Remembering the August 1982 Communique

September 18, 2012
Taipei Times


US’ commitment to Taiwan is firm

By John J. Tkacik, Jr.

In a way, thirty years is not a long time, at least not in U.S. China policy. Despite the bureaucratic forces tugging and pushing at it, it retains an admirable consistency that is often misunderstood. The August 1982 Taiwan Communiqué is a textbook example of this.

In late May of 1982, as the negotiations for the “Taiwan Arms Communiqué” were secretly under way, I was dispatched on routine consultations to Beijing and Taipei as the State Department’s Taiwan Coordination Staff economics officer. Now, I had no part in any of the communiqué negotiations. In fact, no one openly admitted such talks existed although it was quite the object of press speculation at the time. What I knew, I had read in the newspapers. But the morning I departed on my trip, I called on China Desk director Bill Rope to chat about consular issues at the China posts. Bill gave me a paper to take to our Deputy Chief of Mission in Beijing, Chas Freeman. 

It read: "It is not the long-term policy of the United States to sell arms to Taiwan and the United States will gradually diminish and ultimately cease arms sales to Taiwan." Nothing else, just one typed sentence on a sheet of white bond. The paper unsettled me because I had handled the Taiwan desk’s political-military oversight of US arms sales in the aftermath of the 1979 derecognition of Taipei. I did not understand how it could be possible legally to “cease” arms sales to Taiwan under any circumstances.

There was little I could do about it. I delivered the note to Chas in Beijing. But the following week in Taipei, I conveyed my misgivings directly to AIT director Jim Lilley. “Don’t worry about it,” he reassured me. 

On June 14, 1982, a few days after I returned to Washington, the Washington Times newspaper carried a column by Ralph de Toledano headlined “State’s China Policy” which quoted the phrase “the United States will gradually diminish and ultimately cease arms sales to Taiwan” in a tone of utmost disapproval. De Toledano asserted that Secretary of State Alexander Haig had been lying to President Reagan about his talks with the Chinese and charged that Haig “has been taken over lock, stock and barrel by the Red China Lobby in the State Department and is using all his powers of persuasion to win over President Reagan.” 

De Toledano’s column had some effect. That very evening, President Reagan wrote in his diary at Camp David: “The Al H. situation is coming to a head. I have to put an end to the turf battles we’re having & his almost paranoid attitude.” On June 18, the President’s diary reads: “Barry Goldwater came to see me he’s upset by rumors that I’m going to dump Taiwan. I convinced him there is no way I’ll ever do that.” On the evening of June 23, according to the diary, the President met with Secretary Haig who pronounced he was ready to resign “over policy.” What policy? President Reagan fired Haig on June 25. His diary said Haig insisted “his differences were on policy and then said we didn’t agree on China or Russia, etc.” in that order. Reagan editorialized: “Actually, the only disagreement was over whether I made policy or the Sec. of State did.”

Indeed. A year earlier, on June 16, 1981, the final day of Haig’s first trip to Beijing as secretary of state, President Reagan declared to reporters that “the Taiwan Relations Act could be carried out as the law of the land.” Haig recalled in his 1984 memoir Caveat: “this statement puzzled me. The timing suggested that the President felt that, in carrying out his instructions, I had somehow got out in front of him on our China policy.” Haig’s Chinese hosts were miffed and, as Haig boarded his aircraft, a Chinese vice minister drew him aside and “earnestly” asked “who makes American foreign policy? Why are there always such surprises?”

From then on, Haig apparently felt obliged to show Beijing that he, not the President, made policy. In October 1981, after Reagan’s cordial but non-eventful meeting with Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽) in Cancun, foreign minister Huang Hua (黃華) delivered a separate ultimatum to Haig: the U.S. must specify a period during which it intended to sell arms to Taiwan; undertake not to exceed the levels of the Carter years; commit that sales would decrease year over year; and then cease. Or else.

At once, Haig mobilized the State Department to formulate an agreement to meet China’s demands in a decision memorandum for the President that would get the ball rolling.

At the time, Jim Lilley oversaw China policy for the Reagan National Security Council. In an oral history sixteen years later, Jim explained that when he came on board at the Reagan White House in February 1981, “I was more concerned that the State Department had fallen into the hands of people who were too much ‘pro-PRC’, we saw our job [at the NSC] as holding the fort against an encroachment of the ‘pro-PRC’ group and, somehow, to carry out what Reagan wanted to do.” 

