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Strategic Collaboration against Soviet Expansionism

Jan 16, 2021
The U.S.-China normalization process began with President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China. What drove the U.S.-China rapprochement was a common desire to counter the strategic expansionism of the Soviet Union. But it was not until after the release of the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations in December 1978 that Beijing and Washington began to make substantive progress in strategic collaboration against Moscow. During the interval, normalization proceeded in fits and starts, constrained by external factors like the Taiwan issue and Soviet-American détente and domestic disruptions such as China’s Cultural Revolution and the Watergate scandal and its aftermath in the United States. By seizing on a historic opportunity to build mutual trust and expand coordination, the Chinese and American leaders managed to change the global balance of power in a direction that well served not only both nations’ security and development interests but also world peace and stability in one of the most consequential periods in the history of Sino-American relations.
Establishing Diplomatic Ties: A New Chapter in Strategic Collaboration
Major factors behind Beijing’s and Washington’s decisions to accelerate the normalization process in 1978 include the stalemated strategic arms limitation talks, Moscow’s growing expansionism in the Third World, and President Carter’s stepped-up human rights diplomacy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. As they prevailed in domestic policy debates in the United States, anti-Soviet hardliners increasingly called for expediting China-U.S. normalization to gain additional leverage against Moscow. At the same time, the deployment of millions of Soviet troops equipped with advanced weaponry along the Chinese-Soviet border over the preceding years and Soviet-backed Vietnamese provocation and aggression in Southeast Asia had pushed Sino-Soviet tensions to new heights. More importantly, after ten years of domestic political upheaval, Beijing had made the strategic decision to focus on economic revival by launching the reform and opening-up program, which required the introduction of American capital, technology, and expertise on a massive scale. It was against this background that the Chinese and American leaders decided to normalize bilateral relations in the service of their national interests.
On the eve of U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s May 1978 visit to Beijing, President Carter instructed him to tell the Chinese that the United States and China shared certain common interests and long-term strategic concerns, the most important of which was their common opposition to global or regional hegemony by any single power. Instead of a tactical visit, President Carter saw Brzezinski’s Beijing trip as “an expression of U.S. strategic interest in a cooperative relationship with China, an interest that was both fundamental and enduring.” Carter wanted Brzezinski to make it clear to the Chinese leaders that the United States had made up its mind to move forward with active negotiations to remove the various obstacles to normalization.[1] Concerned that the (pro-Taiwan) China lobby might try every means to thwart the normalization process, President Carter insisted on the strictest secrecy and only let Brzezinski, Leonard Woodcock, the chief of U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing, and a handful of administration officials to know about the normalization talks.[2]   
An eleventh-hour incident that took place one day before the release of the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations almost derailed the normalization process. In his communication with U.S. officials at the Liaison Office in Beijing, Mr. Brzezinski was surprised to find that there had been serious misunderstandings between Beijing and Washington over the issue of arms sales to Taiwan. While Beijing thought the “no new commitments” proposal on arms sales agreed by Washington meant that the United States would stop selling arms to Taiwan after establishing diplomatic ties with the PRC, Washington’s interpretation was that, after the one-year moratorium on arms sales, the United States would reserve the right to sell defensive weapons in the future but agreed to conduct sales in a limited and prudent way. Brzezinski instructed Woodcock to seek an immediate meeting with Mr. Deng Xiaoping to make a clarification. Deng exploded with fury after Woodcock’s presentation, thinking that continued arms sales would make unification with Taiwan through persuasion much more difficult. Woodcock explained that after normalization everything would change and solving problems like arms sales would be made much easier. Finally, Deng decided to go forward with normalization while China reserved the right to return to the subject of arms sales. Hours later the joint communiqué was announced simultaneously in Beijing and Washington.[3] 
