About the Authors: Douglas G. Spelman served as U.S. Consul General in Shanghai and Susan Thornton serves as Deputy Director of the Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs at the Department of State.
January 1, 2009 marked the 30th anniversary of the establishment of U.S. diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. Several events here and in China commemorated this momentous event. Perhaps the most significant was a commemorative seminar held in Beijing on January 12-13 that featured Jimmy Carter, the former president who displayed courage and foresight in bringing the politically sensitive negotiations with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to a successful conclusion, and his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Other participants included former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, renowned for his role in paving the way for President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, and Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who served presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush as National Security Advisor. The U.S. Ambassador, Clark Randt, attended, as did Sharon Woodcock, the widow of Leonard Woodcock, who conducted the delicate negotiations in Beijing and who became the first U.S. ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. With her were four of her late husband’s successors as U.S. ambassadors to China. The seminar was jointly sponsored by the Chinese People’s Institute for Foreign Affairs (CPIFA) and the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, with the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations serving as a co-sponsor. Many former senior Chinese officials also attended.
Discussions during the two-day seminar ranged from fascinating anecdotes to reflections on the changing strategic rationale underpinning the U.S.-China relationship. Speakers frankly acknowledged the inevitable problems that arise in relations between two such large and important countries but were generally optimistic that wise leaders could sustain continued progress in bilateral ties. Sharon Woodcock recalled the difficult final session between Ambassador Woodcock and Deng Xiaoping when they agreed, just hours before the announcement, to move ahead with normalization despite unresolved differences, an agreement capped by a historic handshake.
Former Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan noted how, despite contentious incidents like the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and the mid-air collision of a U.S. surveillance aircraft and a Chinese fighter plane, both sides had worked together to ensure that the relationship stayed on a constructive course. Former Secretary of State Kissinger detailed the challenges and opportunities facing the two countries and stressed the importance of working together to preserve a stable and peaceful world. PRC Vice-Foreign Minister He Yafei called for joint actions to address global problems.
Thirty years of successfully managing this complex relationship is certainly worth marking and reflecting upon. And while the focus has often been on the decisions of top leaders of the two countries, it is the contributions of working level officials, academics, business persons and the general public that have provided the essential content for a broad and deep relationship. While we have a large and growing list of common interests with China, we must keep in mind that we do not share a number of key values. One of our most delicate challenges is to find effective ways to address these differences. Finally, while the U.S.-China relationship is of unique importance in the world today, we must not pursue our bilateral ties with Beijing in ways that slight the interests of other important nations, such as Japan, Russia, India, and the nations of Southeast Asia, to name only a few.