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Transcript of President Jimmy Carter’s Remarks at the Forum on US-China Relations

The following is a transcript of President Carter’s remarks at the Annual Forum on US-China Relations, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the normalization of US-China relations.

January 16-19, 2019

Atlanta, Georgia

At this moment, my heart is filled with thanksgiving to Deng Xiaoping, who had the wisdom and the strength and confidence of the Chinese people to decide soon after I became President, to build upon the faltering relationship between the United States and China. As you know, President Nixon in 1972 had been to China and consummated the Shanghai communique. We said there was only one China which was a major step forward—but he didn’t say which one; and so for many years after that under him and President Ford, we continued to recognize Taiwan as the only China. And I didn’t think that was correct. I had been to China quite early in my life and I had grown up with a very deep interest in China, so we had a breakthrough when we finally resolved a very difficult issue of Taiwan and China’s relationship with Taiwan. To make a complicated issue more simple, we agreed that there was only one China and that Taiwan is part of China. But Deng Xiaoping agreed with me that any resolution of the altercation with Taiwan would be done peacefully, so that was a compromise that we reached and when that was done, we announced on December 15th, 1978 that we would normalize diplomatic relationships. We announced it in Washington D.C. but also Beijing.

After that, we prepared to invited Deng Xiaoping over here and he responded quite rapidly, I think in 24 hours, to my invitation to visit Washington. The vivacity, and the friendship, and the humor and the characteristics that Deng Xiaoping exhibited to the American people had all overcome the previous animosity that had been aroused from two wars where China was on one side and we were on the other side in the Korean War and also in the Vietnam War. We had been partners early on in previous wars, but we both realized in that area of the world, in Asia, was a hotbed of wars and conflicts and misunderstandings. One of Deng Xiaoping’s goals was to ensure peace and since then, ‘79, peace has prevailed with great progress as Ambassador Cui pointed out in both countries and I think in all of Asia in general. I would say that the number one goal of Deng Xiaoping at that time was to improve the quality of life for the Chinese people, and that has been done very rapidly. Both our countries have been blessed with very fine economic growth. Unfortunately, several trillions of dollars have gone into wars in other parts of the world unnecessarily. China has avoided that waste of money, and they’ve invested that money in rapid railroads—last time I saw China had about 15,000 miles of trains that will go 250 miles or more per hour. I’ve ridden on them. The United States, I won’t say how many miles of rapid transit we have.

I have visited and spoken to new universities that have been established in China with a great income from growth, and I’ve seen a very wonderful improvement in human rights in China—with people given the freedom to move and make a profit in their own lives from the free enterprise system that didn’t exist before 1979. In fact, in 1981 after I left office, I visited China at Deng Xiaoping’s invitation and he had me visit several villages where the farmers and very tiny villages could have free enterprise, but it didn’t exist in larger cities and so forth, so that has been a tremendous advantage for China as well. Well, all of these things have been a wonderful contribution to peace, stability, growth, and prosperity in both of our countries.

Quite early when we went over, I asked Deng Xiaoping, what the Carter Center, our tiny organization, might do to be of help after I retired from the political realm. At that time, it was very difficult for any country to give China any form of economic aid. As you may remember, one of Deng Xiaoping’s sons had been severely injured and was a paraplegic. China didn’t have the advantage of a modern prosthesis for people who had needed arms or legs. He agreed to let the Carter Center help sponsor the design and installation of a process still operating in Beijing, to create modern prosthesis. The next thing that we did was to teach the Chinese people how to educate little boys and girls in school at a very young age who were deaf or blind and so this was a challenge that we undertook, and eventually we helped to train 600 specialists who went all over China to teach elementary school teachers how to deal with the special needs of those affected children. Later the Carter Center was asked to help bring democracy to the little villages in China, those not part of the Communist Party System, and this gave me and Rosalyn and others from the Carter Center chances to go around China to monitor the progress of democracy within those little villages. One time, the Carter Center was asked to draft new laws that would guarantee that everyone in the villages when they reached 18 would automatically be registered to vote. Votes would be completely free, open and secret. The people could serve for three years, and then run for re-election and we helped to do this for a long time.

Now, of course, our major goal in dealing with this forum and other previous ones is to see how we can help both countries, now highly competitive, I would say in a diplomatic or social field around the world in helping those little countries, poor countries expand their economies. I’ve talked to many African and Latin American leaders, and the last thing they want to see is them having to choose between the United States of America and the Chinese Government. They are desperately in need of economic and social progress, and what they want to see is to deal with the United States of America and China working together in harmony to help those countries together in many ways—economic development, better healthcare, particularly from the Carter Center. These are things that I believe are very important to us, and I want to thank all of you for participating in that. By the way, in 2012, we had our first forum and Madame Li was there. We had our second forum, I believe it was in Beijing. The third forum was at the Carter Center, and Ambassador Cui was here I believe in 2013. I want to thank them for their longtime commitment.

