If the most powerful country and the most populous country in the world could not have a normal diplomatic relationship, they would have to invent a substitute. And they did. For eleven years the United States and the Chinese People's Republic have dealt directly with each other by means of their special if obscure arrangement known as the Ambassadorial Talks, held at irregular intervals, first in Geneva, then in Warsaw. Although the official record of the exchanges between their two Ambassadors has been kept secret by mutual agreement, official statements in Washington and Peking, together with news reports in both countries, provide some material for describing several high points of the "longest established permanent floating" diplomatic game in modern history. The United States has participated in three international conferences with the Chinese People's Republic, but in the course of them few or no bilateral discussions or contacts took place informally on the side; thus the principal American dealings with Peking have occurred in the Ambassadorial Talks. It is time to recognize and appraise these unusual dealings.

They are a distinctive paradox, empty of results but full of consequences. Through them Washington has probably had a more continuous diplomatic contact and diversified dialogue with the government in Peking than any of the non-Communist Western governments which maintain embassies there. Yet, despite the long duration of the Talks and the voluminous exchanges made in them, they have transacted only one agreement in all that time. In fact, nineteen specific proposals known to have been made by one side or the other have been publicly rejected. Nevertheless, this forum has proven of some lasting value.

The crucial feature of the Talks is that they provide a workable channel for reducing miscalculations, clarifying intentions and explaining proposals. The President has a dependable "switchboard" immediately available to talk with the Politburo in Peking about Viet Nam, nuclear disarmament, the improvement of relations or anything else. The responsible leaders in Peking have the same facility in reverse when they choose to use it. Each government can note the varying emphases and slight nuances in the official expressions which pass across the table in the privacy of the conference room. And the cumulative experience has established some credibility for both sides, indispensable to any form of diplomatic dealings.

So far, only six men have constituted this forum and created this credibility. On the American side have been three professional diplomats and a former Postmaster General.[i] The meetings have always been held on neutral ground, never on the premises of either side. Until 1958, the United Nations provided a conference room in its Geneva Headquarters. Since then the Polish Government has made accommodations available in a small old palace in Warsaw. Since the Talks moved from Geneva to Warsaw, our Ambassador to Poland has been the American representative. Two well-placed members of the Chinese Communist Party-both named Wang-have in turn represented the People's Republic of China. Altogether there have been some 130 numbered meetings, several special sessions and various informal and social occasions. However, the Chinese have discouraged the casual interchanges which the Americans have suggested in recent years.

The frequency of the Talks has varied; sometimes they have been held daily, sometimes several months apart. The current schedule is at the leisurely pace of about four times a year, but a meeting can be called on short notice. The format is rigid and ritualistic, copied from the style of Panmunjom, where the Korean truce was negotiated. At each session the American and Chinese Ambassadors alternate in giving the opening statement, and then take turns in speaking until neither has more to say. The Ambassador who did not begin the meeting then automatically proposes a recess until the next session; no meeting can adjourn until a date for the next one is agreed upon, thus assuring continuity. The meetings generally last about two hours, including time for translation. While hardly cordial, the tone and atmosphere are serious, businesslike and straightforward. Each "side," as they impersonally call themselves, either reads from prepared material or makes spontaneous replies or rebuttals, always in its own language. Questions are asked, clarifications made-and everything meticulously noted down separately by each side for the careful scrutiny of the Foreign Ministry in Peking and the State Department in Washington, but no official transcript of the secret record is jointly prepared. Each Ambassador has three highly skilled aides to interpret, to take notes and to consult with their opposite numbers between sessions. This in itself is an important link, too.


