Filter +

China-US Relations--A Generational View

Remarks by Ambassador Nicholas Platt, President of the Asia Society

October 17, 2001

Lincoln Lecture - Fudan University, Shanghai

I am honored to give the Lincoln Lecture this year in Shanghai, almost 30 years after my first visit to this great city with President Richard Nixon. Thirty years is considered roughly equivalent to a generation, so I have decided to take a generational view of the ties between the US and China, remembering what they were like a generation ago, analyzing the forces that shape our relationship today, and speculating about what it could look like 30 years from now.

When I returned from China in 1972, I gave a talk to the student body of Brigham Young University in Utah. To give you a feel for our thinking then, let me tell you what I said. My presentation focused on five questions: Why we went to China, what we found there, what we accomplished, how our allies felt, and where we went from there. It all seems so obvious now, and the argument I made--that a peaceful world could not be achieved, and that no agreement on any matter affecting the politics, environment, military, or social balance in the world would have a chance of being successful if a quarter of mankind were left out--seems almost a trite cliché today.

But at the time, with the Cold War at full tilt and the Vietnam War at one of its hottest stages (we were bombing Hanoi even as Nixon was preparing to go to Beijing), there was great nervousness. President Nixon took his trip--now seen as one of the great geostrategic maneuvers in American diplomatic history--with a deep sense of risk and apprehension into uncharted international and domestic political waters. It wasn’t until he had met Mao (and there was no guarantee as to precisely when this would happen given the Chairman’s precarious health), engaged in hours of conversation with Chou En-lai, visited the Great Wall, worked out the Shanghai Communiqué, and sensed, at his welcome back to Andrews AFB, the overwhelming approval of the American people, that he knew the gamble had paid off.

What we found, of course, fascinated American audiences, who remained riveted to their TV sets throughout the week of the visit. The sights of the trip--warm exchanges of toasts at gigantic banquets in the Great Hall of the People, intense negotiators huddled over tea at green baize tables, scenic visits to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs--all became commonplace later. But they were brand new then.

I remember commenting to the audience in Utah that the sight of the mobile TV unit parked next to the Great Wall, with miles of wire and satellite communications hooking up the ancient barrier to world TV, was as significant in itself as the presence on the Wall for the first time of the President of the United States. Indeed, it was the television coverage that gained in a week the public support required for a new relationship with China.

And that--the opening of communication with China--was the most significant achievement of the trip. In concrete terms, the results were quite modest. There was no formal establishment of relations (that would take another seven years), no specific public agreement signed, and no secret deals. Only an artfully-worded communiqué which set forth the different positions of each side, clearly labeled as such. The Shanghai communiqué acknowledged the view of the Chinese that Taiwan was a part of China and acknowledged the government in Beijing as the government of China, but offered no solution to the Taiwan question other than that it was to be solved peacefully by the Chinese themselves. The substance of the Nixon Visit enabled us to sidestep our differences on Taiwan and get on with the details of dealing with each other.

I remember sitting in on a meeting with President Nixon and his advisers the night the Shanghai Communiqué was signed. The topic was the positions to be taken with the different Asian leaders by presidential envoys fanning out through the region as the party returned to Washington. I arrived early, along with Secretary of State Rogers to find the President sitting in a flowered silk dressing gown, with a long, fat cigar in one hand and a tall scotch and soda in the other. Mr. Haldemann was there with his yellow legal pad and a fistful of sharp pencils. The special envoys, Assistant Secretary of State for Asian Affairs Marshall Green and National Security Staff member Hohn Holdridge--both leading Asia specialists--arrived a bit later, and the discussion began.

The President, I was impressed to note, did most of the talking. He shaped the approach to be taken with each leader, whether from Japan, Taiwan, or the Philippines, based on his personal knowledge and relationship with each. It was a tour de force, and documented for me Nixon’s reputation as the great foreign policy president of his time. After the meeting was over, Secretary Rogers introduced me to the President--whom I had never formally met--as one of the new China specialists in the State Department. Nixon accompanied me to the door of his suite, placing an avuncular flowered arm on my shoulder as we went. “Well,” he said, “you China boys are going to have a lot more to do from now on.” Was he ever right.

In the immediate aftermath, our allies in Asia greeted the visit in different ways. On Taiwan, the trip was seen as an act of betrayal. The Japanese, who already had much more contact with the Chinese than we, were worried that we were moving ahead of them, and had been shocked that we had not consulted them in the first place. Other friendly countries in the region saw the visit as a welcome reduction of the tension caused by the war in Vietnam and the US confrontation with China.

The long term implications of the visit were, of course, profound. The establishment of a political framework for normal Sino-American relations threw the Soviets off balance, enhanced China’s confidence in its military confrontation with Moscow, and enabled the US to deal with the Soviets without the burden of a two front struggle with communism. The visit resulted in a situation that the US had not seen since the 1930s. For the first time since Japan annexed Manchuria in the 1930s we had constructive relations with both Japan and China. This gave us an enormous advantage in the region over the USSR--including both the strategic land-mass along the Soviet border and control over the Pacific seas. This, among other things, enabled us to prevail.

For the Soviets, this was the beginning of the end. Perhaps more important and enduring, the elimination of Sino-American confrontation and the end of the Vietnam War stabilized East Asia, facilitating the onset of an unprecedented two decades of explosive economic growth that enveloped virtually all the countries of the region

But for us “China Boys” as Nixon put it, the immediate tasks were more mundane, though no less pressing. In April 1973, 14 months after the Nixon visit and years sooner than any of us had anticipated, I found myself on a train at the Chinese-Hong Kong border, headed for Beijing with a small advance party to set up the first permanent US diplomatic presence in China in 24 years.

We did not have full diplomatic relations, so we called it a Liaison Office. We started from scratch, working out of two rooms in the Russian wing of the Peking Hotel looking out over the golden roofs of the Forbidden City. My first negotiating task, after years of sophisticated training as a China analyst and policy planner, was to secure adequate drapes and curtains for the residence of our Chief David Bruce. The officials of the Number 1 Flag factory were every bit as tough as our counterparts in the foreign ministry.

We learned that the best way to move around Peking was by bicycle, and more important, biking provided the only comfortable way to way to talk to ordinary Chinese. We were the only US diplomatic office before or since to set aside official time to ride bikes, but this was the way one got a feel for the place and the people. I had moved to Tokyo by the time George and Barbara Bush went to Peking, but they spent time with my wife and I on the way to their new job. When they asked what was the first thing they should do upon arrival, I said “buy a bike”.