Milestones: 1953–1960

U.S.-China Ambassadorial Talks, 1955–1970

On August 1, 1955, the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) opened a series of ambassadorial-level talks in Geneva to discuss the repatriation of nationals and other issues of mutual concern. Because the two countries did not have formal diplomatic relations, the talks were the principle form of contact between them for sixteen years. The Chinese proposed the negotiations because Sino-American tensions were high, causing concern to bystanders throughout the region.

Henry Kissinger and Chairman Mao, with Zhou Enlai behind them in Beijing

Henry Kissinger and Chairman Mao, with Zhou Enlai behind them in Beijing

In late 1954 and early 1955, the PRC’s bombardment of the off-shore islands in the Taiwan Strait had brought the United States and China to the brink of confrontation. The crisis ended when the Chinese Foreign Minister suggested that the PRC would be willing to meet with the United States for a series of bi-lateral talks. The United States proposed that the two nations send individuals of ambassadorial rank to meet in Geneva. When the talks began, the United States was represented by U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia U. Alexis Johnson, and the Chinese side by Chinese Ambassador to Poland Wang Bingnan. At the outset, there were two items on the agenda: to negotiate for the repatriation of nationals in either country, and to address any “other practical matters of concern to both sides.”

The repatriation of nationals was the primary issue as the talks began. After the Chinese Communist victory in 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, citizens from both nations were stranded behind newly closed borders. Once it became clear that the United States would not recognize the PRC, the Chinese arrested or denied exit permits to U.S. missionaries, businessmen, and scholars still living in China. These several dozen individuals were neither tried for crimes nor given any indication of how long they would be held. By the same token, the U.S. Government declared a “state of emergency” and prevented Chinese students and scholars with technical skills capable of aiding China from returning home. Of some 5,000 Chinese students in the United States in 1949, 105 were held for several years.

After six weeks of discussions, on September 10, 1955, issued an “agreed announcement” that acknowledged the right of Americans in China and Chinese in the United States to return freely and “expeditiously” to their countries of origin, and it permitted anyone who believed his or her return was being prevented to seek assistance from a designated third party. For Americans detained in China, the third party was the British Embassy, and for Chinese in the United States, the Indian Embassy acted as the intermediary.

After completing this agreement, the two sides faced obstacles in implementing it. China proposed other topics for discussion, including ending the U.S. embargo on China that had been in place since the start of the Korean War in 1950 and a future meeting of Chinese and U.S. foreign ministers. U.S. policymakers, however, were unwilling to address these topics before all U.S. citizens still in China were released and allowed to depart. As the two sides failed to see eye to eye on the implementation of this agreement, the Geneva talks became an open forum for accusations and recriminations over the next several years. The Chinese representatives demanded the repatriation of all Chinese citizens in the United States, but the U.S. Government claimed that it did not prevent them from leaving and some chose to stay. Meanwhile, U.S. officials accused the Chinese of ignoring the text of the announcement and continuing to hold American citizens as political prisoners on false charges. China insisted that it had the right to punish lawbreakers, and no criminal could be released until his or her full sentence had been served.

Other issues caused difficulties for the talks. The United States proved unwilling to lift the embargo, to allow exchanges of journalists, or to engage in high-level meetings until China agreed to renounce the use of force in unifying Taiwan with the mainland. For China, Taiwan was strictly an internal issue. The status of Taiwan became the major obstacle that prevented accommodation between the United States and China until the early 1970s. Protocol issues affected the talks as well. In late 1957, the United States attempted to end the talks by transferring Ambassador Johnson to Thailand and sending a representative of lower rank to meet with Wang. As a result of this action, the two sides suspended the talks for nine months. In September of 1958, the U.S. Government appointed its Ambassador to Poland, Jacob Beam, as its representative and the talks continued, on and off, in Warsaw.

After the initial agreement on repatriation in the autumn of 1955, the talks continued for sixteen years and 136 total meetings without making further progress. They ended when President Richard Nixon visited China and set the stage for eventual U.S. recognition of the People’s Republic. Although they accomplished little in terms of formal agreements, the talks did provide China and the United States with an avenue for negotiation, so that misunderstandings did not escalate into outright conflict. In this way, the U.S.-China Ambassadorial Talks served as an important factor in relieving tension in East Asia.