This "sub-diplomatic" system of Ambassadorial Talks got started in mid-1955 at Geneva as a result of extensive diplomatic persuasion involving the United Nations, many governments and leading statesmen. In a simmering crisis over Taiwan, Peking took the initiative at the Bandung Conference in proposing to "sit down" with the United States to discuss and negotiate the "elimination of tensions" in East Asia, meaning the Taiwan situation. Capitalizing on the world-wide aura of coexistence highlighted in the Summit Conference of July 1955, the Communist Chinese government apparently hoped to secure control over Taiwan by improving its own international standing. At first Peking was the challenging negotiator in the Talks. In contrast, Washington was not then anxious to deal directly with a régime which it refused to recognize and wished to isolate. Nevertheless, many diplomatic considerations induced President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles in 1955 to accept an arms-length discussion with Mao Tse-tung and Chou En- lai. They did so reluctantly, as a matter of expediency, to probe Peking's intentions regarding Taiwan and to negotiate the repatriation of some 40 Americans incarcerated in Chinese Communist jails; this was the bait on Peking's hook. Washington made clear at the outset, and has constantly maintained, that it would not negotiate any matter with Peking which would vitally affect the Republic of China on Taiwan, America's treaty ally.

The agreement on repatriation of prisoners, issued on September 10, 1955, was the only transaction successfully concluded between Washington and Peking in the eleven years of the Talks. It took up all the first fourteen meetings in hard-boiled negotiation. After exchanging a series of draft texts in English and Chinese, the two sides argued amendments and accepted compromises. Interestingly, the agreement provided identical paragraphs for Americans in the Chinese People's Republic and for Chinese in the United States, to make it appear perfectly reciprocal. All but four of the imprisoned Americans were eventually repatriated; the others were kept for what to Washington seemed bargaining purposes, in defiance of its interpretation of the agreement. This poisoned the atmosphere of the early Ambassadorial Talks and prevented discussion of several subjects which Peking was then pressing.

This is the one publicly recorded agreement in eleven years of meetings. Nevertheless, the total of nineteen definite proposals rejected, plus the numerous resubmissions of rejected or revised texts, indicates that a major diplomatic effort was made by the two governments. Over the years, Washington has reportedly turned down Peking's propositions for changing Taiwan's status, holding a bilateral Foreign Ministers' meeting, ending the American embargo and opening trade with China, exchanging newsmen, establishing cultural relations with the United States, agreeing on atom- free zones in Asia and elsewhere, convening a world-wide or nuclear powers' conference on disarmament, making a bilateral pledge to refrain from using nuclear weapons against each other, and negotiating a withdrawal of the United States from Viet Nam. For its part, Peking has reportedly rejected Washington's proposals for a joint renunciation of force with respect to Taiwan, the immediate return of all imprisoned Americans (thus implementing the one agreement faithfully), various arrangements for the neutralization of the offshore islands and the stabilization of the Taiwan Straits, adherence to the Test Ban Treaty, participation in general disarmanent, a reciprocal pledge that neither would be the first to use nuclear weapons against the other (to come into effect concurrently with signing the Test Ban Treaty), a reciprocal or unilateral exchange of newsmen, an ending of travel barriers to scholars, scientists, doctors, businessmen and others, arrangements for shipments of surplus food, and various proposals to negotiate the conflict in Viet Nam. Each rejection has its own historical explanation; many stood no chance whatever of acceptance. As a whole, the rejections reflect a reversal of roles in the course of time, perhaps the most interesting feature of the Ambassadorial Talks. The negative results tend to obscure the positive consequences.


The dealings between the United States and Communist China divide into two fairly distinct phases. In the first phase, from 1955 to mid-1958, Peking pressed for agreement on several specific proposals "comparatively easy to settle," like a bilateral Foreign Ministers' conference, trade and exchange of newsmen, without insisting that the United States agree to withdrawal from Taiwan as a condition for discussion or agreement. The Americans refused to discuss these matters until Peking released all American prisoners and agreed to a joint renunciation of the use of force, specifically in respect to Taiwan.

The first three years of the Talks were a duel between the revolutionary of the Long March, Chou En-lai, who proved a versatile challenger, and the negotiator from Wall Street, John Foster Dulles, the resourceful defender. Then, after the Taiwan crisis in September 1958, each side reversed itself for its own reasons. Peking ended its thrusts for concessions from Washington when it found its primary target, Taiwan, unobtainable by negotiation without making some compromise. It then replaced its duel of man?uvre with a diplomacy of stalemate which dead-ended every approach not involving concessions as regards Taiwan and downgraded the Talks to a waiting game. Reversing completely its position in the first phase of the Talks, Peking has insisted since 1960 that the Americans unconditionally accept the principle of total American withdrawal from the Taiwan area before it will discuss or negotiate any specific agreements on the lesser matters which two years before it had considered "easy to settle." Again in contrast, Washington since 1959 has modified the priority which it put on principle and has tried to negotiate agreements on various specific proposals, particularly on an exchange of reporters and others. Especially since 1965, Washington has vigorously and repeatedly sought to undo the snarls and to establish new lines of contact with Peking, but to no avail. Taiwan remains the knot. So far, then, the second phase of the Talks has been sterile in negotiating specific results.

