Opening China, Then and Now

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.&