World & Nation

From the archives: U.S.-China Strains Surface; Basis of Relationship Shifts

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- At the time, Republican presidential contender Ronald Reagan called it “a shabby, needless blow.” His intra-party rival, George Bush, branded it “an abject American retreat.” And then-Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) termed it “unconscionable.”

Despite such criticism, 10 years ago today, on Jan. 1, 1979, the Jimmy Carter Administration broke formal U.S. ties with Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

“We are recognizing a simple reality,” President Carter said.

But, as a matter of American foreign policy, it had been anything but simple. For nearly three decades, the United States had refused to recognize the Communist regime in Beijing and had pretended that the Chinese Nationalists on Taiwan were the government for all of China.

Now, 10 years later, the entire relationship between the United States and China has changed. New assumptions govern the behavior of both nations, and U.S. scholars predict that in the next few years the two governments may find themselves in increasing conflict with one another on a number of foreign policy questions, such as the Middle East and Cambodia.

“It seems to me that China and the United States won’t be as close as they were before,” said Thomas W. Robinson of the American Enterprise Institute. “There has to be a certain distancing on both sides.”

On the one hand, during the last decade the U.S. recognition of Beijing--and its avoidance of official dealings with Taiwan--has become an established, accepted fact in American domestic politics.

President Reagan, once one of Taiwan’s closest friends in American politics, honored the U.S. recognition of Beijing last month by saying he is confident that the United States and China will “forge even stronger ties and build a safer, more prosperous world.” Taiwan, meanwhile, has managed to survive and prosper despite its diplomatic isolation.

No Longer in Tandem

On the other hand, the United States and China no longer operate in close tandem with one another in international affairs in the way that they did a decade ago. The common bond of shared opposition to the Soviet Union has frayed as the United States and China separately seek warmer ties with the government of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

“There is an increasing sense that the era in which the bilateral relationship (between the United States and China) was based importantly on opposition to Moscow has ended,” University of Washington Prof. Nicholas R. Lardy wrote recently.

During the last two years the United States and China have been at odds over a number of issues.

Chinese Arms Sales an Issue

U.S. officials voiced bitter complaints about China’s arms sales to the Middle East, including the sale of Silkworm anti-ship missiles to Iran and intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia. China took umbrage at U.S. congressional resolutions denouncing China’s policies on human rights and in Tibet.

As if to symbolize the current atmosphere of mistrust, China recently imposed new travel restrictions on American diplomats working at consulates in the Chinese cities of Shenyang and Shanghai. The United States called these curbs “unreasonable” and countered by slapping new limits on personnel at the Chinese Consulate in Chicago.

That sort of reciprocal nastiness would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.

In the first place, the United States and China did not even have any diplomats living and working in the heartland of each other’s territory. Second, both nations were eager to set aside all sources of conflict at the time to work together against the perceived Soviet threat.

Wanted Strategic Partner

“The United States didn’t have too much choice,” said one West European diplomat who follows Chinese affairs. “China was looking for a strategic partner against the Soviet Union. It found two countries who were willing to play the game: Japan and the United States.”

Although President Richard M. Nixon had moved to normalize ties with Beijing during his historic 1972 visit to China, neither he nor his successor, President Gerald R. Ford, was able to establish diplomatic relations with the Communist regime. They were never able to overcome the strong support for Taiwan’s Nationalist regime in the right wing of the Republican Party.

Consider, for example, the time then-Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) resorted to strong-arm tactics against Ford and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger.

One day in May, 1976, Goldwater sent a private ultimatum to the Ford White House. He said he had heard a radio report that the Ford Administration was planning to establish diplomatic relations with “Red China,” either before or after the November elections.

‘Don’t Intend to Stay Quiet’

“It doesn’t make any sense to me to forgo our friends on Taiwan and I don’t intend to stay quiet about it, so please within 24 hours let me know what the truth is, and I mean the truth,” Goldwater wrote. He threatened to withdraw political support for Ford, who was then being challenged by Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination.

According to files at the Gerald R. Ford presidential library, Ford and Kissinger were forced to cave in. Within a day, Kissinger called Goldwater and gave him the assurances that were necessary to avoid a public dispute.

