Courtesy Reuters

The (Ab)normalization of U.S.-Chinese Relations


Only Nixon could go to China, the saying ran. But even Richard M. Nixon, the architect of America's opening to the world's most populous communist power, could not complete the full normalization of U.S. ties with the People's Republic of China (PRC). Indeed, he and Gerald R. Ford, as well as their secretary of state, Henry A. Kissinger, developed significant reservations about whether the final step was at all possible.


By the time he ran for president, Jimmy Carter had adopted the Democratic Party position on China -- that the process of normalization, or recognizing Beijing as the sole government of the Chinese and breaking formal ties with Taiwan, should be completed. Carter understood that Taiwan was a political problem that had to be solved, but he was willing to lead the country to a new state of relations, one that reflected the reality of modern China.

There was never any doubt in Carter's mind that he would be the president who took the final difficult step, and he said as much when he outlined his foreign policy goals for those who would serve under him. No one had imagined, however, that when the China breakthrough came, it would come as a result of all-out civil war within the Carter administration, or that Carter's achievement on China would rise from a destructive collision of personalities and from the irreconcilable world-views of his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, and national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose poisonous competition would add to the perception that Carter had lost control of his presidency and his own political destiny.

The night of Carter's victory in 1976, Vance, Brzezinski, and their wives gathered at the New York apartment of Richard C. Holbrooke, a rising Democratic foreign policy specialist. It was neutral territory for the competing clans. They watched the returns come in until after midnight, then parted cordially, wondering who would get the upper hand as Carter's

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