Yet, notwithstanding rejections and reversals, the Ambassadorial Talks have had several special by-products of considerable value outside the framework of the original intentions. These have included the prevention of specific miscalculations involving Laos, Taiwan and Viet Nam, discussion of nuclear proliferation and disarmament, exchange of views and proposals on Viet Nam, and problems of mutual relations. Moreover, the Talks have deeply affected the triangular relationship among Washington, Peking and Moscow. They also have reassured our allies and many other governments that Washington is not recalcitrant about dealing with Peking.

When a crisis seemed to be building up over Laos in 1961, President Kennedy reportedly used the Ambassadorial channel in Warsaw to warn that the United States would be compelled to intervene militarily, however unwillingly, if a cease-fire did not precede the opening of negotiations in Geneva. Peking informed Washington via the Warsaw channel that it was serious about wishing to negotiate rather than fight and that it hoped that the United States would coöperate in working out an acceptable agreement for the neutralization of the country. By preventing a serious miscalculation, Peking's notification averted a potential military clash and helped assure the diplomatic alternative of the Geneva Conference.

An even more dramatic signalling of intentions and lessening of tensions came in 1962 when the Chinese Nationalists gave the appearance of preparing to harass and invade coastal China and Chinese Communist forces began to build up opposite Taiwan. In this grave confrontation, President Kennedy used the Warsaw channel to tell Peking that the United States would not support any such undertaking by the Chinese Nationalists, but on the other hand would defend Taiwan if Peking mistakenly resorted to force. The signal went through, for the crisis abated. This may well have been the most valuable single consequence of the Ambassadorial Talks, making all their frustrations and failures worthwhile.

While the Talks have not settled the pivotal issue of Taiwan-Peking's prime interest from the beginning-they did permit an extensive exchange of views about the dispute, which helped make it less combustible if not less intractable, Even when the two governments were at a complete impasse over Taiwan, they were not totally in the dark; and the Ambassadorial Talks succeeded in cooling down the most serious of all the Taiwan crises, that of 1958.

The incident left indelible scars on the relations between Peking and Moscow as well as between Peking and Washington. China's manipulation of force and diplomacy in manufacturing the crisis backfired. The United States assembled the most powerful striking force in history and at the same time tried strenuously in the Ambassadorial Talks to negotiate a new status for the offshore islands; Secretary Dulles was apparently ready for a bilateral ministerial meeting with the Chinese Communists, and to go on from an agreement on the islands to even more consequential matters. Peking's failure to take him up lost a real opportunity for possibly significant negotiations, with the result that-as in Korea before and later in Viet Nam-a much greater American military presence emerged in East Asia than might otherwise have been the case. As for Moscow, the Talks during the Taiwan crisis of 1958 gave it the opportunity to make a show of support for Peking without offering an unconditional guarantee, as well as a chance to give Washington a warning without running the risk of nuclear involvement. With Washington and Peking resorting to diplomacy, Moscow was able to exercise some influence on both, increase its options and restrict its entanglement. It was of lasting significance that the triangular interplay impaired Sino-Soviet relations and has deadlocked Sino-American negotiations ever since. Peking made the bitter discovery that its ally put limits on challenging Washington regarding Peking's national "irredenta." Partially in retaliation against ally and enemy alike, Communist China is now uncompromisingly hostile to both and prevents negotiation with either.

