“There is a sentiment that…we need to contain China to balance off its aggressiveness. That would be a disaster.” A former ambassador, China hand, and Hong Kong’s consul general expected the China–Taiwan issue to resolve naturally, uninflamed by US interference. In the 1970s, Ambassador Burton Levin’s cables advised high-level policymakers to avoid containment of China at all costs and allow the Taiwan conflict to quietly run its course. From his perspective, Taiwan’s “claim to mainland China and to be recognized as the legitimate government of China had no validity.” He also argued that the Taiwanese people were content with their situation and prioritized economic growth and access to American markets.
Today, US policymakers widely view Taiwan as its own political entity, independent of Chinese authority. The Taiwanese population itself is divided: some advocating for total independence from the mainland, others supporting the PRC’s One-China Policy, which asserts political unity among China, Taiwan, and its surrounding islands. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2022 became the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan in the last quarter century. Her trip sparked a spike in tensions between China and the U.S., which resulted in China engaging in live-fire exercises around Taiwan and threatening serious military action.
In the excerpts below, Ambassador Burton gives his expert analysis of the China–Taiwan relationship during the 1960s and ‘70s. He saw China as vying for international respect after its “century of humiliation,” defensive of perceived US hostility, and too preoccupied with economic growth to insist on claims of Taiwan ownership. His hopeful predictions for Taiwan, given in 2010, precede the rapid escalation of tensions between China and the island, yet provide enduring reflections on Chinese nationalism, motivations, and interests.
In 1954, Ambassador Burton Levin embarked on an illustrious 36-year career as a China expert for the State Department. In addition to serving as Ambassador to Burma (modern-day Myanmar) and Consul General in Hong Kong, he served several tours in Taipei, Taiwan providing political analysis on China. He also served as a China analyst with the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in 1956 and as Deputy Chief of Mission in Bangkok, Thailand from 1978 to 1981. He passed away in October of 2016, survived by his wife Lily Lee and two children.
Burton Levin’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on July 21, 2010.
Read Burton Levin’s full oral history HERE.
Drafted by Grace Dye
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“There is a sentiment that…we need to contain China to balance off its aggressiveness. That would be a disaster.”
More than anything, China wants international respect:
Q: I would just like your comments though on this: right now we seem to be going through a period where the Chinese are acting up. They’ve been playing a rather, almost, benign role. All of a sudden the teeth are out there. Is this Chinese?
LEVIN: China? I was just reading the New York Times these last few days. My perspective on these South China territorial disputes: that has been going on for 20 odd years or more.
Basically from time to time there’s an incident down in that area. All along these governments have been in contact with each other; they’ve been trying to work it out, but there are these conflicting claims. As I say from time to time there are incidents and China is the major power there. Just think of it in terms of being increasingly capable of protecting its claims. They’re not in effect saying, “This is our period and end.” I don’t see this as any real heightening of Chinese efforts to unilaterally impose a settlement in these areas along South China. I just don’t see it.
What worries me—South China to me is nothing—that’s going to fester on a low level a little as it has for years and years. Hopefully they’ll work out some kind of agreement. The only issue there of course is what resources might be given and surface on these corrupt companies. The Japanese think that there is a very strong current of Chinese Nationals in respect to Japan. The young Chinese, against a background of China having 150 years of national humiliation and conquest, their mentality is one of being victimized particularly in reference to the Japanese. The Japanese in the 1920s… took the advantage of China’s weakness to grab Manchuria, just as earlier they grabbed Taiwan. They had an expanding sphere of influence in North China culminating in a full-scale war in 1937. The Chinese have a particular animosity towards the Japanese, “We’ve taken a lot of crap from you, now we’re done, no more.” That goes back to even when they were weak. This dispute over this tiny island is in an environment where there’s a lot of dry brush around. The Chinese government can’t look weak on the question of anything involving Japan. It has to take into account—and it’s shared—this sentiment that, “We’re not going to take crap from the Japanese.”
Now whose claims are valid? There is no way you, I, the United States government can take a stand on the validity of either side. What the United States should do is avoid taking sides, avoid seeing this as… Chinese against Japanese and just realize there is some strong nationalist sentiment. Americans should work with both Japan and China very quietly and say, “Look you guys can work this thing out. Don’t move to the stage where you create serious tensions between your two countries, because it’s a threat to the peace of the whole area.” And to the United States. There is a sentiment that oh Japan’s being threatened; we should move closer to Japan. We need to contain China to balance off its aggressiveness. That would be a disaster. That would just assure this sentiment, on the part of the Chinese, that the United States’ policy is going to hinder China from attaining power.
