Following an intensive 72-hour flurry of secret diplomacy, President Carter stunned the world on Friday evening, December 15 with a terse televised announcement that the United States and the People's Republic of China had agreed to establish diplomatic relations as of January 1, 1979.
At the same time, Hua Kuo-feng, China's Premier and Communist Party Chairman read the joint communique to about 100 Western and Chinese reporters in Peking — and afterwards held an unprecedented news conference.
Coincidental with the new agreement, U.S. ties with the Nationalist Chinese government on Taiwan are to be terminated on the same date, with the special defense treaty between the two nations playing out a year later (terms of the treaty stipulate that it can be terminated one year after either party notifies the other of its intent to do so.)
Reaction in Taiwan was, predictably, one of anger. And Nationalist China's thinning ranks of supporters in the U.S. Congress were outraged. Senator Barry Goldwater termed the switch from Taipei to Peking "one of the most cowardly acts ever performed by a President of the United States." He vowed to sue Mr. Carter over the abrogation of the defense treaty. Even some Senate liberals were dismayed that the President took the big leap while congress was in recess — in full realization that earlier in the year the Senate had passed a 94-0 resolution demanding advanced consultation on the Taiwan defense treaty issue.
Reaction around the world, however, was generally positive, from U.S. allies in Europe, to Japan, Singapore, Thailand, even South Korea. The shock was not that it happened — the U.S. had been seeking such a relationship ever since President Nixon's ice-breaker trip in 1972 — but that the final stage toward recognition moved so swiftly. Only in Israel was the reaction basically negative, the mood there reflecting the feeling that if the United States could so easily jettison a loyal ally~ and an ironclad defense treaty with it to boot, then how reliable were U.S. defense commitments to Israel?
How did the on-again-off-again negotiations between Washington and Peking come to a head so quickly? According to the December 25 issue of Time magazine:
"On September 19, Carter prodded the Chinese at his first formal meeting with Ambassador Ch'ai China's envoy in Washington at the White House by again laying out his terms for normalization: Peking must allow the U.S. to keep its economic and cultural ties with the Nationalist 'Chinese and agree, at least tacitly, not to reunite Taiwan with the mainland by force. The Chinese began dropping strong hints that they were getting ready to accept the U.S. terms. In late November, for instance, Teng told a visiting Japanese delegation that diplomatic relations with Tokyo had been restored 'in one second' and that relations with Washington could be restored in 'two seconds.' In diplomacy, a second can be the equivalent of a week, and, in fact, the final stage of the bargaining took only two weeks."
Teng also started saying, apparently for American consumption, that Peking was willing to be very patient over the Taiwan issue, even if it would take a generation or two or more to reach an amicable solution. In the meantime, the Peking leadership, he stressed, was not against Taiwan retaining its economic and social system. "China has no intention of bringing down Taiwan's living standards," said Teng on one occasion.
In an attempt to keep face, China refused to place such peaceful intentions in writing in the joint communique, lest it appear that a foreign power (the U.S.) were dictating the terms of what China considers an "internal dispute." China did not like, but agreed not to contest, either the one-year retention of the U.S.-Taiwan defense treaty or the U.S. position that it could continue to sell Taiwan defensive military equipment even after January 1, 1980.
Washington felt that for the short-term at least, perhaps till the end of the century, heavily-armed Taiwan faced no immediate threat for three reasons: 1.) Mainland China lacks the offensive capacity to overrun the island fortress 120 miles across the Taiwan Straight in what would surely be a terribly costly assault anyway; 2.) China is tied down facing the Soviets along their long mutual border, and 3.) With Peking's new breakout to Japan, the U.S. and the rest of the West, and her determination to modernize swiftly, a bloody showdown with Taiwan, and resulting possible estrangement from her new allies, was out of the question.
Chinese politics can be extremely volatile but the United States is gambling that the "progressive" forces now in charge of Peking will continue to rule for the foreseeable future.
On China's part, the men in Peking want to more fully tap the technological prowess of America in their modernization drive. They had been saying all along that this was possible in its fullest extent only with diplomatic relations. It could be possible also that the Chinese played a bit upon Mr. Carter's own frustration in foreign relations by grasping the olive branch when they did: after the collapse of the Middle East peace offensive, the President was certainly eager to claim a victory elsewhere.
There are two major consequences of America's new open door to China that should be considered. The first deals with the impact upon the Soviet Union, and, in turn, the Soviets' relations with Europe. UPI reported the following on December 16:
"Formal diplomatic relations between the United States and China will make some Soviet military leaders see Peking as a bigger threat, and may result in an increased build-up of Russian troops on the border between the two nations. Some senior American officers see that type of Russian military diversion as not such a bad thing for the United States' NATO alliance.
"While China's armed forces are no match for the military power of the Soviet Union, U.S. sources familiar with Soviet thinking say that makes little difference in the minds of Russian officers. According to a senior U.S. officer acquainted with Soviet generals, 'Their nightmare is a Chinese attack on a second front if they become involved in a European war.'
"The Soviet Union now spends an estimated 20 percent of its annual military budget of around $140 billion on its Far Eastern military establishment. While its new SS-20 medium range nuclear missiles are aimed primarily at Europe, launch sites already have been prepared facing China. More than 40 Soviet army divisions are stationed along the Sino-Soviet frontier. That compares to about 70 targeted against NATO nations. There are others deep inside Russia that could be used on either front."
The Soviet Union's paranoia over China has been undoubtedly increased by the new venture by Washington, even though the U.S. disavows the move as being anti-Soviet. Will this increase the chances of a Moscow overture toward Western Europe, especially Germany?
Secondly — and most important — the remarkable breakthrough between Washington and Peking could very likely increase the opportunity of the fulfillment of Matthew 24:14: "And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come."
Up until now, one-fourth of humanity has been effectively blocked of from the gospel announcement It is Christ who sets before this Church in this age "an open door." Is He the one who is really behind China's remarkable new Open Door to the West and the U.S.? The new year may tell.