The new dawn of 2024 marks the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and the United States.
But nowadays if you take a street quiz in China, big cities or small, asking people randomly under which US presidency that China and the U.S. established diplomatic relations, the odds are quite high that you would get more wrong answers than correct ones.
A simple explanation is: 45 years are really a long time and people have short memories.
A more complicated theory may also well explain the reason. Over the past five years, China-U.S. relations have been spiraling southward to the brink of a total collapse. It was not until the San Francisco summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his American counterpart Joe Biden in November 2023 that the worsening situation becomes stabilized, at least for the time being.
If bilateral ties have been frequented with such problems as trade disputes, economic sanctions, punitive tariffs, military confrontation in the South China Sea, and Taiwan, who would care which American President made the decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China?!
Well, both the Chinese and the Americans should care, especially when bilateral relations are considered the most important diplomatic ties on this planet. And the 45th anniversary presents itself as a critical moment for China and the U.S. to further reshape or recalibrate their relationship.
But even for a new start, we need some old habits to kick in. They are principles and political instincts followed by generations of leaders when they make decisions of high importance to their country and of enormous impact on the region or the world.
Just take a walk on the history lane and bring out those old habits.
In 1971, American President Richard Nixon sent his national security adviser Henry Kissinger on a secretive mission to China, exploring possibilities of opening up official exchanges between the two foes. In the following year, Nixon himself made a historic trip to the Middle Kingdom which forever changed the strategic landscape of the world in the intense years of the Cold War.
It was widely believed that in those days both the Chinese and American leadership had made up their minds on official ties. And they needed public engagements to facilitate the process, which resulted in the Ping-Pong diplomacy and the flourishment of other people-to-people exchanges.
However, due to various reasons, mostly domestic difficulties in the U.S., diplomatic ties were not established between Beijing and Washington during the Presidencies of Nixon and his successor Gerald Ford.
Then came in President Jimmy Carter, who took office in 1977.
Yes, the correct answer to the imaginary street quiz in China: it was under the Presidency of Jimmy Carter that China and the U.S. formally established diplomatic ties. China and the U.S. simultaneously made an announcement in December 1978 that Beijing and Washington would establish diplomatic relations starting from January 1, 1979. But due to the time differences between the two countries, the exact date for the public announcement was December 16 for China and December 15 for the U.S.
In the U.S., that decision by Carter, who was in his second year as American President, was described as brave and politically risky. And some Americans believe it was one of the reasons that cost Carter a second term of presidency when in November 1980 he lost to Ronald Regan in the presidential election.
What are the old habits we have drawn on by reviewing that period of history?
Stephen Orlins, president of the National committee on U.S.-China Relations, spoke highly of President Carter’s decision back in 1978 in an opinion piece for The Diplomat on March 11 2023. He noted the initiated diplomatic relations in 1979 “helped keep the peace in Asia for the next 40 years” and laid “the foundation for global economic growth in the years since”.
Orlins went on to call upon today’s American leaders to draw lessons from the history. “Domestic opposition should not prevent the president from acting in the long-term interests of the United States,” Orlins wrote.
That brings out our list of Old Habit #1: Leaders should make decisions for the long-term interests of their country and people. And Old Habit #2: Leaders should not give in to domestic opposition if they believe they act for the interests of their country and people.
What would President Carter summarize the 1979 milestone event?
In an opinion piece published on December 31 2018 by Washington Post to commemorate the 40th anniversary of U.S.-China diplomatic relations, Carter said in 1979, he and his Chinese counterpart were “advancing the cause of peace” when they made the call for opening up official ties. He pointed out that today’s leaders may face a different world, but “the cause of peace remains just as important”. And leaders must bring new vision, courage and ingenuity to new challenges and opportunities.
So Old Habit #3: Leaders should act in advancing the cause of peace for the world. And Old Habit #4: Leader should always have vision and courage.
The world is undergoing tremendous changes. But these old habits are not outdated or outgrown. For leaders to make decisions that would benefit their country, their region and the world, these may serve as golden rules for successful acts and deeds.
Back to the China-U.S. relations.
Since Richard Nixon became the first sitting American president to visit the People’s Republic of China in 1972, every sitting American president since him has visited the country during their tenure of office except for President Carter. President Joe Biden has not visited China since he was sworn in in 2021. But he is still holding the office and whether he would become another exception is inconclusive.
Since he stepped down from the presidency in 1981, Jimmy Carter has visited China for more than a dozen times. The personal engagements have strengthened his conviction “that the United States and China need to build their futures together, for themselves and for humanity at large”.
That could wrap up our list as Old Habits #5: Leaders should always remember that the world’s two leading economies should work together for a joint future for the benefits of themselves and of the humanity.
If I may, I would add another Old Habit as a Chinese.
Jimmy Carter’s birthday was October 1, the same as the People’s Republic of China’s. He once joked that he is 25 years older than the People’s Republic. In 2024, he will be 100 years old while the People’s Republic will be 75.
In this line of thinking, we Chinese believe in destiny. China and the U.S. are meant to work together for the greater good of our planet.
It’s our old habit. Always look forward to something promising.