By the way, one of the things that we have tried to do together, and this has been extending in more recent years, is dealing with problems in the Korean Peninsula. North and South Korea and denuclearization, and this is of mutual interest to the Chinese and Americans, and we know China and North Korea have had a good relationship for many years and the United States has never had an ambassador there.

I’ve been to North Korea several times. First of all, in 1994 to deal directly with Kim Il Sung shortly before his death. He was the grandfather of Kim Jong Un and the father of Kim Jong Il. And we have 12 different problems that United State had with North Korea, and we were on the verge of having a war, because, under pressure of President Clinton, we were condemning the government of North Korea officially in the United Nations, and the fact claiming that Kim Il Sung was an outlaw. And some of my Chinese friends, perhaps some of you here, came to see me in my hometown Plains, Georgia, and said, if that resolution goes through, North Korea will have no alternative in order to save face than to attack Seoul. And they estimated over a million of people would die in the first 24 hours of that kind of war, because almost all the artillery along the demilitarized zone can reach Seoul and they could have bombarded with tens of thousands of weapons into that highly populated area.

So, I decided to go to North Korea, and my wife and I together, spent some very harmonious time with Kim Il Sung and his wife, and we worked out all 12 problems. The most important of which, I think, was that Kim Il Sung on behalf of North Korea, as the completely dominant political leader, agreed that they would end their total nuclear program and that international nuclear inspectors could come in from the IAEA and monitor the compliance in every way with that promise. I brought those agreements back to President Clinton, and later on to negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland, they were put into final form. Unfortunately, shortly after we made our visit to North Korea, Kim Il Sung passed away. And I immediately got a personal letter from Kim Jong Il, his son, and the new leader pledging that he would comply with all the promises that his father had made to me in a private negotiation. I haven’t met Kim Jong Un, but I would say I’ve spent 20 hours in all, in intense discussions with North Korean leaders about what they want and what the United States can do. I’ve have shared the information, with President Trump and other leaders since then. And I think it’s quite reasonable on both sides to work out something.

I’m very grateful to President Trump that he has been very directly meeting with North Koreans. When I was in the White House, by the way, we arranged through Indonesia a possible meeting between me as president, and the leader of North Korea, which was Kim Il Sung. Kim Il Sung was not prepared at that time to meet with me, and he rejected that opportunity. But I tried the best I could when I was president.

Let me say, in closing, that I tried to express as briefly as I could in the Washington Post editorial, what I hope to achieve and what this tremendous forum has done already, and in the future. And I want to close by making one suggestion to the group. I know that when we have these meetings, it gets good publicity and I have had several interviews recently about this. And we have maybe a temporary impact on both countries, I see that. I would like to see a permanent group of distinguished people to help resolve the differences. When I was President of the United States, our main adversaries had been in the Second World War, Japan, as you know. And Japan was enjoying a tremendous economic boom, and in fact, they were inheriting many of the industries that had made the United States prosperous. Not only clothing and the dealing with clothes, but also in the field of automobile manufacturing, they were just getting started with that, and televisions. So many job-producing industries in the US were moving to Japan, and it was created a great deal of negative reactions in our country. And the United States’ relationship with Japan had stayed constantly on edge with each other.

It was not a harmonious relationship at all. Finally, the Prime Minister of Japan, Zenko and I agreed for each country to choose three people. As the matter of fact, in the time of discrimination against women, we said, three wise men from both sides. I chose three people who I thought were the most knowledgeable about US-Japan relationships. And the Prime Minister of Japan did the same thing. We had six people. We never made their names public, and we never informed the public what they recommended, but they would meet regularly in Tokyo and Washington, and sometimes in the middle—with some delight, deciding to meet in Hawaii instead—and they would direct recommendations to me and to the Prime Minister of Japan. We never made these names public, but they were people who were distinguished scholars-an expert, and a friend of the other country. They were maybe retired diplomats. They would give us private advice and meet quite regularly, at least two or three times a year, and to give us private advice.

I would want to see something like that set up now between China and the United States. Maybe three people on each side, who believe in what Deng Xiaoping and I tried to do 40 years ago, and I believe many of these people are still available, who would meet in a private way every three, four months, discussing outstanding issues, making recommendations on how these issues can be resolved to both leaders—Xi Jinping now and President Trump at this moment—and not be highly publicized. I just hope we could do something. By the way, when I get home, I am going to draft a private letter to President Trump and put this in succinct language. Most Presidents don’t like to read multiple letters—I will make it one page. And I hope that some of you might do the same thing with President Xi Jinping. Just have a kind of very small group—I say about six, distinguished people who have faith and confidence and in the need for future understanding and avoidance of conflicts between our two countries. So that’s my final proposal to you, and thank you for listening to my long and rambling speech, but I benefited greatly from other speeches. Thank you very much, and welcome again to Atlanta.