The United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC) have reached a fork in the road to normalizing relations. The high-level discussions between Chinese and American officials initiated during Presidential Assistant Henry Kissinger's July 1971 trip to Peking have been sustained now for six and a half years. Senior U.S. officials, including two Presidents, have made eleven visits to the Chinese capital. There have been less formal contacts at the United Nations, ongoing exchanges through the liaison offices in Washington and Peking, and visits to China and the United States by congressional and semi-official PRC groups promoted under the cultural exchange program. The most recent official discussions, conducted by Secretary of State Vance and Chinese officials in Peking in August 1977 and followed up in New York this past September, explored thinking in Washington and Peking on the basis of the Carter Administration's reaffirmation of the China policy of the two previous Administrations: a commitment to normalize the U.S.-PRC relationship within the framework of the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué, and to develop ties with China as a central element of American foreign policy.
The current period represents a major point of decision not because there is an artificially established deadline, but because the present discussions put to the test the Carter Administration's commitment to the Shanghai Communiqué, and the willingness of the new Chinese leadership to show flexibility within the policy framework laid down by Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai. Failure to move forward is unlikely to result in an immediate crisis, for both Washington and Peking will see it in their respective interests to maintain the present quasi-normal relationship. Rather, the problem is that the domestic political momentum toward normalization has just about played itself out in both the United States and the PRC.
The present period in U.S.-PRC relations is significant not only for the long-term consequences of decisions to be made in Washington and Peking, but also because if the Chinese and American leaderships are to
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