OPINION> Commentary
Moving toward a reconciliation of civilizations
By Zbigniew Brzezinski (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-01-15 07:39

Since 30 years ago we have traveled a long journey in our relations.

When then US president Jimmy Carter sent me to China in the summer of 1978 to initiate the secret negotiations that resulted in December 1978 in the normalization of US-China relations, only 1,200 foreigners lived in Beijing. Just the other day 1,100 American officials moved into the new US Embassy building - and it is estimated that some 150,000 foreigners now live in Beijing.

Our world is different, better, and safer because of that normalization.

With the above in mind, let me share some highly compressed thoughts (from the US vantage point) on several issues.

First, why was the effort to normalize successful? Second, what did normalization initially precipitate and then also facilitate? Third, what is the current geostrategic status of our relationship? Fourth, at this moment in history, what should be our shared grand objective?

Why was the effort to normalize successful?

The central reason was that the two leaders - then US president Carter and then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping - had the strategic determination to cut the Gordian Knots preventing a decisive breakthrough. The first attempt to normalize made in 1977, but undertaken without a wider geopolitical design, bogged down, largely over Taiwan.

By early 1978 president Carter decided that US-China normalization was in the United States' strategic interest - and it so happened that the same conclusion was reached by Deng because of the threat posed to China by "hegemonism". In different ways, both the US and China felt threatened by Soviet strategic assertiveness.

The president instructed me in writing to tell Deng that he took the Soviet threat seriously and to convey US determination to move forward with the normalization of relations.

On that basis we were then able to set in motion a secret process to resolve various complications - even agreeing at the very last minute on Dec 15 to "agree to disagree" on some remaining issues. This shared strategic determination meant that a diplomatic accommodation became de facto a strategic partnership.

What did normalization precipitate and then also facilitate?

It precipitated almost from the start a shared security cooperation - first in strategic intelligence (vs "hegemonism") that has been of genuine benefit both to the US and to China - and then in jointly opposing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The effect was to change the Cold War's global chessboard - to the disadvantage of the Soviet Union - and eventually that contributed to a Soviet reassessment that then led to the end of the Cold War.

Indirectly, the normalization facilitated Deng's decision made also 30 years ago to undertake a comprehensive economic reform, which took China - as People's Daily recently commented - into "the age of peace and development from the previous epoch of war and revolution".

The newspaper observed also that in the wake of normalization "a total 113 countries established diplomatic relations with China by 1978".

It is fair to say that China's remarkable economic growth, which has transformed it into a top global economic power, would have been much more difficult in the absence of the dramatically rapid and mutually beneficial expansion in the US-Chinese trade and financial relations that followed normalization. China's entry in 2001 into WTO is a case in point.

What is the current geopolitical status of the US-PRC relationship?

An article in Outlook Weekly (July 14, 08) describes the relationship as one of "complex interdependence", in which both sides evaluate each other in pragmatic and moderate terms and in which "the two sides can compete and consult within the existing international rules". It follows that each side would suffer greatly if it acted in a manner that ignored the central reality of our interdependence.

Moreover, given the respective global weight of our two countries, constructive interdependence between us is one of the key sources of global political and economic stability.

To be sure, in so far as the status quo is concerned, a globally ascending China is a revisionist power in that it desires major changes in the international system but it seeks them in a patient, prudent, and peaceful fashion.

Americans who deal with foreign affairs especially appreciate the fact that Chinese strategic thinking about the world has moved away from notions of a global class conflict and violent revolution, emphasizing China's "peaceful rise" in global influence while seeking a "harmonious world". These are concepts which Americans can also share.

Derived from the reality of our interdependence, such common perspectives also make it easier for both of us to cope with residual or potential disagreements, and to cooperate on such challenges as posed by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's nuclear issue. China's role in the negotiations has been central to the progress so far made.

If we at all times keep in mind the centrality of our interdependence, we will be able to cope with other contentious issues, be they about global trade and finances, or even about our varying views regarding internal values and practices.

What should now be our shared grand goal?

In a dynamically changing world our relationship cannot be static; it will either expand or narrow. The world will benefit, and so will our countries, if it expands.

In the post-Cold War era, the deepening and widening of the American-Chinese partnership is not designed against others - and it does not diminish the importance of the US' or China's close ties with other major powers - but it reflects an increasing awareness of our shared responsibility for global wellbeing.

As a practical matter, we need therefore to widen and deepen our geostrategic cooperation, beyond the immediate need for close collaboration in coping with the global economic crisis.

China is needed as a direct participant in the dialogue with Iran, for China will also be affected if the effort to negotiate ends in failure.

The US-China consultations regarding India and Pakistan can perhaps lead to more effective even if informal mediation, for a conflict between the two would be a regional calamity.

China should become actively involved in helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which increasingly poses the risk of a radicalized and dangerously unstable Middle East.

We need to develop a shared view on how to cope with the global risks posed by climate changes that could gravely threaten especially the poorest sections of humanity.

We should explore together the possibility of creating a larger stand-by UN peacekeeping force for contingent deployment in the event of massive collapses of social order in failed states. We should discuss together how an international initiative pointing toward a global adoption of the zero-nuclear weapons option might be helpful in stemming wider nuclear weapons proliferation.

We certainly need to collaborate closely in expanding the current G8 to a G14 or 16, in order to widen the global circle of decision-makers and to develop a more inclusive response to the current economic crisis. Otherwise, we all might face also a major crisis of global political instability.

But to promote all what we need an informal G2. The relationship between the US and China has to be truly a comprehensive global partnership, parallel our relations with Europe and Japan. Our top leaders should therefore meet informally on a regular schedule for truly personal in-depth discussions regarding not just about of bilateral relations but about the world in general. We have a common interest in global stability, in social progress worldwide, in successful domestic renewal and development, and in a renovated international system.

The foregoing points in a politically as well as philosophically ambitious direction. The Chinese emphasis on "harmony" can conserve as a useful point of departure for the needed of top-level US-Chinese summits.

In an era in which the risks of the massively destructive "clash of civilizations" are rising because of the unprecedented political awakening of the world's population, the deliberate promotion of a genuine reconciliation of civilizations is urgently needed.

It is a task which our next president Barack Obama - who is a conciliator at heart - should find congenial, and which Chinese President Hu Jintao - who authored the concept of "a harmonious world" - should welcome. It is a mission worthy of the two countries with the most extraordinary potential for shaping our collective future.

The author is a Polish-American geostrategist, and served as US National Security Advisor to president Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981

This piece was a speech made by him at a seminar in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomaticlations between China and the US

(China Daily 01/15/2009 page9)