Rein In at the Brink of the Precipice: American Policy Toward Taiwan and U.S.-PRC Relations

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While America and China were drawn together thirty-five years ago by shared strategic imperatives, the Taiwan issue still stood as the paramount obstacle to full diplomatic -normalized- relations. Because of its domestic and international complexity for both sides, normalization took almost a decade to complete. And in the more than twenty years since, implementation of normalization’s terms has proven contentious, made thornier by the rapid political evolution on Taiwan itself.

The inherent incompleteness of normalization has left in place irreconcilable contradictions. To Beijing, there is only one China today and Taiwan is part of it; it insists the U.S. has no role in this “internal” matter. The United States acknowledges and does not challenge Beijing’s claim of sovereignty, but does not endorse it either. The American focus is not on the ultimate shape of cross-Strait relations, but on ensuring that the process for determining it is peaceful and consensual.

Rein in at the Brink of the Precipice draws extensively on the U.S.-PRC negotiating record to give a textured sense of the issues and dynamics at play on the Taiwan question. It argues that, inattentive to the history and the nuances of normalization, American leaders have generated unintended crises and could do so again. While Beijing and Taipei bear the major responsibility for their future relationship, Washington can influence their decisions. Moreover, the U.S. must constantly apply responsible judgment to its own decisions on sensitive issues ranging from Taiwan arms sales to the rules governing Washington’s unofficial relations with Taipei.

Today, U.S.-PRC relations are touted as “the best ever.” Nevertheless, the “Taiwan question” remains a potential time bomb that could do grave damage to that relationship and to Taiwan, with regional and even global ramifications. Though unlikely, such an explosion is not impossible, and American leaders have an obligation to understand the issue in depth before taking decisions that could affect whether the world travels along such a tragic path.


“Romberg’s work is fair, balanced, scrupulous in its scholarship and sound in its judgment. This thoroughly documented history of U.S.-China dealings on the Taiwan issue reminds us of the dangers we run when wishful thinking supplants fact-based analysis and judgment.”

Samuel R. Berger
National Security Advisor, 1997-2000

“Alan Romberg has written the definitive work on the evolution of the Taiwan question. Anyone interested in understanding the most sensitive and explosive issue in US-China relations needs to read this book.”

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, ret.)
Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs

“Drawing on his own experience in the State Department, interviews with key participants, and meticulous archival research, Alan Romberg has written what is simply the best history yet published of the role of the Taiwan issue in Sino-American relations since normalization.”

Steven M. Goldstein
Sophia Smith Professor of Government, Smith College

Rein In at the Brink is elegant, definitive, and important. A quarter century after the ‘normalization�Eof U.S.-China relations, Taiwan remains a flashpoint that could bring the two nuclear powers to blows. A diplomatic can to be kicked down the road, Nixon and Kissinger bet in 1972 that the future outcome of the Taiwan problem would be shaped by the evolving U.S.-China relationship itself. Although true, the Taiwan issue’s management also has been shaped by misunderstanding, ignorance, conflicting nationalisms, and competing national and personal agendas. Romberg enlightens the reader about the complexities and dangers, providing wisdom to those in Washington, Beijing, and Taipei who must manage this dangerous challenge for as far as the eye can see.”

David M. Lampton
Director, China Studies, Johns Hopkins-SAIS and The Nixon Center

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