Accessibility links

Breaking News

VOA Interview: Former US President Jimmy Carter

VOA Interview: Former US President Jimmy Carter
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:14:35 0:00

40 years after he established diplomatic relations with China, former President Jimmy Carter talks to VOA Contributor Greta Van Susteren, reflecting on the challenges and the success of what he calls "part of the most long-term significant thing that I did when I was in the White House." The interview was conducted on January 17, 2019, at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

VOA CONTRIBUTOR GRETA VAN SUSTEREN: “Mr. President, it’s very nice to see you, sir.”

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: “It’s to be with you again, Greta. Thank you.”

VAN SUSTEREN: “Mr. President, it’s been 40 years since the United States has had normalized relations with China. That was when you became president, a hugely significant time in history. Why did you do that?”

CARTER: “Well I decided to do that before I was president and I didn’t know how to do it because it was always a big problem with the status of Taiwan and China. But we finally worked that out harmoniously, Deng Xiaoping and I did. And we had been through terrible wars in the Pacific. You know I had been in the Navy in the submarine when we had a war with the whole war, World War II, and also during the Korean War I was in the Pacific. And we saw that the ravages of Vietnam – so there was a constant series of world in the Pacific in which we were involved including the one between China and Japan when we were on China’s side. So I wanted to bring peace, and since 1949 there hasn’t been any wars in the Pacific, I see. Part of the result of that is because of good relations between the United States and China. We have, I think it was part of the most long-term significant thing that I did when I was in the White House, was to normalize diplomatic relations with China after 30 years of conflict. And so, Deng Xiaoping and I were got to be real good friends. We admired each other. I visited him when he was almost my age in China. And I would say that he carried out his commitment of openness and reform to a very high degree of completion in China. They still have a way to go in human rights but they’ve made tremendous progress. And so the relationship between the United States and China is now, and will continue to be for a long time, the most important bilateral relationship, I think, in the world.”

VAN SUSTEREN: “I don’t think younger people, younger than I, realize what a big moment in history that was. And there’s a lot of pushback from the Republicans, the Taiwan lobby—and you even were, as I understand it, you began the negotiations almost secretly.”

CARTER: “Well we did, and I got a labor leader to represent me because I wanted to be a tough negotiator. And a lot of people at the State Department were against it. So we never sent a dispatch to our representatives in China from the State Department. All of it went from the White House to China and back to the White House, we just bypassed it.”

VAN SUSTEREN: “And no one knew?”

CARTER: “No one knew. And of course the Secretary of State knew, Dr. Brzezinski knew and a few of us. But it was very close to held secret. And the big altercation was about what to do with Taiwan. Because after Nixon went to China in 1972 and had a so-called Shanghai Communiqué, it was declared that there was just one China. He refused to say which side, and we continued to say that Taiwan was the only China. And President Ford did the same thing. And I was determined to change that.”

VAN SUSTEREN: “What was the reaction after the normalization was January 1, 1979, and a few months later of course, you signed the Taiwan Relations Act, which protected Taiwan—but after you signed, after the relations were normalized, did Taiwan contact you?”

CARTER: “Very negatively. My Deputy Secretary of State went over to China, I mean Taiwan, and he was physically attacked on the street by irate Taiwanese. But I think the Taiwan Act that we got through the House and the Senate of the United States successfully, as you said, protected the interest of Taiwan, it protected the interest of the United States. And we had a provision in the treaty between the United States and Taiwan to warrant, to allow for a one year notice. So I gave Taiwan the notice that a year from then we would have null relationships with China and not Taiwan. And so we continued our commercial relationships. Another promise we made that we made who were not so—you know, offensive weapons to Taiwan with the potential of attacking China from Taiwan—that’s been, well, I adhere to that commitment completely, but some of the most successes in office, I won’t say which ones, maybe departed a bit from that.”

VAN SUSTEREN: “What was Deng Xiaoping like?”

CARTER: “I think the secret to the quick acceptance of it through Chinese – U.S. relationship by the American public was due entirely to the character and the good humor and the down-to-earth nature of Deng Xiaoping. He was an instant hit with people in Washington, D.C. and the rest of the world through news media. He wore a cowboy hat in Texas, he visited Atlanta by my request. And so I think that was his personal characteristic of good nature, down-to-earth, honest guy who came across the American public as ‘Ok, China must be alright instead of evil people like we thought before.’”

VAN SUSTEREN: “What was the Soviet Union, what was their response? Because as they see that you and Deng Xiaoping are friends and we’ve had normalized relations, what about the Soviet Union?”

CARTER: “They were quite irate and attacked us through diplomatic means who complained quite bitterly and said that we were lining that, that the United States and China would gang up against the Soviet Union. But I finally calmed them down including Brezhnev, who was the president of the Soviet Union. And we got along fairly well with both of the previous adversaries after that.”

VAN SUSTEREN: “So fast forward to now. I mean you changed the whole course of history in terms of normalization relations. Now we have the China, which has footprints all over the world with its Silk Road initiative. It’s got trade all over the world, it’s in our backyard, in Nicaragua, it’s building a military base, perhaps, in the South China Sea. I mean, what do you think of China now?”

CARTER: “Well what Deng Xiaoping promised the Chinese people, the world and United States and me, personally, was openness and reform. And they have had tremendous reform within China. There was zero free enterprise in China before that. And after that, China has become a very dynamic, open society as far as commerce and trade is concerned. And they have several billionaires now they’ve made a profit whereas before ’79, no profit was permitted by anybody in China. When I visited China the year after we normalized relations, it was completely impossible for a person to move from a small village to a big city and vice versa without getting personal approval from a communist party. That’s all been done away with. Before normalization, there was zero Christianity in China, either Protestantism or Catholicism. And Deng Xiaoping, at my personal request, passed a law of complete equality of worship.”

VAN SUSTEREN: “No bibles though!”

CARTER: “And he, there were no bibles before that but now the number one producer of bibles in the world is a Chinese company that prints bibles and they are free to distribute in China. The one thing I asked him for was missionaries to be permitted back in China like they were before we broke up with China and he said no to that because he didn’t want missionaries to come in and do what he claimed they did early on and that was to be superior to the Chinese people and change the Chinese culture. So he said no to missionaries, but my other two requests: bibles freely distributed and freedom of religion, he passed that.”

VAN SUSTEREN: “So how do you reconcile today, I mean let’s take for instance the Uyghurs. Some say it’s ethnic cleansing. They’re put in reeducation camps and they don’t have the religious freedoms. So how do you reconcile that?”

CARTER: “Well although China has made great progress in human rights, as I’ve just mentioned, with the Uyghurs, that’s a very sad light I think on the world picture of equal treatment for people. And there’s still some problems in China, which they’re trying to overcome. China has not had a war since 1979 and we’ve spent trillions and trillions of dollars on our own wars in Iraq and so forth. So I would say they’ve done a tremendous job in their own country not only in building up their infrastructure to an admirable state of quality, but they’ve also almost completely eliminated extreme poverty in China. And I think in a year or two Xi Jinping, the president, is going to announce that they’ve ended poverty for all Chinese people which is a wonderful achievement. So I think they’ve spent their tremendous financial resources very wisely whereas we’ve spent much of our financial resources on unnecessary wars.”

VAN SUSTEREN: “Alright well you bring up finances. The current president of the United States has a trade war, he has tariffs on China. I take it that would not be the Carter diplomacy with China?”

CARTER: “No it wouldn’t.”

VAN SUSTEREN: “I thought so.”

CARTER: “And I think since the summit meeting that we’ve had in Argentina, I think we’ve made some progress. China has agreed to do two or three things. One is to buy more soybeans. And I think they’ve made two purchases of a major size of American soybeans. They’ve also promised to open up investment opportunities about American corporations in China on things like intellectual rights and copyrights to cover that. I’m not sure what progress they’ve made but they’ve made some progress. And my hope is that the trade talks will improve the economies in both China and the United States. When we don’t get along with China, it hurts both of us—not just China, but also it hurts the United States economically.”

VAN SUSTEREN: “Are you optimistic about the relationship between the United States and China? Are we headed in a good direction?”

CARTER: “I think in the long term, the American people will see that getting along with China is the key to our own prosperity and our own peaceful life, and our own good life. And I think we have a temporary setback under President Trump but I can’t predict what the next president will do. But I’ll continue to use my influence, and the influence of the Carter Center to see that we treat China with respect with problems with China in an open fashion and be honest with both sides. And I think the Chinese are very likely to do the same.”

VAN SUSTEREN: “Okay, how many times have you been to China?”
CARTER: “Well before I had my cancer scare a few years ago, I was going to China almost every year. But I don’t know how many times I’ve been—”

VAN SUSTEREN: “Do you love China? I mean because you travel there so much.”

CARTER: “I do. The first time I went to China, I was on the submarine in 1949, probably before you were born.”

VAN SUSTEREN: “Not much before I was born but a little bit.”

CARTER: “Not much before you were born, but anyway. It was right after that the People’s Republic of China was formed and the communists took over. And so it happened to be on my birthday, which Deng Xiaoping thought was significant, October 1, 1949. I was 25 years old. So I’m 25 years older than the People’s Republic of China. I had a long time interest in China.”

VAN SUSTEREN: Well it’s fascinating to watch China because as China is doing all these business deals all over the world, and some call it debt-diplomacy.”

CARTER: “That was part of Deng Xiaoping’s opening—he was going to reform inside China. And in the so-called isolation of China, in dealing with the outside world. And I think now, we are seeing it diplomatically, and with trade and investments, and also benevolent causes. China has reached out as much as possible to have good relationships with countries all over the world. Which they avoided for a long time before 1979.”

VAN SUSTEREN: “Mr. President, it was nice to talk to you. And of course, it was particularly fascinating because this is such a monumental time in history, you know, of the normalization of relations. Because even in my time, when I was growing up, it seemed impossible.”

CARTER: “Well it seemed impossible to a lot of people. And it had to be done, as I said earlier in the interview, very secretly because we had a lot of people opposed to it. The Republican Party was opposed to it. A lot of business interests that were dealing with Taiwan were opposed to it. And many people in the State Department were opposed to it. And so I just had to do it and I was successful in doing it. And because of Deng Xiaoping’s—I would say generosity and his openness and his attractiveness, as a human being, it was accepted ok by the American people.”

VAN SUSTEREN: “Thank you, sir, nice to see you. It’s great to see you.”

CARTER: “My pleasure. Thank you, Greta. Best wishes to you.”

VAN SUSTEREN: “Same to you.”