More recently, Viet Nam has been the subject of the Talks in Warsaw. While the exchange has not reduced tensions on the surface, it has communicated official intentions, delineated the options open to both sides and prevented careless or ignorant miscalculation. The United States has emphasized and reiterated at Warsaw the limited nature of its aims: that it desires negotiations, that it has no intention of destroying the Democratic Republic of North Viet Nam or of seizing its territory; and that it is not its policy to threaten the security of the Chinese People's Republic or to invade it. Washington reportedly has expounded a plan for political settlement based on the Geneva Accords of 1954 and has proposed a reciprocal de-escalation of military operations in Viet Nam as a prelude to negotiations. However, the Chinese People's Republic has been as intractable about Viet Nam from the American viewpoint as the United States presumably seems to the Chinese Communists on the Taiwan issue. Apparently Peking rejected all Washington's explanations and proposals about Viet Nam and demanded that Washington cease its "criminal aggression," withdraw completely and accept the proposals of Hanoi. Whether these official exchanges at Warsaw will keep a ceiling on the crisis and facilitate an eventual negotiation remains to be seen.

Another significant and little known product of the Ambassadorial Talks has been the extensive and serious exchange of views regarding the nuclear issue and general disarmament-apparently the only such exchange during the past three years between the Chinese People's Republic and any non- Communist government. During his whole Administration, President Kennedy was deeply concerned about the prospect of an expansionist China armed with nuclear weapons and expressed his foreboding frequently, even in his last news conference. Through the Ambassadorial Talks he urged Peking in 1963 to adhere to the Test Ban Treaty. However, Peking denounced the Treaty as a fraud and instead invited President Kennedy directly by letter (also sent to all heads of government) to join in a world-wide summit conference which would prohibit and destroy all nuclear weapons. Instead of turning down this proposal outright, Washington presented Peking with the documents, supported by lengthy oral arguments, concerning a detailed and comprehensive plan of carefully staged and controlled disarmament which it also laid before the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. Washington hoped that Peking would at least discuss this plan or answer its questions about the Chinese proposals and, if at all possible, defer making bombs of its own; but to no avail.

After it had set off its first nuclear device in October 1964, Peking proposed both publicly and in the Ambassadorial Talks that the nuclear powers, present and potential, hold a summit on nuclear weapons. President Johnson, also much concerned about China's nuclear policy, instead had the general American proposals reiterated in the Ambassadorial Talks. Apparently they were ignored, but later Peking quietly proposed a joint agreement not to be the first to use nuclear weapons against the other; since China was not a nuclear power, but had large conventional forces, this was hardly a reciprocal offer. The United States in effect rejected the proposal on the grounds that public declarations were no substitute for carefully staged and controlled disarmament. Most of this particular exchange was secret until May 1966, when Prime Minister Chou En-lai divulged the fact that his government had proposed the joint pledge and that the United States had rejected it. At the Ambassadorial Talks in Warsaw on May 25, the Americans suggested a reciprocal undertaking: Washington would sign the pledge if Peking would sign the Test Ban Treaty. Because of newspaper reports of this meeting-such, at least, was the pretext given-Peking rebuffed the American proposal angrily and publicly.

In sum, although these secret exchanges over three years on the critical nuclear issue were unproductive, they served three purposes. They confirmed Communist China's intention to proceed with its own nuclear development regardless of American representations; they brought Peking into the international stream of analysis and discussion of disarmament and arms- control problems, rather than leaving it ignored on the outside; and they involved Peking and Washington in an initial bargaining situation over "no- first-use" pledges which might germinate something feasible in the future.

The Talks at Warsaw have as yet reached no agreement on further contacts because Washington will not accept Peking's demand, apparently repeated at every meeting in Warsaw, that the United States vacate "China's territory." Nevertheless, Washington has put forward several variations of previous proposals for an exchange of newsmen, even indicating a willingness to let Chinese reporters come to the United States without any reciprocal opportunity for American newsmen to go to China. Washington has also urged an exchange of scholars, scientists, doctors, businessmen and persons in public affairs. The American government has also indicated that it is reviewing the question of trade with China, and is encouraging private organizations to continue seeking the contacts there which up to now have been refused.

Unfortunately, President Johnson's widening efforts to promote contacts have been paralleled by an intensification of the conflict in Viet Nam and the development of a political struggle inside the Chinese People's Republic. As Washington has pressed for an "opening up" diplomacy, Peking has foreclosed it, scorning all the recent proposals publicly as "old tricks and conspiracy." Despite Washington's considerable efforts-whatever may have been its mistakes in emphasis and timing-the net result after eleven years of discussion is that the gap between the two governments is growing and the prospects for closer contacts seem remote.


