Since 30 years ago we have traveled a long journey in our relations.
When then US president Jimmy Carter sent me to China in the summer of 1978 to initiate the secret negotiations that resulted in December 1978 in the normalization of US-China relations, only 1,200 foreigners lived in Beijing. Just the other day 1,100 American officials moved into the new US Embassy building – and it is estimated that some 150,000 foreigners now live in Beijing.
Our world is different, better, and safer because of that normalization.
With the above in mind, let me share some highly compressed thoughts (from the US vantage point) on several issues.
First, why was the effort to normalize successful? Second, what did normalization initially precipitate and then also facilitate? Third, what is the current geostrategic status of our relationship? Fourth, at this moment in history, what should be our shared grand objective?
Why was the effort to normalize successful?
The central reason was that the two leaders – then US president Carter and then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping – had the strategic determination to cut the Gordian Knots preventing a decisive breakthrough. The first attempt to normalize made in 1977, but undertaken without a wider geopolitical design, bogged down, largely over Taiwan.
By early 1978 president Carter decided that US-China normalization was in the United States' strategic interest – and it so happened that the same conclusion was reached by Deng because of the threat posed to China by "hegemonism". In different ways, both the US and China felt threatened by Soviet strategic assertiveness.
The president instructed me in writing to tell Deng that he took the Soviet threat seriously and to convey US determination to move forward with the normalization of relations.
On that basis we were then able to set in motion a secret process to resolve various complications – even agreeing at the very last minute on Dec 15 to "agree to disagree" on some remaining issues. This shared strategic determination meant that a diplomatic accommodation became de facto a strategic partnership.
What did normalization precipitate and then also facilitate?
It precipitated almost from the start a shared security cooperation – first in strategic intelligence (vs "hegemonism") that has been of genuine benefit both to the US and to China – and then in jointly opposing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The effect was to change the Cold War's global chessboard – to the disadvantage of the Soviet Union – and eventually that contributed to a Soviet reassessment that then led to the end of the Cold War.
Indirectly, the normalization facilitated Deng's decision made also 30 years ago to undertake a comprehensive economic reform, which took China – as People's Daily recently commented – into "the age of peace and development from the previous epoch of war and revolution".
The newspaper observed also that in the wake of normalization "a total 113 countries established diplomatic relations with China by 1978".