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A Momentous Occasion: A Look Back at President Carter’s 1979 Decision to Normalize Relations with China

  • On Jan. 31, 1979, Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping and President Jimmy Carter sign historic diplomatic agreements between the United States and China. (Photos: Jimmy Carter Library)

Forty years ago – during the height of the Cold War – former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping looked beyond their nations’ many differences and found common ground.

On Jan. 1, 1979, the two leaders normalized diplomatic relations between their countries, which had been estranged since the Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the United States chose to back the Nationalists, who fled to Taiwan. In the years leading up to 1979, the U.S. imposed trade embargoes and forbade Americans from traveling to China; China, meanwhile, seized nearly $200 million in American assets and properties within its borders.

There wasn’t much love lost between the nations.

But President Carter and Vice Premier Deng believed that rapprochement would make the world safer and benefit both the U.S. and China.

After President Carter left office, he continued his efforts to improve relations between the two countries. He has visited China many times over the years and established a China Program within The Carter Center, which at one time helped monitor Chinese village elections and now pursues better relations and seeks opportunities for cooperation through a variety of channels.

The Carter Center is commemorating the anniversary with a symposium on Jan. 17-19 that will feature dozens of experts on U.S.-China relations. You can read more about this diplomatic feat on this page, which features a Q&A with President Carter, a timeline of key moments in the China Program, and a President Carter-penned op-ed on the future of U.S.-Sino relations that recently ran in The Washington Post.

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