When the U.S. stopped recognizing the ROC in 1979…

As we now enter the very uncertain period in Sino-American-Taiwanese relations, I found these two gems of interview of American officials from the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, detailing the moments when ROC was first notified of the de-recognition in 1979, as well as how the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto American embassy in Taiwan, came about. They are a bit long, but both are fascinating reads.

The U.S. De-recognizes Taiwan in Favor of Communist China — January 1, 1979, interview of Neal Donnelly, then Public Affairs Officer in Taiwan.

A cable came in late at night, I’m not sure if it was 9:30 or 10:00 at night — something like that — saying that Carter was going to announce the normalization of China and the de-recognition of Taiwan. Mark immediately got a hold of Unger at the Christmas party at I think about 11:00 pm and then Unger started the wheels in motion to contact Chiang Ching-kuo who was the President of the country.

Now you don’t just go to the President of the country’s house and ring the bell and talk to him, so it took a while to go through the several people that they had to and then they got Chiang Ching-kuo at, I think, slightly after two o’clock in the morning. Unger told him that we were de-recognizing Taiwan.

Officially Unofficial – The Opening of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), interview of Harvey Feldman, then Director of the Office of the Republic of China Affairs.

He was told by Sullivan the same thing that I had gotten from Holbrooke, namely that we were giving two weeks’ notice; it was just not secret. Furthermore, the “normalization” and de-recognition communiqué declared that the U.S. acknowledged the PRC’s claim that there was only one China, of which Taiwan was a part. This has been greatly misunderstood, especially by successor administrations. When the U.S. said that it acknowledged the PRC’s position, it did not say that it accepted it.

Those are two entirely different policy expressions. An acknowledgment of the PRC position was a polite way of saying: “We hear you; we understand that this what you claim. We will not contradict it, but we make no statement on our own position.”

The usual way this U.S. statement would be translated into Chinese was to use the three character phrase “renshr dao [認識到]” (“we acknowledge”) The PRC tried to pull a fast one; in their Chinese version of our communique, they used a two character phrase cheng ren [承認] (or “recognized”). This a phrase that is used when speaking of a recognition of a government.

You can read the Normalization Communique in English and Chinese (translated by the PRC) on the AIT’s website to see the difference Feldman was talking about.

So in 1979, we had a defense treaty with an entity which we did not recognize and we would not sell or transfer any new arms. Thereafter, we would sell arms to a government we did not recognize. That was “creative” diplomacy or complete idiocy – I don’t know which is the most apt description.

Different times, but the same words seem to still ring true even today.


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