Deng Xiaoping’s state visit to the United States twenty-eight days after the establishment of diplomatic relations—the first ever visit by a paramount leader of China—was welcomed across all sectors of American society. The American people found in Deng Xiaoping a revolutionary-turned-reformist politician committed to China’s revival and opening-up. During the visit, Chinese and American leaders exchanged their views on the international situation and coordinated their positions toward the Soviet Union. As Brzezinski recalled, Carter and Deng were frank and direct and their discussions were more like those between allies than between adversaries.[4] As the national security adviser saw it, Deng’s trip had “transformed from what initially had been conceived of as a formal diplomatic act into a summit meeting of global geopolitical significance.”[5] Cyrus Vance, then the secretary of state, also believed that “the relaxation of tensions between the United States and China could have a dramatic impact on the political and strategic landscape of Asia, and on the world.”[6] Speaking at a reception held by the U.S. Liaison Office marking this new chapter in China-U.S. relations on January 1, 1979, Deng Xiaoping predicted that the far-reaching impact of China-U.S. normalization on the bilateral relationship and world peace would fully play out with each passing day.[7] Deng’s remark turned out to be prescient. Built on a growing strategic consensus on the global balance of power and evolving Soviet threat, the resumption of China-U.S. strategic ties enabled Beijing and Washington to significantly expand coordination on countering Moscow’s and its allies’ expansionism in the following years, transforming the regional and global power configurations in favor of both countries’ interests and world peace and security.
A Tacit Alliance in the Sino-Vietnamese War
Although Hanoi had received substantial amount of Chinese aid—from arms and combat troops to military training and moral support—during the Vietnam War, it began to tilt strategically toward Moscow after the war and pursue an expansionist regional strategy vis-à-vis neighbors like Cambodia, China, and Thailand. Deng Xiaoping decided to meet the Moscow-Hanoi axis’s growing provocation with China’s own military action. He asked for a private meeting with President Carter during his Washington trip to notify him of Beijing’s intention to “teach Vietnam a lesson,” assuring Carter that China’s punitive military operations would be limited in scope and duration. Deng said that China felt compelled to spoil Soviet plans to dominate Southeast Asia through its alliance with Vietnam. President Carter, although saw eye-to-eye with Deng on the gravity of the Soviet military threat and the strategic necessity of pushing it back through coordinated efforts at the bilateral, regional, and global levels, urged restraint and prudence on China’s part and warned Deng about possible international repercussions. After the Sino-Vietnam War broke out in mid-February 1979, the Carter administration issued demands for the withdrawal of Chinese forces from Vietnam and a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia, and a parallel message to the Soviets urging them not to take any actions, in particular military deployments, that might exacerbate the situation. Brzezinski later recalled that “thanks to Carter’s steadfastness, the new American-Chinese relationship had successfully weathered its baptism of fire.”[8]
After three critical weeks of punitive mission, the Chinese kept their promise by pulling troops out of Vietnam and continued to be a U.S.-aligned strategic bulwark against the Soviet bloc’s expansionism in Southeast Asia. Beijing had achieved its stated goal of giving the Vietnamese “an appropriate limited lesson” by “imposing very major costs” on Hanoi and discrediting its Soviet patron. When it came to joint U.S.-China efforts to push back against Soviet expansionism, the Carter administration preferred international isolation and diplomatic pressure to military actions, but its de facto alignment with Beijing (by sharing with the Chinese U.S. intelligence on Soviet military deployment on a daily basis) during the three-week Sino-Vietnamese conflict represented an unprecedented level of bilateral strategic coordination. Having encountered strong resistance from Beijing, Moscow began to shift the focus of regional expansionism from Southeast Asia to a country much closer: Afghanistan.
