America’s opening to China by president Richard Nixon and secretary of state Henry Kissinger in 1971-1972 was a historic breakthrough. Less famous, but of equal importance, was the next major step, taken by president Jimmy Carter exactly 30 years ago, establishing full diplomatic relations between China and the US. Without this action, announced on Dec. 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 Republic of China, as the legitimate and sole government of China. Since 1972, the US and China maintained small “liaison offices” in each other’s capitals, without recognition. Official communications were very limited, and annual bilateral trade was under US$1 billion. Today, it is a staggering US$387 billion.
Carter took office hoping to normalize relations with China. This would require switching US recognition from Taiwan to China. 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 its 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 US politics.
Led by America’s “Mr Conservative,” Republican 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 adviser 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 presidency.
There was no precedent for this in US 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 US 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.