Opening China, Then and Now

by Richard Holbrooke

Richard Holbrooke is a former US ambassador to the United Nations and the chief architect of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia.

WASHINGTON, DC - America's opening to China by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in 1971-1972 was a historic breakthrough. Less famous, but of equal importance, was the next major step, taken by Jimmy Carter exactly 30 years ago, establishing full diplomatic relations between China and the United States. Without this action, announced on December 15, 1978, US-China relations could not have moved beyond a small, high-level connection with a limited agenda.

As they left office in 1977, President Gerald Ford and Kissinger left behind an incomplete and therefore unstable relationship with China. The US still recognized Taiwan, under the name of The Republic of China, as the legitimate and sole government of China. Since 1972, America and China maintained small "liaison offices" in each other's capitals, without recognition. Official communications were very limited, and annual bilateral trade was under $1 billion. (Today, it is a staggering $387 billion.)

Carter took office hoping to normalize relations with China. This would require switching American recognition from Taiwan to the mainland. Some saw this as a simple acknowledgement of reality, but in fact it was a momentous step that required diplomatic skill and political courage.

A way would have to be found for the US, while recognizing China, to continue dealing with the government on Taiwan without recognizing their claim to represent China; most important, the US had to retain the right to sell arms to Taiwan. From a political point of view, there was the famed Taiwan lobby, one of the most powerful in the US, still dominated by the conservative wing of American politics.

Led by America's "Mr. Conservative," Senator Barry Goldwater, and the leading contender for the 1980 Republican nomination, Ronald Reagan, the Taiwan lobby would fight normalization all the way. (Goldwater took the US government to the Supreme Court to challenge, unsuccessfully, Carter's action; Reagan, in the 1980 presidential campaign, pledged partially to undo normalization, only to abandon that position after he was elected.)

The saga unfolded over the first two years of the Carter administration, entirely out of public view, except for two important trips to China, one by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, the other by National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Incredibly, those of us involved in the process (I was then Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs) managed to keep our intense negotiations completely secret.

The Chinese demanded a complete severing of all official ties between Taiwan and the US, including arms sales. Knowing that such a move would provoke an enormous backlash domestically, we looked for a formula for continuing official contacts and arms sales with Taiwan even after we had de-recognized them and terminated the mutual security treaty ratified during the Eisenhower years.

There was no precedent for this in American or international law. With advice from Eisenhower's former Attorney General, Herbert Brownell, State Department lawyers drafted the Taiwan Relations Act, a law like no other in American history, which allowed the US government to conduct business with Taiwan, including arms sales, without recognition.

But when we explained to China why this was necessary in order to recognize them, they balked. They wanted trade and other benefits of recognition, which would benefit both nations in those Cold War days, when China was fiercely hostile to the Soviet Union, with which it had almost gone to war only a few years earlier. But Taiwan remained a huge, seemingly impossible obstacle.

The breakthrough came in late 1978, and was carefully timed by Carter to follow the mid-term congressional elections. The most important factor in the breakthrough was probably the emergence of Deng Xiaoping as China's new paramount leader. (Mao had died in 1976).

Deng, who had been forced to wear a dunce cap and denounce himself during the insanity of the Cultural Revolution, had achieved the greatest comeback imaginable, and in the fall of 1978, he finally got enough power to cut a deal with the US: China would not "agree" to American arms sales or other activities with Taiwan, but they would proceed with normalization anyway. It was a classic example of Chinese negotiating style: firm on principle, flexible on specifics.

I am leaving a lot out here - this was a very complicated negotiation - but that was the essence of it. In January 1979, Deng made his historic trip to the US, which began with a private dinner at Brzezinski's house and climaxed with the most sought-after State dinner of the Carter years (also remarkable for Richard Nixon's first visit to Washington since he had resigned; I sat at Nixon's table, and retain a menu that everyone signed that night).

At Brzezinski's house, Deng talked of his dreams for a China that he knew he would not live to see. He believed China could leapfrog the lost years in which the world had passed it by, but only with American support. He was ready to cooperate on containing the Soviet Union, even agreeing to the installation of secret American intelligence listening posts along China's border to track Soviet missiles.

Deng accurately foresaw a vast exchange of students, modern technology, and trade. More than any American official, he anticipated what the American opening to China would accomplish. But even Deng could not fully imagine what would be unleashed by that announcement of December 15, 1978 - nothing less than the development of the most important bilateral relationship in the world today.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008.

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