Kissinger’s Back-Channel Diplomacy: Taiwan’s existential Crisis

Navjit Singh | Updated: April 16, 2021, 1:16 IST

Kissinger’s Back-Channel Diplomacy: Taiwan’s existential Crisis

China could invade Taiwan within the next six years as Beijing accelerates its moves to supplant American military power in Asia, a Washington’s top military officer in Asia-Pacific, Admiral Philip Davidson warned. Taiwan, a democratic and self-ruled country, lives under constant threat of invasion from China which is showing its muscles in the region to threaten the regional countries. Amongst them, Taiwan is at the most danger due to its close geographical proximity and historical animosity with China.

The Republic of China (Taiwan’s formal name) was formed at the end of a civil war in 1949 when the nationalist Kuomintang fled the mainland and landed on the island named Taiwan. 

Since then Taiwan is an island off the southern coast of China governed independently from mainland, but viewed by People’s Republic of China (PRC) as its province, and an inalienable part.

Taiwan’s leadership and a growing majority of its population reject the idea that it is part of China, and cross-strait tensions have been high since Beijing cut off formal contacts with Taiwan after the 2016 election of its current leader, President Tsai Ing-wen.

Diverging views on the status of island between Beijing and Taipei have created animosity, sometimes leading to skirmishes between the two nations (contestable on the part of Chinese mainlanders). The PRC asserts that there is only “one China”, and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of it.


The decade of 1970s raised questions on Taiwan’s existence, and speculation ended after the United States established formal diplomatic relations with Beijing ceasing to recognise Taiwan as a State in international system. Consequently, the other countries followed the US’ lead.

The security threat for Taiwan increased many folds due to the US recognising PRC and terminating the Mutual Defence Treaty signed between both the nations in 1954 which provided that in case of attack from across the strait, the US will come to the rescue of Taiwan.

The US government passed the Taiwan Relations Act in the same year it unrecognised the island to ensure their Taiwanese friends that “we are still here”, but security aspects in the relations between Taiwan and the US downgraded as trade and economic ties improved between PRC and the US.

The four-decade of peaceful rise of China has now turned into a way of infringing democratic rights on the back of military expansionism. It has lately threatened the security of Taiwan where voices of independence are gaining traction. 

China has deployed missiles along the Taiwan Strait as part of its military expansion in South China Sea, and still periodically conducts drills near the shores of the island. It has sent bombers, fighter jets, and its aircraft carrier over and around the strait as shows of force. In the latest development, China sent 25 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone on Monday which is considered to be the largest breach of Taiwanese air space since Chinese forces started infringing their sovereignty.

The 25 planes dispatched by China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) forces included 14 J-16 fighter jets, four J-10 fighter jets, four H-6K bombers, two anti-submarine warfare planes and an airborne early warning and control plane, according to Taiwan's Defense Ministry. According to a 2019 U.S. Department of Defence report, China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, “continues to develop and deploy advanced military capabilities needed for a potential military campaign” against Taiwan.

The possibility of the claim made by top-US commander cannot be totally ruled-out as it has some merits looking at the past record of China with respect to the Taiwan. Beijing has refused to renounce the use of force to resolve disputes over the island’s status. The anti-secessionist law passed in 2005 was intended to strengthen Beijing’s approach to “peaceful national reunification” which also includes the language stating that in the event secessionist forces seek independence – which is what is happening right now in Taiwan since Tsai came to power – Beijing would “employ non-peaceful means” to protect its national sovereignty.

President Xi reiterated this in his speech in 2019, and added that Beijing would consider the use of force to prevent “intervention by external forces” on the island, referring to the intervention by the United States. How did the relation reach to this point? There are lot of reasons that will answer that question, but it all began with Henry Kissinger’s “successful” back-channel diplomacy which resulted in the normalisation of relations with PRC and left the ties between the US and Taiwan to merely an act passed in congress the very same year.

Back-Channel Diplomacy and History of US-China normalisation

Kissinger’s Back-Channel Diplomacy: Taiwan’s existential Crisis

In early 1918, US President Woodrow Wilson advanced his Fourteen Points to provide the American people with war aims beyond political and economic self-interest. Point one stated that there should be “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.”

This was a response to popular revulsion with the pre-1914 European system of secret alliances and ententes, which were widely seen as having created an interlocking web of secret commitments, leading to tragic miscalculations in the summer of 1914.

Back-Channel diplomacy or secrecy in diplomacy did not even stop after the Great War, on the contrary, it has reached to new heights during the cold war period. US president Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger pursued the back-channel diplomacy to normalise the relations with People’s Republic of China in early 1970s. Nixon wanted to exploit the growing animosity in Sino-Soviet relationship in favour of the United States to defeat USSR in the then on-going Cold War. 

Back channels can be facilitated by intermediaries, or they can be direct conversations. The key is, however, is secrecy (both from the public and from much of the official structures of the governments involved), and the fact that those participating are explicitly acting on behalf of someone in their governments.

