[A Great Wall: Six Presidents & China, an Investigative History]

Article excerpt

New York: Public Affairs for the Century Foundation, xvi, 476pp, US$40.00, ISBN 1-891620-37-1

PATRICK TYLER, A FORMER New York Times Beijing bureau chief, makes the case for pragmatism and restraint in Washington's China policy.

His history of Sino-United States relations begins with the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996 and then backtracks to the 1969 Ussuri River clashes before launching on a narrative from the Nixon opening through to the controversies of the past few years - espionage, campaign financing, trade, and, of course, Taiwan.

Throughout, Tyler makes an effort to understand China's goals as well as America's. By and large, he finds China's behaviour reasonable and responsible, whereas American policy often is described as shortsighted and risky.

In Tyler's telling, the China opening itself grew out of a failed gamble. He says Richard Nixon came into office so keen on a settlement in Vietnam that he was prepared to co-operate with Moscow against China if the Soviet Union would abandon Hanoi. Tyler describes various signals Nixon sent to Moscow in early 1969 and discussions within the administration about such a trade-off. For the most part, Tyler does not present new evidence so much as reinterpret the existing record. He draws attention to a June 1969 presidential request for a study on how the United States might mount a nuclear attack on China, and a conversation between Nixon and his defence secretary, Melvin Laird, during which Nixon said that a Soviet attack on China might be a price worth paying for a favourable peace in Vietnam.

After it became apparent that Moscow was not going to help out in Vietnam, however, there was panic in Washington. …