Let’s face it; any power that gains economic strength is going to increase its military capabilities, particularly against the background of China’s history being so weak and being so vulnerable to outside attack. It’s a given; it’s part of the international climate now. Why should we—I know why we do it because people tell you China’s still communist and they threaten Taiwan, the free democracy of Taiwan. That issue by the way is being handled very nicely by Taiwan and China, both groups—the economies of Taiwan and China are inseparable. It’s one economy now and there’s an appreciation in Taiwan of that. If we don’t get too deeply involved in this thing, if we don’t go off on a tangent with containing China and communist China—who don’t want democracy in China, these two groups over time, and it has already been 50 years, more than 50, will work something out. It is moving in the direction of some form of agreement between the two. One of the things that China does, in building up its arms capability, is deter Taiwan from declaring its independence, which was a very real possibility 5-10 years ago. It’s moving away from that now.
What I’m saying essentially is that China is a growing power. China is a nationalistic power, not in a sense of expanding in terms of Japanese nationalism where they went into Manchuria, went into this, went into that or German nationalism with—that’s not it. It’s a sense that China is now becoming a modern country with economic clout and they are growing their military force and we’re not going to take lecturing when you lecture to us constantly on this human rights thing. The Chinese want respect and they want opportunities. There is a strong feeling within the Chinese public that the United States is hostile towards China and it’s trying to stop China’s growth. They will cite everything from the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade (which no Chinese believes was accidental although I know it was accidental), to that clash in Hainan Island. There were 300 U.S. Navy flights a year 13-14 miles off the coast of China. Can you imagine what the U.S. public’s reaction would be to Chinese planes flying—yeah they have the right to fly in international waters—15 miles off the coast of California? That goes back to 1996 when we sent the 7th fleet in there because we had an old Chinese submarine stirring up problems in Taiwan; that was Taiwan moving toward independence. The Taiwanese President was trying a move towards independence. The reason for the Chinese actions never really came before the American public; suddenly they’re all reacting to Taiwan.
My point simply is that I think China right now remains preoccupied with economic development. You hear all the talk about how powerful China is and modernizing. You go ten miles out of Beijing and you’re in the third world. There is still a huge amount of poverty in China and a huge number of problems. One of the most obvious problems is a population that is aging very quickly. They’re going to have a situation where a small number of workers support a huge overhang of an aging population. China is not going to come in and eat our economic lunch. We thought the Japanese were going to do that in the 1980s. I don’t see that happening in the case of China, but there is that fear.
“If you start thinking of China as threatening and start behaving like China is threatening, you will have an enemy.”
The Chinese people are free, educated, and prospering under communism:
LEVIN: There is now this sentiment in the United States that we—particularly in the right wing—that we have to contain China. We have to develop a ring of alliances and work with other countries. That to me is very dangerous thinking, because China is showing no signs other than these disputes over…disputed little islands…. The Indian occupation of Kashmir is creating problems with Pakistan and now Pakistan is dealing with the Afghan thing and it’s all related—but you don’t hear that. China’s communist, China’s authoritarian, China’s suppressing democracy. There are no means for a democracy movement in China now. There are some few brave souls who, express varying degrees of annoyance with the government—that it’s basically bureaucratic—a government that is divided like any other government between people who are more open, magnanimous society, and the security forces (who walk around with their knuckles dragging on the floor just as some of the security forces in the United States do and try to push a more constraining regime). It’s conflict. China is dynamic; it’s changing—but I will tell you this from my many visits to China and talks with Chinese: (1) this is probably the best Chinese government in 150 years; (2) without doubt the Chinese people have clothes, heating, and enjoy material well-being that is unprecedented in the last, at least, 150 years, and more government strength; (3) there is general support for the Chinese government; the public is favorably inclined.
There is no political pot boiling; there’s no sense of popular opposition to this government. From time to time you get local disputes over land rights and people being screwed by an official. There’s corruption and all of that, but there’s no evidence of a popular sense of grievance against the government…. Among Chinese intellectuals there is a fear of their own people in the sense that they don’t think the level of education and that the ability [for] China to be informed enough and discerning enough to bring a democratic form of government into existence—they just don’t see it. They think it would erupt into all kinds of factionalism and corruption. In other words I think most Chinese intellectuals think China is not ready for democracy. To whatever degree that it’s authoritarian and…sometimes in a very arbitrary fashion. The fact remains that the Chinese people now are freer than they have been, again, for probably about, certainly in, 150 years…. Even in literature, in books and popular culture probably the only thing you cannot do is to publicly disparage the government or actively try to create a political party—they don’t want any political parties.
