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China Policy

During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the most dramatic moment in Sino-American relations occurred on December 15, 1978, when, following months of secret negotiations, the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced that they would recognize one another and establish official diplomatic relations. As part of the agreement, the United States recognized the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, and declared it would withdraw diplomatic recognition from Taiwan (also known as the Republic of China [ROC]).

Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, and Deng Xiaoping during the state dinner for the Vice Premier of China, January 29, 1979. (Jimmy Carter Library)

Prior to 1979, the United States and the People’s Republic of China had never established formal diplomatic relations. In 1949, Chinese Communist Party forces defeated the Government of the Republic of China in the Chinese Civil War and founded the People’s Republic of China, eliminating ROC authority from mainland China. Nonetheless, for the next thirty years, the U.S. Government continued to recognize the Republic of China on Taiwan as the sole legal government over all of China. During that period, the U.S. and PRC Governments had only intermittent contact through forums such as the Sino-U.S. Ambassadorial talks in Warsaw, which began in 1955.

A new era began with a rapprochement during Richard Nixon’s presidency. Nixon and his aide, Henry Kissinger, found ready partners in Mao Zedong, the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, and Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier, who also wanted to improve Sino-U.S. relations. Their efforts resulted in the Shanghai Communiqué, which laid the basis for future cooperation between the two countries even while acknowledging continuing disagreements on the subject of Taiwan. As part of this rapprochement, the two countries opened liaison offices in one another’s capitals in 1973, a time when Taiwan still had an Embassy in Washington. The liaison offices, which in many ways operated as de facto embassies, represented a significant concession by the People’s Republic of China, which opposed the acceptance of “two Chinas” because that implied both were legitimate governments. The U.S. Government placated the People’s Republic of China, and helped set the stage for normalization, by gradually removing military personnel from Taiwan and scaling back its official contact with the ROC Government.

When Carter took office in January 1977, a significant improvement in relations between Communist China and the United States seemed far from inevitable. Presidents before Nixon had failed to make significant progress in improving relations with the People’s Republic of China. President Nixon’s attempt to normalize relations with China during his second term had been frustrated by the Watergate scandal. The collapse of South Vietnam and the opposition of conservative Republicans created an inhospitable environment for pursuing normalization during Gerald Ford’s presidency; any policy shift that could be depicted as appeasing a longstanding communist enemy and abandoning a loyal, anti-communist ally generated significant political resistance.

Officials within the Carter administration debated how to normalize relations with China without damaging relations with the Soviet Union, China’s great rival within the international Communist movement. Nevertheless, Carter and his top aides agreed that the opportunity to normalize relations with China might be fleeting and should not be squandered.In the spring of 1978, Carter decided to proceed with normalization. A handful of top U.S. officials agreed upon instructions, which the President approved, that were sent to the U.S. negotiator Leonard Woodcock, the head of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing. By the terms of the agreement the two sides reached, the United States acknowledged “the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” The United States declared its intention to abrogate the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Republic of China, originally signed in December 1954. Simultaneously, however, the United States declared in the Joint Communiqué that it would “maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.” In Carter’s address to the nation on December 15, 1978, he announced that in accordance with “the Shanghai communiqué, issued on President Nixon’s historic visit, we will continue to have an interest in the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue.” The Joint Communiqué stated that the United States would begin official diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China on January 1, 1979, and that the two countries would open Embassies on March 1.

The exchange of accredited ambassadors and the operation of Embassies enabled both parties to negotiate diplomatic disputes and pursue mutual interests. A number of disagreements arose that required management by both countries. During Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping’s goodwill visit to the United States in January 1979, he informed Carter of the People’s Republic of China’s intention to attack Vietnam in response to that country’s invasion of Cambodia. Carter unsuccessfully attempted to dissuade Deng from pursuing this military action. Another point of contention was the legal framework that Congress erected to enable the people of the United States and Taiwan to continue economic and cultural relations following the U.S. decision to break diplomatic relations. PRC leaders repeatedly expressed displeasure with the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which became law on April 10, 1979. The TRA was influenced by Congressional supporters of Taiwan and stated that it is the policy of the United States “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” In his signing statement, Carter declared that he would use the discretion granted to him by Congress to interpret the TRA “in a manner consistent with our interest in the well-being of the people on Taiwan and with the understandings we reached on the normalization of relations with the People’s Republic of China.” In addition to disagreement over the TRA, U.S.–PRC relations following normalization were impaired by arguments over longstanding financial claims, economic disputes, and the PRC view that the United States was too conciliatory toward the Soviet Union.

Despite such difficulties, U.S.–PRC relations generally improved as the two countries made progress on economic and security issues. Deng’s 1979 trip was extremely successful as he charismatically wooed Congress, the media, and the American people. Journalists depicted the Chinese leader as personable, famously photographing him at a rodeo wearing a ten-gallon hat. On January 31, the United States and People’s Republic of China concluded agreements on various topics including consular relations, academic exchanges, and cooperation in the fields of space technology, high-energy physics, and science and technology policy. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan increased Sino-American military cooperation, despite the objections of Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. The United States and People’s Republic of China also coordinated their other responses to the Soviet incursion, such as the boycott of the Olympic Games in Moscow. The normalization of relations provided both sides with the essential diplomatic mechanisms necessary to manage difficulties and promote common objectives.