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”.

We escorted all kinds of US delegations around the country: swimmers, basketball players, major orchestras, scientists, scholars, businessmen. I met Chou En-lai and Madame Mao--reminisce if appropriate. While the central core of our tie with China was strategic and political, we were beginning to form the other strands that make up a solid international relationship: trade, culture, science, and sport. A military element was to come later. In 1973 Sino-US relations resembled a single line, hand-cranked field telephone, with Henry Kissinger at one end and Chou En-lai at the other. Since then it has become a broadband fiber optic cable with a wide range of messages passing back and forth, many of them beyond the control or purview of either government.

The personnel changed, but that reality persisted, and our ties grew and grew. President Nixon was out of office in August of 1974. Premier Chou En-lai died the next year and Chairman Mao in 1976. Madame Mao was arrested within a week of Mao’s death. In 1979 the Carter Administration tied the final knot, and established formal diplomatic relations. Our Liaison Office became the US Embassy. Deng Xiaoping, now fully restored to power, had a very successful visit to the United States.

Strategic concerns remained uppermost in all our minds, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979 inspiring for the first time, the urge for relations between our military establishments. I was working in the National Security Council Staff at the time, and was loaned to the Pentagon to help Defense Secretary Harold Brown with the details of docking the two armed forces, which had last faced each other over gunsights in Korea. In a little more than a year, the leaders of the two defense establishments had exchanged visits, military attaches were working in both Washington and Beijing, and a modest program of technical assistance, designed by the then Undersecretary of Defense William Perry during a trip to China we took together in 1980, was underway.

Meanwhile in China, Deng Xiaoping put in place the economic reforms that were to open large portions of the economy to free enterprise, foreign investment, and international trade. China joined the massive surge of Asian growth and became its leading performer. Since 1978, China has more quadrupled its Gross National Product, in the process bringing about the most dramatic and rapid increase in living standards the world has ever seen. China’s growth, like any other success, has created a whole series of new problems.

As the Chinese economy grew, pressures for personal freedom grew as well. Deng’s reforms allowed people to travel, to take jobs in other parts of the country. China opened up internally. The tight, drab, tense society of Cultural Revolution days was replaced by a brighter energetic boom culture with burgeoning prosperity and rampant materialism, particularly in the coastal areas most affected by foreign investment.

A middle class was forming, which began to own a significant portion of the economy and wanted more consultation in government decisions affecting its interests. The student body was affected by these trends, pressured to learn in order to gain earning power, confused by the collapse of Maoist ideology and the lack of any indigenous belief system to put in its place, and inspired by the wave of democratization in Asia which struck the Philippines in 1986, Taiwan in 1987, and Korea in 1987.

In the spring of 1989, hundreds of thousands of students converged on Tiananmen square to protest official corruption and the lack of Party attention to political reform. The cameras of world television cameras were there, originally placed to record the visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who had come to China to normalize relations after two decades of confrontation and near war. They stayed to record an even bigger story--days of confused student demands and activity, uncertain government response, and finally, on the night of June 3-4, violent armed suppression.

In the US, the wave of revulsion from that one night of television coverage destroyed the bipartisan consensus in support for the US relationship with China created seventeen years before by the live coverage of the Nixon visit. Political initiative on China policy shifted from the White House to Congress, which imposed a series of sanctions that ended, in effect, normal Sino-American relations.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union shortly thereafter, the strategic imperative which had driven Nixon’s initiative and sustained our ties for decades was gone. But one thing remained the same: China’s leaders held to Deng’s policies of openness to the world and economic reform, and the economy continued to expand at a double digit rate. By 1993, the World Bank reported that if China were to sustain its rate of growth, it would become the world's largest aggregate economy by the middle of the next century. US policy was buffeted by contending concepts--we don’t need cCina anymore; China as the next superpower. Economic growth has created the specter of major new competitor--some say enemy.

US policy during the Clinton years reflected the confusion caused by the loss of a clear strategic imperative, the antipathy left over from Tiananmen, and the ineptitude of an inexperienced administration and an ignorant Congress. It took two years for the US to delink trade and human rights. It took another six years to finish our WTO negotiations. Reality is the great policy maker, and it dictated a constructive relationship.

The peaceful return of Hong Kong in 1997 boosted confidence in China among the international community. President Jiang Zemin’s successful visit to the US the same year solidified our links and made him a known quantity in the US. By 1998, when President Clinton visited China, we had perhaps over-corrected, proclaiming a “strategic partnership” that went beyond what we actually had. But subsequent tensions in 1999 over the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the demonstrations against the US embassy in Beijing and other US government offices around the country soured perceptions of the US in China and vice versa. George W. Bush ran for President of the US during the summer of 2000, speaking of China as a “strategic competitor” as opposed to the “strategic partner” that President Clinton had hoped China would become. Campaign-related discussion of missile defense and a revamped US military posture fed Chinese fears of an effort at “containing” China or of plotting by the United States to deny China its chance to become a major power in the region. These discussions mirrored growing American suspicions that China planned to lever the US out of Asia.

