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Response to Review no. 514

I am grateful to Dr Mark for his thoughtful review and for starting a debate on some of the issues raised in the book. There are a few specific issues which call for clarification or further discussions.

The first concerns the nature of the partnership Britain forged with the Republic of China (ROC) in 1958. The unwitting partnership described in the book refers specifically to the moral and passive diplomatic support Britain extended to the ROC in the midst of the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958. This enabled the ROC to secure active, very advanced and timely American assistance which, in turn, gave it the capacity and confidence to rely on its armed forces to hold Quemoy and pre-empt a threat to Taiwan’s existence. If the British had worked hard to dissuade the US from giving active support to the ROC, it is questionable whether the US would have so readily and quickly supplied the ROC forces with advanced or politically sensitive weapon systems like the state of the art Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and eight inch long-distance guns that could fire nuclear shells, vital for the ROC forces to hold the line in the air and on the ground. Even a delay in the American delivery of vital supplies and critical new weapon systems would have a strong negative impact on the capacity and morale of ROC forces holding the frontline against the numerically and technically superior forces of the People’s Liberation Army. The British policy therefore mattered to the ROC.

The relationship that Britain had with the ROC in 1959 was not, as Dr Mark says in his review, that of ‘a de facto ally’. Dr Mark is, of course, right to assume that if Britain had become ‘a de facto ally’ of the ROC, Britain would be expected to take a more sympathetic view of the ROC in 1962. However, nowhere in the book is their relationship described using this expression. Instead it is summed up in terms of an unwitting partnership in a crisis. If one gets into a partnership unwittingly with someone else in a crisis as their interests overlap on a particular occasion, it does not imply this partnership will necessarily endure – at least not beyond the co-incidence of both parties’ interests. There is, therefore, no reason to assume that a few years later, when the interests of the two no longer coincide, as it happened in 1962, the two should behave like allies of any kind.

In any event it is important to make a distinction between what happened across the Taiwan Strait in 1962 and the Strait Crises of the 1950s. The latter were real crises, as they involved the actual use of force and the prospect of serious escalation. The events of 1962 never amounted to more than Chiang Kai-shek lobbying for the abandonment of the American policy forbidding him to invade mainland China and, above all, making a gesture to reassure his followers within Taiwan that he had not given up the idea of reconquering the Chinese mainland. In his review, Dr Mark cites Jay Taylor as the authority, claiming Chiang ‘intensified his preparations for liberation and encouraged the Americans to support Taiwan’s paramilitary operations against China’, and reminds readers that Chiang had plans to invade mainland China. Dr Mark is right in the last point. The Chiang papers indeed include numerous invasion plans. (Taylor does not in fact give as much credence to the plans as Dr Mark appears to suggest he does in note 2.) Having read these plans I cannot take them seriously as evidence that an invasion was deemed practicable. Some of these plans were merely products of training exercises, and others would require several times more military forces and hardware than available in Taiwan. One such plan, for example, calls for, among many other requirements, 58 army divisions, 200,000 tons of landing craft, and 2,000 aircraft to support the first stage of an invasion of south China. Chiang was not so incompetent that he did not know he could not invade continental China if he did not have even half the forces and materiel required for the initial stage of the operation. In 1962 Chiang did not in fact set in motion the mobilisation of forces to prepare for the invasion of China or to seize any territory from China. What happened then was not a crisis in the sense of the crises of the 1950s and, with due respect to Dr Mark, was not really comparable or relevant.

Another interesting point raised in the review concerns the value of the presence of a British consulate and a Naval Liaison Officer in Taiwan as well as the British assessment of the danger of escalation in 1958. Dr Mark takes the view that the reports from the British personnel in Taiwan did not matter much as there is no evidence of Macmillan referring to them. He also refers to Qiang Zhai’s work to suggest that I was wrong to not acknowledge Britain’s worry about the hostilities escalating into a war. The difference I have with Qiang Zhai over this can, I suspect, be largely attributed to whether one is aware of the existence of the reports from Taiwan. The documents in the Foreign Office archives on China and Taiwan in this period are filed separately and one reading the China files can easily miss the Taiwan files, and therefore the reports from Taiwan. Those reports were, from the Foreign Office view, reliable and therefore important assessments of the situation on the ground. As far as I can ascertain Qiang Zhai has not referred to or used any of these reports in his book. I conclude that the British Government was not particularly worried about escalation as its diplomatic and naval liaison officer on the ground in Taiwan reported the situation correctly. With the Foreign Office itself thus assured, it did not emphasise to the Prime Minister the danger of escalation. This being the case, the fact that the Prime Minister did not refer to the reports from Tamsui has no significance – in any event he could not be expected to go into details of this type in his minutes and instructions even if he had been told of the reports.

The most important question the review has raised is: ‘why did the British not abandon the policy of constructive engagement with China despite its apparent failure since 1950?’ Dr Mark is right in reminding readers that Hong Kong was a serious consideration. I would only add two other factors. The first is bureaucratic inertia. The Foreign Office merely did what bureaucracies usually do when a policy failed – not to highlight one’s failure by reversing it unless unavoidable. There was not sufficient ground for the Foreign Office or, for that matter, the British Government as a whole, to reverse its China policy even though it failed to achieve its original objectives, and the Charge in Beijing, Duncan Wilson, expressed the wish that Beijing would do something to trigger the recall of himself and his staff. The second point is that after the Korean War the British had accepted that the effective defence of Hong Kong would require US help, for which the US would expect the British to be supportive in the defence of Taiwan. This underlines one of the basic arguments in my book that Britain did not, as Dr Mark seems to think, become an ‘ally with Taiwan in the Sino-American cold war’ though it became an unwitting partner of the government in Taiwan during the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958 set in the strategic context of the Cold War. Consideration over the security of Hong Kong and maintaining the security of Taiwan was not a zero-sum game for the British.