A GREAT WALL

Six Presidents and China: An Investigative History

By Patrick Tyler

Public Affairs. 476 pp. $27.50

Patrick Tyler's "A Great Wall" would be a significant book at any time. His subject is one of the most important processes of the last third of the 20th century: the reestablishment of contact between China and the United States. But the controversies that have recently enveloped Sino-American relations, from the furor over Chinese espionage to the effects of Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's well-rehearsed throwaway remark that his country had a sort of "state-to-state" relationship with the mainland, have made it especially relevant. By providing the historical background of today's China issues, Tyler underscores the need to recognize where Beijing and Washington were in 1969 and how their relations have developed since then.

A former New York Times correspondent in Beijing, Tyler begins his account in the late 1960s, when armed clashes on the Sino-Soviet border made President Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger realize that China could both partner Washington in the struggle to contain Moscow's global ambitions and help extricate the United States from the Vietnam War.

Tyler devotes a third of his book to the Nixon era. This reflects his assessment that Nixon cut through one of the great knots of 20th-century politics. While the president's motives were mixed, his diplomacy "ended the isolation of the People's Republic and ended America's isolation from China" and marked a profound turning point. Tyler, who justifiably calls his book an "investigative history," digs deep into the evolution of Nixon's China policy. He details Kissinger's journeys to Beijing, Nixon's concerns over Taiwan and the conservative Americans who backed Chiang Kai-shek, and the complications that flowed from the rivalry between Kissinger and Secretary of State William P. Rogers.

Rivalry within administrations is a recurring theme here. The turf battles of the Carter period, when national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski dueled with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, continued under Reagan, when national security adviser Richard Allen and Secretary of State Alexander Haig fought over China policy.

Tyler tracks the evolution of U.S.-China relations: the cooling during the Ford years; the establishment of diplomatic relations by Carter and the introduction of a new apparatus, the Taiwan Relations Act. While this legislation helped ensure Taiwan's security, it did not prevent Reagan, the most conservative of the presidents covered in the book, from signing a 1982 communique limiting the quality and quantity of U.S. defense exports to Taiwan.

The Reagan period was the high point of U.S.-China relations. The Tiananmen crisis and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union transformed the situation; strategic competition with Moscow was replaced by human rights and arms proliferation as the key factors shaping the relationship. And under Clinton, Taiwan has reemerged as the determining issue, with Lee Teng-hui's manipulation of American sentiment made all the more effective by the fact that the president has "little time for foreign policy."

Tyler paints fascinating portraits of the personalities who shaped relations between the two countries. Kissinger is the dominant player: Central to the high-level diplomacy that led to the opening, he emerges from Tyler's account as a brilliant yet flawed figure. He saw the U.S.-Soviet-China triangle with a hard-nosed clarity, and yet developed a fascination with China's charming premier, Zhou Enlai, that was matched only by his distaste for "that nasty little man," as he called Deng Xiaoping, who had an even cooler grasp of power than did Kissinger himself.

Tyler's portrait of James Lilley captures the continuity in personalities that runs through the story, just as China was a recurring theme in the lives of many of those involved in the relationship. Born in China, Lilley was successively an officer in the CIA's operations directorate, the agency's first station chief in Beijing, the unofficial U.S. representative in Taiwan and then U.S. ambassador in Beijing, where he kept the relationship afloat after the Tiananmen massacre. Lilley was just one of many, including Arthur Hummel and Stapleton Roy, for whom China was a central element of their lives.

Tyler illuminates the lives of the Americans involved in his story, but he throws little light on the Chinese side. His subtitle--"Six Presidents and China"--may excuse his U.S. focus, but the forces that drove the Chinese are perhaps even more important for Americans to understand. Tyler ignores the extensive Chinese literature and instead draws on the highly suspect memoirs of Mao's onetime physician Li Zhisui.

For Tyler the "great wall" is a metaphor for the cultural and political barriers that separate U.S. politicians from their Chinese counterparts. But less formidable barriers seem to separate Chinese reality from Western journalists who report on China, and Tyler gets some details wrong about the Chinese side. Nonetheless, he sends a clear message that China is committed to a nationwide pursuit of modernization, and that it is far too complex an entity to be handled with one-dimensional policies that fixate on human rights, trade, Taiwan, proliferation or one-upmanship among U.S. officials. This is an important message, and a book worth reading.