Meanwhile, during that first generation, the relationship had indeed become enormous. In fact, an economic imperative had replaced the strategic imperative that originally bound us together. Bilateral trade in 1972 was $92 million--in 2000 it was $116 billion (the trade imbalance is $84 billion--one third of China’s exports). In 1982, US direct investment in China was $1.8 million, and $4.3 billion (realized) by 2000, with another $4 billion contracted. There were between 1,500 and 3,000 American Visitors to China in 1972, and more than 500,000 by 2000. My favorite statistic: 3,000 Chinese orphans were adopted in 2000, my granddaughter among them. 1,300 Chinese students attended US universities in 1979; 55,000 last year. These numbers represented the practical daily ties that bind the two peoples and the economies. They also formed the ballast that kept the relationship from being blown too far off course by the winds of politics and the accidents of history. We would need all the ballast available.

After the Bush inauguration, efforts by both sides to get off to a good start--as evidenced in March by the warm White House reception given Vice Premier Qian--were dealt a severe blow by the collision over Hainan of a Chinese F-8 fighter and an American EP-3 reconnaissance plane. While a solution to the impasse was worked out between the State Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, decisions by the new Bush Administration to offer a formidable list of new military capabilities to Taiwan, to receive the Dalai Lama at the White House, and to permit Taiwan President Chen Shui Bian to transit New York further inflamed Chinese suspicions. There were reports in the west of a major rethinking in the Pentagon about the future of the US military, with increasing emphasis on potential conflict in Asia, especially with China, as that country’s power and ambition are presumed to increase.

In this climate of growing suspicion between the two sides’ bureaucracies and populations, leaders of the two countries worked to stabilize the relationship, and compartmentalize areas of difference. We continue to take issue over human rights, nonproliferation, freedom of religion, the future of our political systems, and Chinese treatment of American corporations that do business with Taiwan. At the same time, we cooperate in mutually beneficial areas like trade, investment, and efforts to maintain regional stability. American facilitation of China’s entry into the WTO throughout this rather turbulent year is a case in point.

The events of September 11 raise the possibility of a new strategic imperative binding China and the US. The terrorist attacks on our soil have changed America profoundly. They have provided an opportunity to China to quell the debate in the US over the “China threat” and to subsume differences over missile defense into a broader context of cooperation. Whether or not this evolves into a new strategic imperative that ties us together remains to be seen, but there are several areas of common interest on which we can work.

China also has homegrown terrorists with connections to Osama bin Laden. This is part of the motivation this year of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in which the governments of Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China pool intelligence on terrorist activities and seek to cooperate to eliminate the terrorist threat to their nations. The US and China both have close relations with Pakistan. We share an interest in a stable Pakistan with responsible authorities in control of their nuclear capability. We also share an interest in the reconstruction of an Afghan nation, and the creation of an environment there hostile to terrorists and drugs. The US is making a long-term commitment to remain engaged in South and Central Asia in a constructive way. We want to work with China and Russia in this regard. China so far has offered rhetorical support for Operation Enduring Freedom and has moved to establish channels for intelligence sharing within the UN on terrorism related issues.

It is, however, still unclear the degree to which China would be willing to lend a practical hand in dealing with the terrorists. The needs of the current situation offers China and the US an opportunity for enhanced bilateral and multilateral cooperation, which could alter their suspicious perceptions of each other. I hope we both seize the moment. My guess is that we will. The outcome of the APEC meetings here in Shanghai will be crucial in this regard.

Energy security is another important area for strategic and economic cooperation. As China’s economy grows and develops a dependence on imported oil from the Middle East, Beijing has become increasingly concerned about the security of sea lanes. It long been a basic tenet of US policy interest to protect international trade and keep lines of communication open. We share China’s interest in having diversified sources of energy supply, hence in the development of alternative sources. US companies will one day build a pipeline through Xinjiang to Shanghai. Environment is also a key area that will keep us working together in the future. We are both responsible for degradation of the global environment, and for finding solutions that lead to sustainable growth. There is plenty in the present to keep us working for the future.

What will our relationship look like a generation from now? My personal guess, seeing how closely we have become bound during the generation past, is that our relationship will be closer and more complicated than ever. Our economies will be more intertwined, as the foreign direct investment of today expands. Many of the thousands of Chinese who have been studying in the United States will have returned and will put to use the contacts and knowledge they have gained. This does not necessarily mean that they will love the US. They will, however, understand better the needs and techniques that make a modern civil society go, and the forces that move a modern economy and financial system. And they will have to. By the year 2030, if current demographic projections hold true, China will be an increasingly elderly nation, with a much larger percentage of persons over the age of 65 supported by a much smaller, young workforce. The pension system large enough to take care of this tidal wave of elders can only be based on direct participation in the global financial system and the development of sophisticated investment and insurance instruments at home. China and the United States are likely to become the largest investor in each other’s economy.

Trends in China favor the growth of a society and an economy that is more open, transparent, accountable, and governed by the rule of law. This has to happen if the society is to remain stable and the economy is to grow. And it will. Both the people and the leadership want it to happen. The lawyers, judges, and accountants are being trained. It will take a generation. But as it does, the US and China will grow more closely together. There will be more to argue about and more things to do together.

The next generation will also, I believe, see a solution to the Taiwan issue. Economic ties between the mainland and Taiwan are growing faster than ever. The process will accelerate as both economies join the WTO. Economic integration will ultimately change the context for political discourse. The US will make a more knowledgeable partner over time. The events of September 11 have woken the US public, as never before, to the importance of knowing more about the world around us, to the value of multilateral diplomacy, and awareness of the differences in culture and history that set us apart. The process of globalization is inexorable. It will be the responsibility of the next generation to knit China and the US so tightly together that partnership in peace is the only alternative. We are almost there now.

Thank you.