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Foreign Policy

Refuting the “Disruptors of the Status Quo” in US-China Ties

Sep 19 , 2014

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, delivering the ninth annual Barnett-Oksenberg lecture in Shanghai on September 9, spoke of his historic decision to establish diplomatic relations with China some 35 years ago.

Stephen Harner

In a voice undiminished in his 90th year, Carter recalled having conducted negotiations in 1978 directly with Deng Xiaoping in strict secrecy, limiting communications on the U.S. side to his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, China scholar Michael Oksenberg, and the first U.S. ambassador to China, then head of the United States Liaison Office (USLO) in Beijing and former President of the United Auto Workers, Leonard Woodcock.

For your reference, in 1978, I was a Foreign Service Officer in the USLO’s economic section and working with Ambassador Woodcock, as well as Deputy Chief of Mission, and later ambassador to China, J. Stapleton Roy. But of course I was as surprised as almost everyone else at the simultaneous announcement in Beijing and Washington on December 15 that diplomatic relations would be formally established on January 1, 1979.

In his talk Carter explained how he deliberately kept the negotiations secret from the State Department, within which he knew were persons opposed to normalization. Such people, representing powerful vested interests in the status quo, would, he knew, try to derail his plan to correct history.

Ever since he, as a U.S. navy submarine crew member, had called on the port of Qingdao in 1949, Carter felt that the United States had missed a historically precious opportunity to recognize the new Chinese government, and that the people of both countries had paid a heavy price for this mistake.

Carter applauded Nixon’s opening to China and the signing of the Shanghai Communiqué in 1972. Upon assuming office in 1977, he instructed Brzezinski to initiate contact with China’s leaders with the aim of completing normalization.

This month in Shanghai, Carter reemphasized the imperative strategic and humanistic logic of positive, proactive U.S.-China cooperation in pursuit of peace.

Tragically and alarmingly, however, representatives of vested interests in a pernicious status quo hostile to positive change in the U.S.-China relationship, of the kind identified and successfully elided by Carter in 1978, still exist, even in such presumed to be impartial and authoritative places as The Washington Post.

This was proven by an opinion piece in the September 14 edition titled “China’s ‘creeping invasion’” and written by deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl.

Diehl’s article was datelined Tokyo. He had been talking too, and in his piece speaks for, the Japanese government officials who would defend the Abe government’s outrageous refusal even to acknowledge that the sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is in dispute, thereby characterizing China’s fully justified patrols in the area as “incursions” and “probing.”

But the main theme of Diehl’s one-sided, tendentious piece is “that Asia remains peaceful, if far from tranquil…reflects the difference between Xi’s China and other would-be disrupters of the global status quo, such as [Russian President] Putin.” Diehl continues:

Unable to modernize Russia’s economy or satisfy its middle class, Putin has made a risky bet that nationalist adventurism will sustain his regime. Xi, in contrast, appears to be settling into comfortable control over a country whose economic and military strength is still rapidly expanding. Beijing’s assault on the post-Cold War order can be more patient and subtle.

….Without exception, Japanese officials and analysts I spoke to here over a week believe China has not moderated its ambition to replace the United States as the dominant power in Asia. But it aims to avoid the sort of crisis–and Western pushback–Russia has provoked by moving in small increments, interspersed with tactical retreats when necessary. The result, over time, could be as momentous as a war. “Some people call it the creeping invasion,” said Akio Takahara, a China expert at Tokyo University.

Readers of China-US Focus are justified in feeling deep frustration when reading commentary like this, as it reveals a dominant intellectual and policy orientation in Washington that is no less hostile and potentially obstructive to positive change in U.S.-China relations than that of three or four decades ago.

Today, we are slightly incredulous that President Carter, and Nixon before him, had to overcome an effective American denial of the very existence of a sovereign China. Today’s malevolent, self-interested blindness is toward who is, or should be, “dominant” in Asia.

It is facile, but no less necessary, to note one simple fact: Look at a map of Asia. One does not see the United States. The United States is not an Asian country. By what right or logic, then, can the United States presume that it should dominate this region?

Asia is home to several of the world’s oldest and most highly advanced civilizations, the largest nation-states, and the largest economies. Foremost, indeed, “dominant” among them by every objective measure, except one, is China.

The one exception is military power. In this aspect, the United States – a non-Asian country – has, since World War II, maintained unchallengeable superiority and regional hegemony, countenancing no resistance, opposition, or parity.

And it is precisely this unnatural, unjustified U.S. military power present in forward bases and alliances with Japan, Korea, Australia, and the Philippines that is the main cause of regional instability – preventing the evolution of a natural, organic order of comity among and conflict resolution by and between Asian states.

This is the “post-Cold War order,” the status quo, which Diehl’s Washington Post and his interlocutors in Japan claim warrant protection from the “would-be disrupters” of China.

Again, it is useful to think back to the period of U.S.-China normalization. Who were the “disputers of the global status quo” then? They were Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping. These far-sighted statesmen disrupted a status quo that was dangerous and detrimental to peace and to the fortunes of their people.

Today’s status quo is not so different. China’s leaders see this and are proactively promoting change. History is waiting for U.S. leaders to join them.

Stephen M. Harner is a former U.S. State Department official (FSO), international banker, and consultant in China and Japan. He is a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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