral was held to pay homage to the nation's "cold war victor." Reagan's supporters hold him in high esteem.

They credit "Reaganeconomics" for leading the country to prosperity in the 1980s and laud Reagan's tactics of using an arms race to drag down the Soviet Union's economy and thus speed the meltdown of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The 1976 Nobel Laureate in economics, Milton Friedman, also penned an eulogy for Reagan in the Wall Street Journal and confirmed his contribution.

According to Zhang Wuchang, the former director of School of Economics and Finance at the University of Hong Kong, Friedman deems Reagan the most outstanding president in US history.

Many people in Taiwan also regard Reagan as the most Taiwan-friendly US president (a final judgement on US President George W. Bush needs to wait until his tenure ends). Yet the US-PRC Joint Communique of Aug. 17, 1982, signed within Reagan's presidency explicitly stated that "its [the US'] arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and China, and that it intends to reduce gradually its sales of arms to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to final resolution."

The memoir of James Lilley, the director of the American Institute in Taiwan from 1982 to 1984 and ambassador to China from 1989 to 1991, details the beginning and subsequent development of the 1982 joint communique. Lilley quoted his old friend Randall Schriver, now deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, reporting that Reagan did not realize the Communique's severe damage wrought on Taiwan until the last minute. According to Lilley's quotes from Schriver, Reagan hastened to redress the wrong by dictating a memo to ensure that the US would not betray Taiwan.

The essence of Reagan's oral memo was to offer more arms to Taiwan if China grew belligerent or its built-up military force threatened stability in the region, regardless what the Communique said about the quality and quantity of arms sales. As an executive order, the memo enjoys a similar legal status as the Taiwan Relations Act and has become part of the framework on which the security of Taiwan is built.

One month prior to the promulgation of the commun-ique, the Reagan administration made "six assurances" in which the US stated that it would not act as a mediator between Taiwan and China, not force a negotiation, not set a date for termination of arms sales to Taiwan, not consult with China over arms sales to Taiwan, not alter terms of the Taiwan Relations Act and not change its position over Taiwan's sovereignty. The "six assurances" helped keep a tight rein on the US whenever its policy bent towards China. Moreover, Lilley also revealed that Reagan was displeased with the then-secretary of state Alexander Haig's performance over Taiwan. Reagan eventually fired Haig and his subordinates.

Given Reagan's friendly attitude to Taiwan, one cannot help but ask why the US still signed the communique with China. On Aug. 17, 1982, the day the Communique was signed, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, John Holdridge, explained the reason to the Senate's Foreign Relations Commitee. Holdridge said that the US and China had been negotiating the issue of arms sales for months. The US signed the Communique to keep the US-China relationship from relapsing into antagonism. Apparently, China's threats frightened officials in the Department of State into signing the communique.

For both the incumbent US president or future presidents, two lessons are to be learned from the aforementioned incidents:

First, US diplomats in the Department of State lack an understanding of China's behavior as a political hooligan. Often, the US turns soft under China's intimidation. China's attempts to cozy up to the US also work, and the US is duped by China's deceit. Besides, some Western experts on China issues often come up with bad ideas, since they have lost themselves in their China complex.

Second, the US's main enemy now is global terrorism, replacing the former Soviet Union. If the US follows the same old Kissinger line, the US will be asking for trouble by leaving autocratic China to rise in power. Reagan's arms race, which dragged down the Soviet Union, now can hardly do the same for China as it is the US' transnational enterprises that are feeding China's authoritarian regime.

Paul Lin is a political commentator based in New York.

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