In the normalisation process between PRC and the US, the US military attaché to France, General Walters acted as the first intermediary who took the note of Kissinger that contained the prospects of discussing the bilateral relations between Washington and Beijing. General Waters was instructed to read out to his contact in Chinese embassy in Paris.

Second intermediary was General Yahya Khan, a military dictator of Pakistan who delivered the message from Nixon to Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, owing to a close relation between him and Chinese Premier. Nixon had approached him at the UN General Assembly annual meeting in New York. In his reply through President Khan, Chau En-lai explained that Mao welcomed the possibility of a meeting between both countries’ representatives, and is ready to discuss the modalities of the negotiations to improve relations between the US and PRC. 

Crucially, back-channel diplomacy relates to talks that are not merely kept from the view of the public; they are also, and perhaps even more importantly, deliberately are kept out of the view of much of the political and bureaucratic structures on each side that would normally be involved in negotiations. This is done for many of the same reasons as these talks are kept away from the public; there are interests and constituencies that resist change, especially on matters of great significance.

Importantly, then, back channels are meant to obscure the fact that far-reaching policy changes are being explored, not just from outsiders (the public), but also from insiders (much of the political and bureaucratic elite). Henry Kissinger reminded the French Diplomat Jean Sainteny not to include in the talks with anyone except French President Georges Pompidou just to maintain the secrecy. Kissinger wanted President Khan to sort out the technical details of the presidential secret trip to Beijing to meet Chau En-lai.

Henry Kissinger secretly met with Chou En-lai on July 9, 1971 as a result of back-channel methods employed in last one year and discussed various outstanding issues. He expressed the willingness to discuss the problem of Taiwan and affirmed that the degree of US military presence in the region is directly proportional to geo-political instability in the region. This was just another way of saying that if Chinese agreed to the negotiating terms of Americans, latter will reduce its dependence on using hard-power means in the region.

During the negotiations, to appease Chinese leaders, Henry Kissinger confirmed that the United States would not support a “two China policy.” This meant that the US considered Taiwan as a part of mainland China, but both Chinese territories needed to negotiate a peaceful political settlement for unification. He also reiterated that there would be no American support of the Taiwanese independence movement giving severe blow to their old ally and gradually clarified the ambiguities in its status in favour of the position of Beijing.

Nixon-Kissinger agreed to apply the Japan formula for the future course of relations between the US and Taiwan. In 1972, Tokyo, in order to re-establish the diplomatic ties with the communist government of PRC, had closed its embassy in Taipei, and replaced it with the non-governmental office to carry out the commercial and cultural relations on the island.

But the US-Taiwan relations had much larger scope than that of between the two islands. American acceptance of the so-called Japan Formula as a principle on which diplomatic recognition between the two countries was implied was, however, more than simply closing down its embassy. 

The Mutual Defence Treaty (1954) with Taiwan was the assurance by the US to provide security to Taiwan against the external threat i.e. PRC. The treaty assisted Taiwan to forge its path on military modernisation and develop deterrence capability against the security threat from across the strait.

PRC’s threat to Taiwan stems from a prolonged political dispute that has sometimes assumed a military character. From 1949 to 1979, the level of tension remained high, but only broke out into limited military conflict twice (1954-55 and 1958).

The United States of America and the People's Republic of China had agreed to recognise each other, and to establish diplomatic relations as of January 1, 1979. The United States of America recognises the Government of the People's Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China. Within this context, the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan. The United States of America and the People's Republic of China reaffirm the principles agreed on by the two sides in the Shanghai Communique of 1972. According to the agreement it was agreed that...

Kissinger’s Back-Channel Diplomacy: Taiwan’s existential Crisis

The United States terminated diplomatic relations with Taiwan on January 1, 1979, and established diplomatic relations with the PRC, but it did not leave Taiwan on its fate. After diplomatic and security alliance relations ceased to exist, the bilateral security relations were to be carried out according to the Taiwan Relations Act and Six Assurances provided by Washington.

The Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances, therefore, provided Washington and Taiwan with profound bases on which to sustain their bilateral security relationship after the diplomatic and alliance relations were terminated.

Congress passed a new Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) which specified the features of a supposedly informal US economic and cultural relationship with the regime in Taiwan following the Japan formula, but along with some additions. The TRA contained two important provisions regarding Taiwan’s security. The United States committed itself to sell weapons “of a defensive nature” to Taipei, and to regard any coercive moves by Beijing against the island as a grave “breach of the peace” in East Asia.

Taiwan on its own

Kissinger’s Back-Channel Diplomacy: Taiwan’s existential Crisis

Indeed, a series of US administrations not only barred security officials from meeting with their Taiwanese counterparts, but also constrained government‐to‐government interactions regarding non-military issues to low‐level personnel. The primary military connection took the form of periodic US arms sales to Taipei, and even in that arena, US leaders proceeded cautiously about what weapons systems were made available. Sensitive to the danger of provoking Beijing, Washington generally avoided selling cutting‐edge weapons or systems that had obvious offensive capabilities

Even though the US has continued its security assistance along with arms sale as promised in the TRA through the network of non-official arrangements, the essence and quality of the relationship did receive a significant setback.