China-U.S. Entente against Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan
On the Christmas eve of 1979, Moscow airlifted three divisions of Soviet troops into Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan, marking the beginning of its decade-long occupation of this landlocked country and sounding the death knell for Soviet-American détente. The ensuring years saw an intensifying rivalry between the Soviet Union on the one hand and the United States and China on the other. As hardline positions gained traction in Carter’s White House, the president began to push back against Soviet aggression in Central Asia and around the world. After the Soviet forces got bogged down in a protracted guerrilla war, Moscow began to search for an exit strategy that involved the relaxation of Soviet-Chinese tensions. Beijing put forward three conditions for a Soviet-Chinese rapprochement: withdrawing Soviet troops from the China-Soviet border and from Mongolia; pulling Soviet forces out of Afghanistan; and persuading Hanoi to withdraw from Cambodia. Washington welcomed the Beijing-Moscow rapprochement and approved of Beijing’s terms, thinking that the last two conditions in particular might also help ease U.S.-Soviet tensions. To stabilize its foreign relations amid domestic chaos resulting from perestroika and glasnost, Moscow finally accepted Beijing’s terms and in February 1989 announced the completion of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Two months later, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing, ending more than two decades of antagonism between the world’s two largest communist powers. Beijing-Washington strategic coordination against the Soviet war in Afghanistan, which had involved joint clandestine intelligence operations and the supply of military matériel to the Afghan mujahideen, imposed huge costs on Moscow and forced it to seek détente with Beijing amid a global strategic retrenchment. The reduction of tensions between Beijing, Moscow, and Washington facilitated the solution of the Afghanistan and Cambodia problems, stabilized Central and Southeast Asia, and brought the global balance of power into a new equilibrium in the service of world security and peace. 
Military Cooperation: A New Dimension of the Entente
The Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan expanded the scope and depth of China-U.S. military cooperation that had began soon after normalization. Washington lifted export controls on some military equipment to help the Chinese upgrade some of their outdated weapons systems. Exchanges between senior military officials, academies, technicians, and experts also expanded. In his January 1980 visit to China, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown highlighted the importance of bilateral military exchanges at a banquet by pointing out that Beijing and Washington had “begun to realize the benefits of contacts between our defense establishments,” and were “prepared to discuss arrangements for expanding such professional contacts and exchanges.” In a thinly veiled warning to Moscow, he emphasized that if other countries “threaten the shared interests of the United States and China, we can respond with complementary actions in the field of defense as well as diplomacy.”[9] Nearly one year and a half later, in June 1981, President Reagan issued a directive governing technology transfer to Beijing which stated that Washington “supports a secure, friendly and modernized China” and “allowed for approval of equipment and technology at technical levels twice that approved for the U.S.S.R (prior to their invasion of Afghanistan).”[10] The substantial military cooperation between Beijing and Washington in the 1980s was of limited value in a strictly military sense as a cash-strapped China having just emerged out of a decade of political chaos still remained far behind its northern neighbor in military technology and equipment. But extensive military exchanges between the two erstwhile adversaries boasted enormous political significance, demonstrating to the Soviets that U.S.-China strategic collaboration could cover a whole range of issues of common concern, from economics and trade to defense and technology. Unfortunately, the good working relationship between the two countries’ military establishments did not last long. The extensive military exchanges ended abruptly following the Tiananmen incident of 1989 and in the decades afterward were never fully restored.
Taiwan: Constant Irritant that Erodes Mutual Trust
The Taiwan question has been the thorniest issue in China-U.S. relations. One major obstacle to China-U.S. normalization was the official ties Washington had maintained with Taiwan. After the United States severed diplomatic ties with the island, continued U.S. arms sales to and unofficial contacts with Taiwan remained a source of tensions between Beijing and Washington. The United States moved closer to Taiwan soon after Ronald Reagan came into office, who announced the plan to sell advanced weaponry to Taipei. Deng Xiaoping warned that Beijing considered the “Taiwan issue sufficiently important that it[China] was prepared to return not to the U.S.-China relations of the 1970s but to the adversarial relations of the 1960s if it[the United States] officially recognized Taiwan.”[11] After much deliberation, President Reagan dropped the initial plan to sell advanced defense articles to Taipei and sent his vice president, George H. W. Bush, to Beijing to smooth over disagreements on the Taiwan issue. While in Beijing, Vice President Bush was invited to a private meeting with Deng Xiaoping with only the U.S. ambassador to China and the interpreters present. The small group remained for an hour, during which time Bush and Deng reached an informal understanding: the United States did not stop arms sales to Taiwan, but it placed limits on the sales which would taper off in the years to come.[12] The understanding that emerged from the private meeting later served as the basis for the United States-China Joint Communiqué on United States Arms Sales to Taiwan—the third and last of the three foundational documents for U.S.-PRC relations. The Taiwan issue was again set aside and not settled.