So, as Haig’s paper on Huang Hua’s October ultimatum was in hasty draft, Lilley recalled, “a good friend of mine, an FSO [Foreign Service Officer] at the State Department, called me up and said ‘this memorandum is coming to the President, it’s bad news. See what you can do.’” Jim raced to get a copy of the document before it slid into President Reagan’s in-box, but was too late. Haig had taken the memo directly to the President bypassing the NSC, and it said cessation of arms sales to Taiwan by a “date certain” was a “commitment made to the Chinese communists” by the Carter Administration. 

Jim made a thorough search of the archives but, he remembered, “couldn’t find any record of such a commitment. We talked to Zbigniew Brzezinski, and we talked to anybody else who might have knowledge of this matter. Finally President Carter himself was contacted, and he said: ‘I never made such a commitment. I can tell you that I wouldn’t have made it.’” 

Which was fortunate: four months after the December 15, 1979, “normalization” with Beijing, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act which mandated continued arms sales to Taiwan. Moreover, the TRA mandated the continuation of the US-Taiwan mutual defense treaty for a year beyond “normalization” and mandated the continuation in force of all U.S. treaties with Taiwan – something no other nation recognizing Beijing had done, or would do.

After Reagan fired Haig on June 25, 1982, Jim remembered that, as the new Director of AIT in Taipei, “I was brought back to Washington for consultations” and “was being pushed very hard to see whether Taiwan would agree to a ‘cessation’ of arms sales.” Upon returning to Taipei, he wrote a message back to the Department of State saying “this is the wrong thing to do, both in terms of the security of Taiwan and the Taiwan Relations Act” and “I said we couldn’t do this.” Meanwhile, according to Jim, the President insisted that he would not terminate arms sales and shrugged that “we’ll risk a ‘downgrading’ of relations with the PRC” if it came to that.

Chinese negotiators had hit a brick wall and rationally decided to take-the-money-and-run. Said Jim: “they dropped all references to the termination of such arms sales to Taiwan.” It was either that or no communiqué.

On July 14, 1982, while Beijing scratched its collective head on whether to continue with the communiqué, President Reagan counterpressured Beijing. He delivered “six assurances” to Taiwan: the United States 1) would not agree to “cease” arms sales, 2) would not mediate between Taipei and Beijing, 3) would not revise the TRA, 4) would not push Taipei to negotiate with Beijing, 5) would not consult with Beijing on Taiwan arms sales, and – significantly – 6) that the United States had not changed its “long-standing” position on the matter of “sovereignty over Taiwan.”

In his oral history, Jim Lilley described President Reagan as angry about Haig’s communiqué negotiations: he admonished NSC Asia director Gaston Sigur, “Listen, this issue hit me at the last minute. I don’t like it. I want you to understand that my intention is that in the implementation of this communiqué we will maintain a balance. If China becomes belligerent or builds up a power projection capability which brings insecurity of instability into the area, we will increase our arms sales to Taiwan, regardless of what the communiqué says.”

The day the communiqué was published, August 17, 1982, President Reagan issued a short, four-paragraph confidential presidential directive, initialed by both his new Secretary of State, George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. It read:

“As you know, I have agreed to the issuance of a joint communiqué with the People's Republic of China in which we express United States policy toward the matter of continuing arms sales to Taiwan.

“The talks leading up to the signing of the communiqué were premised on the clear understanding that any reduction of such arms sales depends upon peace in the Taiwan Strait and the continuity of China's declared ‘fundamental policy’ of seeking a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue.

“In short, the U.S. willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of the Taiwan-PRC differences. It should be clearly understood that the linkage between these two matters is a permanent imperative of U.S. foreign policy.

“In addition, it is essential that the quantity and quality of the arms provided Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC. Both in quantitative and qualitative terms, Taiwan's defense capability relative to that of the PRC will be maintained.” 

The next day, on August 18, Assistant Secretary of State John Holdridge personally appeared before a congressional committee to announce the approval sale of 250 new F-5E/F fighters for Taiwan. 
It has been thirty years since that last US-China “communiqué” and the United States’ commitment to make “available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability” remains firm. I trust it will remain so thirty years from now. 


For more information

For more information or to schedule a speaking engagement, please use our Contact form.

Mailing Address:
1307 Westgrove Blvd.
Alexandria, Virginia 22307

Phone Number: