Vice-premier Deng Xiaoping (left), the architect of China's economic miracle, and US president Jimmy Carter in 1979

The US Cannot Afford to Repeat the Mistakes of 1979

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the US withdrawal from Vietnam, a conflict that cost the lives of more than 58,000 Americans. Just six years after the US left the Southeast Asian nation, another country entered the Indochina fray.

In February 1979, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) invaded Vietnam on the heels of securing official diplomatic recognition from the United States, overturning America’s three-decade policy of acknowledging the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan as the sole Chinese government.

That diplomatic triumph and the Sino-Vietnamese War demonstrate how Beijing used American cooperation to wage an aggressive peripheral conflict against its neighbors. While the war did not spill over into a global crisis, China used force to cement its strategic position in Southeast Asia with the tacit acceptance by the US.

More than 40 years later, China’s focus shifted to its other disputed border, with India.

Despite Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s recent statements admitting his country’s vulnerability to Chinese attack, US President Joe Biden is repeating former president Jimmy Carter’s cooperative rhetoric with China as the threat of conflict grows.

Given the PRC’s wider strategic goal to use limited wars to remake the regional geopolitical landscape in its favor, Biden is risking the possibility of another limited war in Asia that could spill over into something more disastrous.

Jimmy Carter made human rights a “fundamental tenet” of US foreign policy. However, practicing realpolitik, the Carter administration diplomatically recognized a country that had starved and murdered at least 45 million of its own people by 1978.

‘Counterbalance’ theory

Carter’s reasoning for official normalization, best stated by his national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, was: “It is the Soviet Union – not China – that threatens us militarily, [thus] our effort to attain security in a world of diversity parallels the current Chinese desire for a stable, non-hegemonical world order.”

Using Beijing to counterbalance Moscow had been a staple of American Cold War policy since Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit thawed relations between the two nations. The subsequent Shanghai Communiqué established “liaison offices” in both countries, each acting as a de facto embassy.

Building on Nixon’s China policy, Carter decided to deter Soviet aggression with official Sino-American diplomatic recognition, a policy he believed would advance the “cause of peace in Asia and the world.”

Additionally, Carter saw the PRC as key to the “international framework of cooperation” among the “key nations of the world.” Thus the US viewed China as valuable to maintaining a status quo of transnational collaboration.

Read the rest at RealClear Defense.

Kyle Sajoyan is a research assistant at the Yorktown Institute focusing on strategic sealift capabilities and the decline of US naval power.

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