The Taiwan issue has since remained a constant irritant in the Sino-American relationship. It had taken seven years for Beijing and Washington to find a modus vivendi to get around the Taiwan issue to establish diplomatic relations. During that period significant disagreements over the issue nearly upended the normalization process. Even after normalization, the issue continued to erode mutual trust and impeded high-level strategic collaboration. President Reagan’s oscillation on Taiwan and the powerful Taiwan lobby in U.S. Congress brought the Chinese leaders’ attention to the limits of bilateral collaboration. At the same time, Moscow, jostling for an advantageous position in the China-U.S.-USSR triangle, signaled that it sought no confrontation with Beijing. Since 1982, Beijing began to move away from what Chairman Mao had dubbed One Line policy—aligned with countries situated along the same north latitude, namely, the United States, Japan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Europe—toward a more independent foreign policy emphasizing greater solidarity with the Third World. As Deng Xiaoping put it in his opening remarks at a party congress in September 1982, “No foreign nations should expect China to become their vassal and neither should they expect us to swallow the bitter pill of undermining Chinese interests.”[13] After years of vehement denunciations of Soviet expansionism, the Chinese commentariat began to revive their criticisms of the U.S.-USSR contest for world hegemony.[14] 
Beijing’s foreign policy shift also stemmed from a fundamental change in its domestic priority from politics to the economy. China’s reform and opening-up required a peaceful environment, including a stable relationship with the Soviet Union, its northern neighbor. An independent foreign policy reflected the diminished importance of Beijing-Washington collaboration against Moscow. The growth of China-U.S. relations hinged more on shared interests in closer economic, trade, and cultural links than on a common perception of strategic threat emanating from a third party. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union and with it the end of the Cold War, expanded trade links and cultural exchanges served as a new basis for China-U.S. relations, helping the two powers weather through a number of crisis moments. 
Lessons and Ways Ahead
First, when formulating their respective foreign policies, Chinese and American leaders must carefully examine the international economic, political, and security landscapes and seize on the strategic opportunities presented to forge an durable bilateral relationship and global balance of power that help advance both nations’ security and development interests. While Deng Xiaoping saw in closer China-U.S. collaboration an opportunity to introduce American capital and technology to power China’s economic growth and push back against Soviet expansionism in its periphery, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan found a reliable partner to thwart Moscow’s global ambitions. The last four decades have proven that a strong and constructive Sino-American relationship must always be built on shared interests and common concerns, rather than on any unrealistic, ideology-driven grand visions. Wise political leadership, strong determination, careful planning, faithful implementation, and effective communication mechanisms are all essential elements of an enduring relationship. Personal rapport and private communication between top leaders of both nations are also indispensable to stabilizing bilateral relations in times of crisis. As the China-U.S. normalization process has shown, personal interaction between leaders, in the form of summits, hot-line communication, and correspondence, can help defuse crises, reach understanding, and reduce disruptive effects of domestic politics. Today, as the four high-level dialogue mechanisms have been suspended and the bilateral relationship continues to deteriorate, top leaders’ candid dialogues aimed at building trust and identifying shared interests are all the more important for preventing across-the-board confrontation.
Second, even if there was a glaring power gap between China and the United States at the time of normalization, the leaders of the two nations believed that, far beyond the bilateral scope, a strong, stable, and constructive China-U.S. relationship would exert a lasting impact on the whole world’s peace, stability, and prosperity. Strategic collaboration brought real geopolitical and geoeconomic benefits to Washington and Beijing. For example, joint efforts to counter Soviet expansionism in Vietnam and Afghanistan helped anchor peace and stability in Asia and the world. Today, third party threats are no longer a major factor driving bilateral ties. Washington and Beijing increasingly see each other as their chief competitor in a world of uncertainty. In the face of proliferating global issues and transnational challenges, top policymakers in Beijing and Washington should examine the bilateral ties in light of humanity’s peace, security, and development. What they should do is to establish a new, robust framework that transcends bilateral competition and conflict, a framework that is grounded in new realities and capable of not only managing bilateral disputes and differences but also facilitating coordination on global risks that threaten China, the United States, and the world at large. Bilateral cooperation in third countries, economic and trade links, and cultural exchanges should be given priority in the framework. Climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, global economic recovery, and regional hot-button issues should be domains of greater bilateral collaboration rather than sources of competition and confrontation. In this time of unprecedented tensions, more serious efforts should be made to expand economic, trade, cultural links to stabilize bilateral ties.
Third, mutual understanding, respect, and accommodation of one another’s core interests should continue to be the basis of Sino-American relations. Matters concerning China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, such as the Taiwan question and maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas, are highly sensitive issues affecting China’s national pride and honor and political security. Washington and Beijing must become more attuned to each other’s core interests and handle these issues with utmost care and prudence. Respective national interests will be best served if both can draw clear and credible red lines on issues that are regarded as potential sources of conflict. Boundaries should be set for competition so that discord on one issue does not necessarily spill over into other potential areas of cooperation. For Beijing, mutual respect and accommodation begin with reaffirming its policy that China does not seek to overturn but will help maintain the existing international order and support multilateral concerted efforts to reform it. Beijing should also make clear that it welcomes Washington’s leadership role in building a multilateralist international system and an open, inclusive Asia-Pacific order. At the same time, Washington should respect China’s sovereignty and development interests and refrain from doing anything that might be regarded by Beijing as attempts to challenge China’s regime legitimacy. If the ultimate goal of Washington’s China policy is a “poor, war-torn, and chaotic” China, instead of a “prosperous, peace-loving, and stable” one, then the very foundation of a healthy and durable bilateral relationship will be gone.

[1] Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981 (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1983), Appendix I, pp. 207-209.
[2] James Mann, About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship with China, From Nixon to Clinton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), pp. 89-90.
[3] Patrick Tyler, A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China (New York: A Century Foundation Book, 1999), pp. 268-269; and Michel Oksenberg, “Reconsiderations: A Decade of Sino-American Relations,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Fall 1982), p. 184.
[4] Ezra F. Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 338.
[5] Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle, p. 403.
[6] Memo, Vance to Carter, 1/26/79, Scope Paper for the Visit of Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping of the People’s Republic of China, January 29-Febrary 5, 1979, vertical file, China, Jimmy Carter Library.
[7] “Vice Premier Deng Attends Reception Thrown by Mr. Woodcock and Predicts China-U.S. Normalization’s Impact Will Play out With Each Passing Day [邓副总理出席伍德科克主任的招待会并祝酒,中美建交的深远影响将日益充分显示出来],” People’s Daily, January 2, 1979.
[8] Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle, pp. 412-414; and Patrick Tyler, A Great Wall, p. 279.
[9]U.S. State Department ed., American Foreign Policy. Current Documents. 1977-1980, 1983, p. 1001.
[10] U.S. State Department ed., American Foreign Policy. Current Documents. 1983, 1985, p. 1005.
[11] Ezra F. Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, p. 482. 
[12] John H. Holdridge, Crossing the Divide: An Inside Account of the Normalization of U.S.-China Relations (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 1997), p. 226.
[13] “Deng Xiaoping’s Opening Speech at the CPC’s 12th National Congress on September 1, 1982 [邓小平在1982年9月1日召开的党的十二大开幕式上的讲话],” People’s Daily, September 2, 1982.

[14] Tao Wenzhao, A History of China-U.S. Relations [中美关系史], Vol. 3 (Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 2016), pp. 133-139. 

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