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September 12, 2014

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Carter sees peace based on US-China ties

AT 90, Jimmy Carter is still full of vigor, wisdom and idealism.

The former US president has channeled much of his energy into causes such as advocacy for peaceful settlement of global conflicts as well as social progress in underdeveloped nations. As head of the Carter Center, his work has taken him to almost every corner of the globe, including China, which marked one of the best moments of his presidency.

During a recent speech delivered at Fudan University in Shanghai, he reminisced about the days when he first visited the city as a young naval officer in 1949, on the eve of the Communist liberation of Shanghai. “That was my first opportunity to learn about the wonderful people of Shanghai and their hospitality,” said the globe-trotting statesman-turned-activist.

“My first goal (upon taking office as US president) was to correct a 30-year mistake. Because we had spent the 30 years from 1949 to 1979 with no diplomatic relations,” said Carter. He said it was a “serious mistake” that “Communist China was not recognized diplomatically.”

With groundwork already laid by his predecessor Richard Nixon and diplomats like Henry Kissinger, Carter quickly set out to facilitate the normalization of US-China relations.

Although the two countries were hugely different — and still are — their leaders were smart and pragmatic enough to know that normalization of ties was in each other’s interests.

“I found a very good partner in Deng Xiaoping,” said Carter, who pointed out that the Chinese leader agreed the two nations could seek common ground despite their differences and complexities.

Difficult period

Sino-US relations are currently going through a difficult period, fraught with tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, US support of Japan’s posturing over the Diaoyu Islands, and in general, the US “pivot” to Asia.

But Carter said these issues are not nearly so complicated as what concerned he and Deng during their reign. He conceded, however, that Tokyo’s mayor Ishihara Shintaro’s provocative suggestion of purchasing the Diaoyu Islands and making them a part of Japan was “the initiation of an unpleasant situation.”

In retrospect, while it was widely considered the common threat from the Soviet Union helped to bind China and the US together, to bring peace and stability to the war-torn Asia Pacific region was also an important motivation for the two great countries to bury the hatchet and seek a rapprochement.

“Deng Xiaoping and I agreed we could bring peace, stability to Asia and to the Western Pacific,” Carter told the audience. “Look at what happened in the last 35 years. In Asia, no wars. We see wars and violence in other countries, not in this region. And I think one of the main reasons we had peace here is because of the normalization of relations between China and the US.”

Several flashpoints remain in Asia, including North Korea, towards which the US has a long-running animosity.

That animosity nearly escalated into war in 1994, when North Korea was condemned by the US and the UN for its nuclear activities. Carter recalled a meeting with Chinese friends, who told the ex-president that further condemnation and hostility might provoke the country into going to war. To avoid a war, “I decided to go to North Korea and I negotiated with Kim Il-Sung, and we adopted a denuclearization pact that lasted many years,” said Carter.

While Carter will always be remembered as the eyewitness to the establishment of Sino-US diplomatic ties, he considers his promotion of educational exchange as “one of the primary achievements when I was president,” which he explained with an anecdote.

One night he was asleep in the White House, when a sudden call woke him up around 3 o’clock. It was from Frank Press, his top science aide.

Press was meeting Deng, who wanted an immediate answer to his question of whether he could send 5,000 Chinese students to the US, Carter recounted.

Send 100,000!

“I was quite angry and told him to send 100,000, and then slammed the phone down and went back to sleep,” he said, bringing laughter to the room.

Today, there are 240,000 Chinese students studying in American universities. It is this very exchange of young people “going back and forth between our two countries” — in addition to trade, commerce, political alliance, military cooperation, continued respect — that will bring the two peoples ever closer, Carter observed.

Unlike some Americans who believe the US preeminent position in the world is being endangered by progress made by China, Carter dismissed that antagonistic zero-sum perspective.

“If our two countries can stand together as friends and allies, with mutual respect for each other, peace will be inevitable in the future,” he said.


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