It was left to Carter, a Democratic President, to take the political heat of recognizing China, and he, too, delayed doing so until soon after the 1978 congressional elections. When Carter finally made the public announcement, on Dec. 15, 1978, he was immediately savaged by conservative Republicans.

Within a month, Reagan was not only criticizing Carter’s recognition of Beijing, but also advocating “continuation of government-to-government relations between the United States and Taiwan.”

Reagan Brought Testy Period

Reagan’s arrival in the White House precipitated a testy period in which China was unsure how much support the new President would give to Taiwan. The tension eased with a 1982 agreement limiting U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and, ultimately, with Reagan’s own election-year visit to China in 1984.

During that trip, the President minimized the ideological differences with China that had once preoccupied American conservatives by referring to China as a “so-called Communist country.”

By the mid-1980s, the United States and China began to set aside--or perhaps postpone for the future--their disputes over Taiwan. The two countries even began to collaborate on a series of military exchanges, with Pentagon officials making regular visits to China and leaders of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army touring military installations in the United States.

But the two sides began to fight over other issues. China, sensitive to charges by Third World countries that it was aligning itself too closely with the United States, announced that it was conducting an “independent” foreign policy. The United States began to complain about China’s arms sales overseas and to worry about China’s continuing support for the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Trade and Students

Whenever the two sides bicker, U.S. officials explain that ties with China remain strong. They point to the increasing trade between the two countries--more than $13 billion this year--and the high number of Chinese students, an estimated 32,000 to 40,000, being educated at American universities.

One senior Reagan Administration official said last year that China and the United States now have a “mature” relationship, suggesting that the two countries are like a married couple, able to withstand a good fight once in a while.

Some American scholars found such bland explanations irritating. “If I hear one more State Department official talk about a ‘mature relationship’ with China, I’m going to scream,” said Robinson. “It’s as if the Chinese were juveniles before now.”

Indeed, although U.S. officials have gone to great lengths to stress the calm and continuity in Sino-American relations, the underlying American attitudes toward China have been changing in some significant ways during the last decade.

Deng Toured U.S.

Ten years ago, U.S. officials pinned their hopes for China’s future largely on China’s top political leadership. Within weeks after diplomatic relations were established in 1979, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made a triumphal tour of the United States. U.S. officials were effusive in their praise of Deng and the reform program he was beginning to launch in China.

Now, Deng is 84, and some American officials and scholars have suggested privately that he is becoming arbitrary and erratic in his leadership, in much the same way as did Mao Tse-tung in the final years before his death in 1976. Last spring, for example, Deng seemed to call for a lifting of price controls and then to pull back in the face of a spurt of inflation.

U.S. officials are also critical of some of the Chinese leaders who may succeed Deng. Speaking of Chinese Premier Li Peng, who was trained and educated in the Soviet Union, one Reagan Administration official said recently: “Li Peng just doesn’t understand how a market economy works. Things won’t really move in China until after his years in power.”

These days, American hopes for China seem to rest not on its political elite, but on broader, long-range developments in Chinese society--particularly the tens of thousands of young students being educated in the United States and the market-oriented economic reforms that are taking hold in China at the grass-roots.

Divided Over Policy

At the moment, there appear to be serious divisions among American policy-makers and scholars about how the United States should approach China in the next few years.

Some American experts say that the United States should now base its ties to China primarily on economic cooperation and shift focus away from strategic factors such as joint opposition to the Soviet Union. “The relationship (with China) from the beginning has been premised far too much on anti-Soviet factors,” Lardy said.

But one Reagan Administration official, who said that he personally agrees with this argument, acknowledged: “There are still people in senior policy ranks in the United States who view China strictly in strategic terms.”

In a recent speech in San Francisco, U.S. Ambassador to China Winston Lord declared: “Contrary to some fashionable pundits, I strongly believe strategic factors will remain crucial to our cooperation with China. . . . They are more muted and nuanced than before. But our two nations share a continuing stake in preserving global and regional balances.”

Ten years ago, at the time they established diplomatic relations, the United States and China were drawn together by their eagerness to join hands against the Soviet Union. Now, American scholars say, nothing between China and the United States is quite so easy.

“If people want a clear, compelling basis for U.S.-China relations these days, there just isn’t going to be one,” Harry Harding of the Brookings Institution said. “Except that we are two big countries that are going to have to live with one another.”

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