What about future prospects for American dealings with Peking? First, we have learnt from the Ambassadorial Talks that Chinese Communist negotiators are tough, able and determined. As Chinese and Leninists they generally negotiate with a long-range view; they are in no hurry and show endless patience and imperturbability. American negotiators can be put at a disadvantage in dealing with the Chinese Communists because the American public wants quick results and the traditional American style is to get a negotiation over with. The Chinese negotiator also operates from a Sinocentric, Leninist, Maoist world-view, which is antithetical to ours. He is the prisoner of dogma, but his indoctrination and discipline convince him of his inevitable victory. To him, negotiation means the capitulation of the "enemy," not accommodation with him. The Chinese Communists nevertheless are sensitive to any signs of unequal treatment and demand reciprocal arrangements. This does not, of course, inhibit them from trying to trick the other party into unwittingly conceding the basic dispute in a negotiation by the manner in which an item is merely listed on the agenda. They try to fix the substance of the negotiation. And they will try to bargain one concession twice in the well-known technique of the "double sell."

But, for the long pull, we need not spend all our time trying to figure out what is at the back of a Chinese Communist negotiator's mind if we first focus our efforts on making sure that he is left in no doubt about what is on our mind. For that vital purpose this special channel seems likely at present to be available indefinitely. Washington and Peking seem to prefer, for contradictory reasons, to maintain their direct dealings rather than end them. Neither appears ready to assume the onus for breaking them off and each leaves the impression of expecting to gain some benefit from them eventually. Of course, Maoist hard-liners might suddenly close out the long game. For its part, Washington has increasingly emphasized that it will seek to maintain and improve "direct diplomatic contacts" with Peking, "an opening through which, hopefully, light might one day penetrate." And however fragile and unproductive it may have seemed, the link between Washington and Peking has ameliorated the anxieties of many governments which fear a collision between the United States and the Chinese People's Republic.

The unique "sub-diplomatic relationship" described here, however frustrating, should remain for a time the exclusive and regular diplomatic contact between the United States and the Chinese People's Republic. In some respects, the Talks express a continuity in the Chinese style for dealing with foreigners at a distance and in perplexing circumstances; indeed, there is a slight similarity here between 1966 and 1866. For the present, they can continue to cushion to some extent the encounters between the two countries and just possibly they might create the materials out of which an eventual accommodation can be made. It makes sense to defer formal recognition and normal diplomatic relations until both countries have safely overcome their heavy incubus of antagonism and frustration. Before moving too fast, too soon and perhaps irreparably away from the Ambassadorial Talks, we should first seek to improve them. We might, for instance, suggest that the meetings be held alternately at each Embassy, and that the talks be conducted by special Ambassadors assigned for the purpose. In any event, we should urge more frequent meetings and try to increase the number of informal discussions and documentary exchanges.

An American policy of encouraging better relations with Peking, despite rebuffs and epithets, can help influence the course of events as China changes. It will reinforce the efforts of others to modify Peking's view of the world and its relations with it. If and when a new and more responsive outlook is detected across the table, our patience in probing and proposing will be rewarded. Meanwhile, a workable line of communication can offer a diplomatic alternative to the military confrontation. If we persist long enough in our "sit-in," it might some day become a place for a meeting of minds, not just of men, to explore such critical tasks as a guaranteed settlement for Southeast Asia, nuclear control, the internal requirements of China, the regulation of the Taiwan Straits problem in all its aspects, and the evolution of the triangular relations between Peking, Moscow and Washington.

However much the present leaders in Peking may challenge us with a litany of hate, our purpose and manner in dealing with them and the people of the Chinese People's Republic can challenge them with our very different articles of faith and with our own revolutionary perspective for the future. A period of American forbearance, patience and vision-looking beyond a generation-will not just be marking time. It may be essential for maturing the present unformed association between two of the foremost world powers into a peaceful and constructive relationship.

[i] U. Alexis Johnson, Jacob Beam, John Moors Cabot and John A. Gronouski.

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