Due to overdependence on the security guarantees offered by the US under TRA, the capability differences between Beijing and Taipei gave former the military edge over the latter.

“Given the pace of PLA(N) [People’s Liberation Army Navy] modernisation, the gap in military capability between the mainland and Taiwan will continue to widen in China’s favour over the coming years,” the Congressional Research Services’ naval affairs specialist Ronald O’Rourke wrote.

Taiwan’s military has experienced great isolation since normalisation, and suffered not only in terms of policy dialogues and consultations, but also in terms of exchanges necessary for the advancement of military thinking and knowledge. The security relationship was in a general sense confined only to the areas of defence procurement.

The threat remained there all those years, but gradually decreased for various factors:-

Firstly, as Chinese market opened up for the world, its economy boomed along with the improvement in trade relations between China and Taiwan;

Secondly, political relations also improved after Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Kuomintang (KMT), ruling party in Taiwan, reached to an understanding in 1992 that there is only “one China”, but room is allowed for interpretations known as 1992 Consensus. Though this consensus, both Beijing and Taipei agree that Taiwan belongs to China, and a tacit agreement underlying the consensus was that Taiwan will not seek independence;

And thirdly, China became world number 2 economic power in mere four-decades that was being perceived as “peaceful” rise which would not threaten the rules-based world order. 

China’s extra-territorial claims in South China Sea, supressing its own population in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and rising military budgets every year generated fear and anxiety among Taiwanese population and politicians that China’s authoritative regime can go to any extent to get what it wants by any means.

The malicious rise of China juxtaposed with the election of two leaders in two opposite sides of the map. First, in Taiwan where Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power in 2016. DDP’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen rejected the 1992 consensus, and subsequently declared in January 2019 that “one country, two systems” framework proposed by Beijing is unacceptable which opened the possibility of future Taiwanese independence that violated the mainland’s anti-secessionist law. Second, election of Donald Trump in the Unites States in the same year on the campaign promise of “America first” that indicated to bring back the jobs lost to the labour market of world’s factory i.e. China.

The Result? Trade War between two biggest economies of the world. The “spillover effect” had set in motion and trade complications between two countries became the issue of rules-based international order threatened by China. The Trump administration’s contrasting policies towards managing world order benefitted Taiwan, and helped in increasing its military capability. 

Trump received bipartisan support inside the congress to increase Washington’s show of political and diplomatic support to Taipei. The Trump administration further increased US arms sales and diplomatic visits during the latter stages of Trump’s presidency as feud between the US and China reached new heights. His administration approved an $8 billion sale of 66 advanced F‐16v fighters to Taiwan — the largest weapons sale in many years — to help Taipei’s concerted effort to strengthen its own military capabilities.

In addition, Taiwan is establishing a new state‐of‐the art maintenance hub to keep those planes at maximum readiness. The hub will be operated jointly by Lockheed Martin and Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. 

For decades the US has maintained a deterrence policy of strategic ambiguity, refusing to say if it would come to Taiwan’s aid militarily in the event of an invasion. The Biden administration has not indicated it will end that policy, but has offered Taiwan cause for optimism for continued support. The State Department said in January that US commitment to the island was “rock-solid”, and Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the US was formally invited to Biden’s inauguration, an unprecedented move since 1979.

The initiatives taken by Trump administration was in the right direction to strengthen the security of island, but due to an increased aggression by Chinese military threatening the shores of the island, the survival of Taiwan is at stake. Thus, it is time for the island’s oldest ally to grow some spine to tactically counter China by making sure the Taiwanese security.


Washington approached PRC for establishing diplomatic relations to contain the spread of communism and influence of Soviet Union which was spreading in the south-east Asia where US forces were fighting against Vietnamese communists, backed by USSR. The US needed China to assist them in their mission to counter Soviets in the region, and China needed support of the US not only for foreign capital and technology for the “Four Modernisations”, but also for maintaining close ties with one of the superpowers to cope with the another one.

The establishment of diplomatic relations was the need of an hour at the height of Cold War for both the nations, and US made the choice to side with PRC with an assumption that Chinese aspirations to walk on the path of liberal-capitalism will lead to de-communise the most populated country on the earth, and eventually transform the Chinese communist society to democratic one.

The assumption, though, proved to be totally wrong, and on the contrary, economic advancement led to tighter control of communist party over the country which also reflected in its military modernisation, consequently employing the expansionist policies in the region. 

From the start of normalisation, however, there were widespread expressions of concern within the United States that the Carter administration's unilateral decision to terminate its diplomatic and security ties with Taiwan would seriously undermine the security of the island.

The diplomatic normalisation happened through back-channel diplomacy was considered to be the milestone in the history of US-PRC relations, and credit, no doubt, was given to duo Kissinger-Nixon, but now, it seems that the calculation made on the part of most successful diplomat in the history of US was an error in judgement. The error can easily be understood by reading the principles on which the 1978 communique was established:

“Neither should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region or in any other region of the world and each is opposed to efforts by any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony”. 

The above principle is thrashed by the Chinese acting against it and now, time has arrived that US should also abandon another principle in the same communique: 

“The Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China”.


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