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Andrew Singer Talks About China
Vol. 2, Issue 21
Ten days before Christmas 1978, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Chinese leader Hua Guofeng (the ruler of China between Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping who almost nobody remembers) issued a Joint Communique establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. The document was forward-looking, controversial, incomplete, and incredibly consequential. Now, almost 45 years on, when China and America are once again at loggerheads, this Issue looks back to the time when enemies became, if not friends, at least acquaintances able to cooperate and work together.
Jimmy Carter and U.S.-China Relations
Former U.S. President James Earl Carter, Jr. (age 98.5) announced in February, 2023, that he was returning home to enter hospice. As the end of his long life approaches, today we turn our attention to the 1970’s when he was instrumental in two giants setting aside three decades of enmity to forge a new path forward.
In a recent email update from the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, Director Orville Schell, a man who participated in Deng Xiaoping’s groundbreaking 1979 trip to the U.S., commented,
Looking back, I’m reminded of what an inflection point that was. Deng’s deft diplomacy with Jimmy Carter helped transform a Cold War between the United States and China into more than 30 years of multi-faceted U.S.-China engagement.
The story, though, begins more than a decade earlier.
1965. On the eve of the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong summoned journalist Edgar Snow to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for a lengthy interview. During the conversation Mao stated,
Naturally I personally regret that forces of history have divided and separated the American and Chinese peoples from virtually all communication during the past 15 years. Today the gulf seems broader than ever. However, I myself do not believe it will end in war and one of history’s major tragedies.
According to Mr. Snow, Mao continued on to say that “…forces of history were also bound, eventually, to bring the two peoples together again; that day would surely come.”As Henry Kissinger opines, Mao’s sentiments would have been “startling comments” had anyone in Washington, D.C. been paying attention.
1972. Half a dozen years later, secret and then public negotiations between Mao Zedong/Zhou Enlai and Richard Nixon/Henry Kissinger led to issuance of the Shanghai Communique. This breakthrough document acknowledged that
[t]here are essential differences between China and the United States in their social systems and foreign policies. However, the two sides agreed that countries, regardless of their social systems, should conduct their relations on the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, non-aggression against other states, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.
The parties also agreed to “…stay in contact through various channels,…and continue to exchange views on issues of common interest.”
1978. On January 1, 1979, only seventeen days after President Jimmy Carter and Chinese leader Hua Guofeng issued their electrifying Joint Communique announcing the re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations, America officially recognized China as the sole legal government of China and withdrew formal diplomatic recognition from Taiwan. Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping visited America the same month.
This launched decades of peace and growth and has witnessed the rise of China, but also left the most poignant and intransigent stumbling block, Taiwan, to an ambiguity and uncertainty that has become an increasing flashpoint today as each side becomes clearer (and more hardened) in its stated intentions.
A young Lt. Jimmy Carter actually visited China much earlier than most Americans when his submarine, USS Pomfret, made port calls in Qingdao and Shanghai in 1949 shortly before the People’s Republic of China came into being. By the time Carter became President in 1977, the countries had once again begun talking and established liaison offices in each other’s capital.
President Carter soon reaffirmed the principles of the Shanghai Communique and subsequently pushed for full normalization building on the earlier efforts.Even so, given the then still-tentative progress in dialogue between the two wary countries and the fact that the prior months of negotiations had been secret, the announcement of almost immediate normalization on December 15, 1978, was as momentous as it was seemingly out-of-the-blue.
The announcement elicited impassioned responses. The Senate Majority Leader said the action was “an important step that will contribute to our national interest and the stability of world peace.” A Senate Committee Democratic Chairman called the action “…a gutsy, courageous decision,’” while another Democratic Senator said that it was a “‘very positive step toward world peace.’”
Future President George Bush (Sr.), who had been the American representative in China during 1974-1975, had a different opinion. He felt that the President’s “…initiative ‘has not only diminished American credibility in the world but has also darkened the prospects for peace.’” The Senate Minority Leader labeled it “the betrayal of an old friend,” and another Republican Senator accused the President of “lying, thumbing his nose at the Congress, and selling out Taiwan.” As will not surprise anyone who follows America, public reaction was split as well.
Why did the Eagle and the Panda seek and accept rapprochement? The biggest reason by far was as a hedge against a common rival, the Soviet Union. The proverb, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” comes to mind. The 1970’s were a time of repeated turmoil, warfare, and violence in many parts of the world, including around China’s borders and wider neighborhood and with U.S. involvement abroad. Both China and America wanted to strengthen their positions vis-à-vis a potent Bear.
Normalizing relations also served the domestic desires (and needs) of both countries that were respectively undergoing internal transitions and shocks. China wanted to modernize. The U.S. was looking at the economic benefits of expanded trade, investment, and connection with China and how these might also impact her development politically.
From the China side, Henry Kissinger notes the shift in Chinese efforts as follows: “Mao had governed by counting on the endurance of the Chinese people to sustain the suffering his personal visions would impose on them. Deng governed by liberating the creativeness of the Chinese people to bring about their own vision of the future.”
The Present. Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, completed a process begun by Richard Nixon, a Republican. The outcome of that process, reconnecting America and China, changed world history and the lives of billions of people around the globe dramatically and mostly for the better. Yet, as Orville Schell further notes, we are once again at “another inflection point.”
When welcoming Deng Xiaoping at a White House state dinner in January, 1979, President Carter said,
We share in the hope which springs from reconciliation and the anticipation of a common journey. . . Let us pledge together that both the United States and China will exhibit the understanding, patience, and persistence which will be needed in order for our new relationship to survive.
Looking at how the relationship had changed almost forty years later, former President Carter addressed the frayed U.S.-China relationship and how to prevent a “modern cold war” in a 2018 op-ed piece. He wrote,
In 1979, Deng Xiaoping and I knew we were advancing the cause of peace. While today’s leaders face a different world, the cause of peace remains just as important. Leaders must bring new vision, courage and ingenuity to new challenges and opportunities, but I believe they also must accept our conviction that the United States and China need to build their futures together, for themselves and for humanity at large.
Since 2018, the situation has unfortunately only grown worse. Both China and America are presently in the grips of ideological spasming. Growing righteous indignation against the other at the governmental levels threatens to subsume any sense of Jimmy Carter’s called-for “vision, courage, and ingenuity.”
China is emboldened. America is embattled. It may be that our collective leaderships really do not want to return to the earlier times. From our side of the Pacific, if we continue to tear ourselves apart in the ongoing culture wars, fall prey to group think on a presumed common enemy, and let our system of governance stagger toward possible collapse, the cause of peace will indeed fail.
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Henry Kissinger, On China, Page 204, and https://newrepublic.com/article/119916/edgar-snow-interview-china-chairman-mao-zedong
Kissinger, Page 204
Kissinger, Page 355 and https://www.chinafile.com/library/nyrb-china-archive/china-strikes-back
Harry Harding, Jr., China and the U.S. Normalization and Beyond, China Council of The Asia Society and the Foreign Policy Association, 1979, Pages 2, 10; https://www.chinafile.com/library/nyrb-china-archive/china-strikes-back; and https://www.nytimes.com/1978/12/16/archives/carters-recognition-step-draws-applause-and-anger-democrats-praise.html
See Footnote 5
Kissinger, Page 334