Deng Xiaoping's approach toward Sino-US ties still provides insight today

By Zhang Xin Source:Global Times Published: 2017/2/19 19:42:50

Deng aimed to complete his predecessors' unfinished mission to normalize relations with the US

Thanks to Deng's wisdom and persistence, the enforcement of reform and opening-up policy was unaffected by the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident and ensuing negative international opinion

The calm and confident way in which how Deng dealt with Sino-US relations can be instructive for today's Chinese leaders at a time when Trump's presidency is causing uncertainty in bilateral ties

Citizens in Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong Province, visit a portrait of Deng Xiaoping on Sunday, who passed away that day 20 years ago. Photo: CFP

"When Deng Xiaoping visited the US [in 1979], I was a university student. I read newspaper reports [about the trip] almost word by word, including every single piece of news in the People's Daily," recalled Qian Jiang, journalist and author of Deng Xiaoping and The Establishment of Sino-US Diplomatic Relations, in his blog.

China and the US established diplomatic ties on January 1, 1979, when Deng was serving as China's vice premier and was de facto paramount leader of the Communist Party of China. He then paid an official visit to the US at the invitation of US President Jimmy Carter in late January. As the first visit by a Chinese leader to the US in history, Deng's trip caused a sensation in the US and around the world.

"Documentaries recorded that Deng's nine-day trip changed the view of the US government and wider society towards China. While the establishment of bilateral ties meant the US legally recognized the People's Republic of China, his visit made it into an emotional recognition. He broke the stereotype that Westerners had about Chinese with his humor and volubility," said Liu Yawei, director of the China Program at The Carter Center.

"Deng's boosting of the establishment of Sino-US ties created a peaceful environment for the two countries. For decades, peace has been the cornerstone of the bilateral diplomacy, though there have been frictions and disagreements at times," Qian told the Global Times.

The total volume of Sino-American trade has exploded in recent decades. According to statistics from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce released in January, Sino-US trade volume today is 211 times greater than it was 38 years ago, going from $2.5 billion in 1979 to $519.6 billion in 2016. China surpassed Canada to become the US's biggest trade partner in 2015, according to statistics issued by the United States Census Bureau.

Without Deng's courage and determination, Sino-US ties wouldn't have been normalized in 1979, as there were still a lot of obstacles and difficulties at that moment which are explained in Ezra Vogel's book Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, said Liu."Despite the great many obstacles and difficulties, Deng decided to establish diplomatic ties with the US because he saw the big picture of China's future development and the significance of Sino-US ties to the world. He chose to shelve the disputes," Liu told the Global Times.

Being pragmatic in dealing with Sino-US relations is something we need to learn from Deng's approach, Liu argued upon the 20th anniversary of Deng's death this Sunday. As, in the words of former US President Barack Obama, the Sino-US relationship will "shape the 21st Century," Qian and Liu stressed that it's important for the two sides to enhance mutual trust today.

US President Jimmy Carter welcomes Deng Xiaoping in Washington, US. Deng made the first official visit by a Chinese leader to the US from January 28 to February 5, 1979, opening a new era in China-US relations. Photo: Gilbert UZAN/CFP

Creating history

According to Qian, a normalized Sino-US relationship was already high on China's diplomatic agenda before Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai passed away in 1976. Beijing expected to establish ties with Washington during President Richard Nixon's second term after he made his historic visit to China in 1972, though this was thwarted by his resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

After Zhou and Mao died, it was difficult to bring the topic back to the top of the agenda again, as domestic opposition against China building a friendship with the "US imperialists" remained strong.

But Deng was determined to complete his predecessors' unfinished mission, Qian told the Global Times. On the other hand, in the process of secret diplomatic negotiations between China and the US, Deng became confident that other domestic actors would allow him to take action on US-related diplomacy, said Qian.

Qian believes that Deng was determined to do all he could to thaw the Sino-US relationship. "He was determined to lead China toward the road of reform and opening-up, and China had to work on the Sino-US relationship first if it wanted to open up," said Qian.

The normalization of China's relations with the US and the normalization of China's economy, marked by the announcement of the reform and opening-up policy at the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of CPC in December, 1978, are widely considered complementary to each other and mutually reinforcing.

"Deng's diplomatic approach was to proceed from the actual situation, which means he paid attention to the economy and national interest instead of conceptions and doctrines. This is still instructive today," said Qian.

Liu believes that Deng played an important role in difficult phases of the development of Sino-US relations.

"For example, when China's diplomacy faced a great challenge from the international community after the events of June 1989, the Bush administration was under a great pressure to sever US' relations with China; Deng demonstrated to the world that China would stick to the reform and opening-up policy by his South China tour and the important speeches he made during the trip in 1992," said Liu.

Mutual trust a must

Compared with the Deng Xiaoping period, when China had to rely on the US for support, there's now space for the two countries to compete. Experts claim that enhancing mutual trust and understanding between China and the US is especially important under such circumstances.

Qian warned that the level of mutual understanding between China and the US is uneven.

"China doesn't have a long history of studying the US. While we only have a general understanding of the US, our counterpart has gone into detail in a lot of studies about China," said Qian.

Liu believes China should focus on doing its own business well, and try to shelve disputes over regional issues like the South China Sea.

US President Donald Trump has seemed to challenge the foundations of Sino-US ties. Bilateral relations took a hit in December 2016 when Trump threatened to use the one-China policy as leverage in trade talks. The tense atmosphere was only relaxed after he said he would honor the policy in a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping in February. In addition, Trump seems to oppose globalization, and has threatened to impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. His Defense Secretary Jim Mattis just reaffirmed US commitment to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea, which China considers a threat to its security.

"Actually the Korean Peninsula issue can be a good opportunity for China and the US to cooperate and work out a resolution," said Liu.

Liu believes the Chinese government has done a good job and has been "poised and low-key" in dealing with Sino-US ties since last November, when Trump won the US Presidency and brought bilateral relations into a bumpy period. For example, when Trump took protocol-breaking  a phone call from Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen, Beijing brushed it off as a 'petty trick' by Taipei. Being calm and confident in dealing with Sino-US ties is what China's current leaders should learn from Deng's approach, he said, adding that both sides should work on enhancing mutual trust.

"It takes two to tango. The way Sino-US ties have developed is influenced by the combined forces from the two sides," said Liu, adding that both sides should keep calm in front of conspiracy-like misunderstandings.

"Is the US really trying to contain China? Does China really expect to dominate the world and replace the US with its rise? We should often ask these questions of ourselves."


Newspaper headline: Past pragmatism

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