So these are restraints on political life but the quality of the Chinese life is improving. Sensitivity towards the desires of the population has increased; they’re much better educated. It’s a much more open society and there is not a restive demand for greater freedom. From time to time there are strikes or demonstrations and people do stupid things: The arrest of a Nobel Prize winner…. It’s stupid and unproductive—but…if we go on and say you violated this, you violated that, as we have done so often, so loudly, so ineffectively, over so many years that it is now seen by the Chinese—at large, government and others—as part of the longstanding U.S. efforts to minimize, to lecture them, to try and paternalistically shape their future, to tower over them and to constrain them. It strengthens the hands of these old fashioned repressives. It has nothing to do with communists—divisions of these types who want to make sure that nothing threatens the government. It strengthens their hand and weakens those who are working for a more moderate—to make China more open politically. Only “more open” because otherwise they’re tainted with just being the running dogs of the Americans. So we have to approach this in a clever way. If you start thinking of China as threatening and start behaving like China is threatening you will have an enemy. That’s what I feel. What is needed is for the United States to take the lead and Japan, China and maybe Russia now on a very regular basis—tri-quartile, quadri-quartile, pentaquartile—meetings of leaders and high officials who work out their issues in a very quiet way and build a certain amount of personal acquaintance and mutual trust. That’s what we should be working for, not forming alliances… with the darn right wing just sitting there and looking at China and thinking of all the damage they’re going to do to us.
“This question [that] the legitimacy of the [Taiwanese] government, which claimed to be the government of all China, would be threatened if we, the United States, moved away from that concept, was just sheer nonsense.”
Taiwan did not seek to govern all of China in the 1960s:
LEVIN: You see, the argument has been consistently advanced by those who were staunch supporters of Chiang Kaishek and the whole idea of the present policy and the impossibility of interfering and everything—the idea had been pushed forward and it became part of the conventional wisdom that if we were in any way to mollify or adjust our policy on the China issue that it would result in very serious consequences on Taiwan.
It would undermine the legitimacy of the Taiwan government; it would create morale problems among the mainlanders who were running Taiwan. It would present us with very difficult problems on Taiwan. My paper argued that (1) the people now running Taiwan enjoyed a life that was far better, more secure, materially much better off; the intellectuals, the academicians, the businessmen, had a degree of stability on Taiwan that they never knew on the mainland, that (2) they were perfectly content and now even proud of their accomplishments on Taiwan and that (3) this idea that their whole future and fate rested on continuing this claim to mainland China and to be recognized as the legitimate government of China, had no validity.
This question of the legitimacy of the government, which claimed to be the government of all China, would be threatened if we, the United States, moved away from that concept, was just sheer nonsense. Power in Taiwan rested on control of the military and law enforcement. No one on Taiwan was going to go up to the government and try to overthrow it just because it no longer could claim to be the government of all of China. It was a government that had a monopoly of power in all forms and no one was going to challenge that. The point that I made was that, if there were changes in Taiwan and its status in the UN, it would have less of an impact on attitudes in Taiwan, particularly about the power structure and the elite. That it would have far less of an impact than if we were in any way to restrict our market to Taiwan. The Taiwan market saw itself as an economic success and the most important thing to Taiwan was continued access to the American market and continued economic development. I said that no matter what happened in terms of Taiwan’s international status, as long as they felt they had access to American markets and the American security guarantee was still in place the whole issue of Taiwan’s international status, and the possible repercussions in the domestic situation, had just changed drastically and no longer was a relevant thing….
Q: With full recognition of China it was understood that in no way were we going to be able to have full recognition of Taiwan. Was that the assumption [in the 1970s]?
LEVIN: Oh yes, that was a given; that was a given. The only question was whether we
could have retained an official place on Taiwan, something like a consulate or some kind
of official office. It became pretty clear, not too far along, that…the PRC would not countenance that and very quickly—you had a model. We had the Japanese model. The Japanese had recognized the PRC but the Japanese had long, historical, cultural and emotional ties with Taiwan; that was their colony for 50 years. There was a strong, pro-Taiwan element in the Japanese political system and the Japanese had worked out essentially a private presence on Taiwan. That’s the model that we followed. That’s the model that Chas Freeman worked on and that was the precedent for a great deal of what we did in terms of lining up our relationship with Taiwan…
Q. During the time you were doing this, in ’74 to ’77, did you feel that mainland China was any threat to Taiwan?
LEVIN: No, no. Their preoccupation was with the Soviet Union. They were increasingly worried about the Soviet Union…. That’s what brought them to work out this accommodation with us. This accommodation with us was virtually a guarantee that they were not going to do anything on Taiwan…. No, Taiwan was secure for that whole period. Psychologically the mainlanders, who were still in Taiwan, were very upset with what we were doing. In terms of anyone thinking that this was creating an environment conducive to the Chinese using military force or attacking Taiwan, there was, no, nothing like that, absolutely no.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
BA in history, Brooklyn College 1947–1952
MA in international affairs, Columbia University 1952–1954
Joined the Foreign Service 1954
Taipei, Taiwan—Consular Section Chief 1954–1956
Bangkok, Thailand—Deputy Chief of Mission 1978–1981
Hong Kong—Consul General 1981–1986
Yangon, Burma—Ambassador 1987–1990