The Normalization Agreement between China and the United States

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE FALL AND RISE OF CHINA

By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

China’s new leaders had been unwilling to make a deal with the Americans in the summer of 1977, but by the latter half of 1978, a series of events had transpired that made them change their minds. By the late autumn of 1978, Chinese leaders accepted that the normalization process needed to be completed with all due speed.

An image of Carter and Brzezinski meeting the Chinese side in the Oval Office
President Jimmy Carter was advised that it was time for the United States to “play the China card” against the USSR. (Image: National Archives and Records Administration/Public domain)

Chinese About-face

Three things contributed to the Chinese about-face when it came to making a deal with the Americans.

The first was Deng Xiaoping’s success in eclipsing Hua Guofeng and in promoting his own reform program. With the Communist Party now committed to all-out economic modernization and global engagement, America’s goodwill now seemed more important than ever to Beijing.

Second, the Russians had recently been making threatening military noises along China’s northern border, as well as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia. In light of this increase in Soviet aggressiveness, Deng now reckoned that he needed to enlist American support.

And third, mirroring Deng’s own balance-of-power logic, on the American side, President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, convinced the president that it was time for the United States to once again “play the China card” against the USSR.

In May of 1978, Carter sent Brzezinski on an exploratory trip to China.

Learn more about Deng’s strategic power moves.

America’s Surveillance Facility

At an official banquet in China, Brzezinski proposed a toast in which, for the first time, he specifically acknowledged a mutual Chinese-American security interest in opposing hegemonism. He clearly stated that the United States had made up its mind to normalize relations with China. Though he did not mention the Soviet Union by name, the intended target of his remarks was clear.

Almost immediately thereafter, the two sides moved into rapid and complete negotiation mode. The normalization talks proceeded smoothly and quickly. In July of 1978, a high-level U.S.-government delegation, led by President Carter’s science advisor, arrived in Beijing to discuss the initiation of Sino- American cooperation in science and technology.

Although no major breakthroughs were publicly announced, the American side privately introduced an important anti-Soviet initiative at this meeting: a proposal under which the United States would install a sophisticated, top-secret CIA electronic listening post in a remote area of northwest China in order to monitor Soviet military communications and missile tests.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Tension between China and Vietnam

Image shows dozens of photos of Khmer Rouge fighters on a wall.
In the 1970s, the hostility between the Vietnamese Communists and Khmer Rouge had increased. (Image: Adam Carr/Public domain)

Meanwhile, trouble was brewing along China’s southern border,  where the Vietnamese Communists, who by then were exclusive clients of the Soviet Union, had been pursuing a policy of systematic harassment against Vietnam’s very large Chinese minority population. As a result of this ethnic persecution, a steady stream of overseas Chinese were leaving Vietnam by boat or fleeing by land across the Chinese border to the north.

Already quite tense, relations between China and Vietnam were further exacerbated by Vietnam’s mounting aggressiveness toward its near neighbor, Cambodia. In Cambodia, a Chinese-backed Communist guerrilla movement, the Khmer Rouge, had come to power in 1975, when the United States withdrew its forces from the Indochina region.

Hostility between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Communists had been running very high in the mid-to-late-1970s, reflecting both a deepening of historic ethnic tensions and the more recent effects of the deepening feud between their respective patrons, China and the Soviet Union.

Urgent Need for Normalization Agreement

On Christmas Day, 1978, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in force, driving the Khmer Rouge out of the capital city of Phnom Penh and deep into the countryside. The Vietnamese then set up a puppet government made up of pro-Vietnamese Cambodians to replace the Khmer Rouge regime.

At this point, Deng Xiaoping concluded that it would be necessary for China to teach Vietnam a lesson. A display of military force was needed.  But six weeks earlier, Hanoi had signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union, thereby raising the probable costs of any Chinese military action against Vietnam.

Deng realized that he needed major backup of his own before daring to take on Hanoi and its Russian patrons. By the late autumn of 1978, China’s leaders accepted that the normalization process needed to be completed with all due speed.

Learn more about the Third Plenum of 1978.

The Normalization Agreement

Under the terms of the normalization agreement, which was officially announced on December 15, the United States would terminate its diplomatic relations with Taiwan on the 1st of January, 1979, and would thereafter recognize the PRC as the sole legal government of China.

Also, the United States would be permitted indefinitely to maintain informal, nongovernmental economic, cultural, and other ties (of an unspecified nature) with Taiwan.

Finally, and most controversially of all, over Deng Xiaoping’s strenuous objection, President Carter made a verbal unilateral declaration of his intention to continue selling U.S. arms of a defensive nature to Taiwan. Though Deng loudly protested that this was a clear violation of Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, he had too much at stake in the success of the normalization process to allow U.S. arms sales to become a deal-breaker. To ease the sting, President Carter issued a personal invitation to Deng to visit the United States as soon as the normalization agreement went into effect.

Common Questions about the Normalization Agreement Between China and the United States

Q: Who was Zbigniew Brzezinski, and what did he acknowledge at the official banquet in China in 1978?

Zbigniew Brzezinski was President Carter’s national security advisor. At the official banquet in China, he specifically acknowledged a mutual Chinese-American security interest in opposing hegemonism, and stated that the United States had made up its mind to normalize relations with China.

Q: What were the terms of the normalization agreement regarding Taiwan?

Under the terms of the normalization agreement, the United States was to terminate its diplomatic relations with Taiwan on the 1st of January, 1979, and thereafter recognize the PRC as the sole legal government of China.

Q: What were the most controversial provisions of the normalization agreement? 

The most controversial item in the normalization agreement was President Carter’s verbal unilateral declaration of his intention to continue selling U.S. arms of a defensive nature to Taiwan. Although Deng protested, he had too much at stake to make it become a deal-breaker.

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