“Over the past 40 years, I have seen many ups and downs of the U.S.-China relationship, and all these are quite natural,” 83-year-old President Emeritus of the Asia Society Nicholas Platt told China Today. “China is too big to contain, the relationship too complex to dismantle. We have spent decades together, both competing and cooperating while dealing with serious crises along the way. I think we will survive this time.”
President Emeritus of the Asia Society Nicholas Platt accepts the interview of China Today.
“China Boys” Forever
“To be honest, I lost the count of how many times I have been to China. I think it is more than 60,” the silver-haired Platt joked.
First traveled to China with then U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1972 and then having worked with Dr. Henry Kissinger, Platt participated in setting up the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing in 1973. As a veteran diplomat, he had also served in Canada and Japan, and was the former U.S. ambassador to several Asian and African countries, including the Philippines, Pakistan, and Zambia. He is also a board member of the Friends of China Heritage Fund, Chair of the U.S.-China Education Trust Advisory Board, and the senior advisor on China programs for the Philadelphia Orchestra. In March 2010, His memoir China Boys was published, which offers a close-up view of the U.S. opening to China and the early days of the China-U.S. relations.
Having served the U.S. government as a foreign diplomat for 34 years and 12 years for the Asia Society, Platt has been a diligent observer and participant of the four decades of China-U.S. relations. Owing to his special contribution to China-U.S. relations and his close contacts with China, Platt has been awarded the 5th Award for Distinguished Contribution to China Studies, which he felt deeply honored on receiving.
Dynamic Cultural Exchanges
“At the beginning, communication between Washington and Beijing worked like a simple, single line tactical field telephone, with Dr. Kissinger talking at one end and Zhou Enlai answering at the other. Now, contact between us more resembles a huge fiber optic cable with millions of messages going in both directions, most of which neither government sees.” Platt observed.
Over the past 25 years, most of Platt’s work has been concentrated on the people-to-people relationships that have come to form the foundation of China-U.S. ties. Over the years, these relations, once tiny and barely existent, have become so huge that they have assumed major strategic significance. Trade, investment, travel, sports, culture, science, and education have become regular agenda items in high-level strategic consultations between the two governments.
“Culture and sports have long been purposeful elements in Chinese and American diplomacy. Remember the Chinese invitation to the U.S. ping pong team to visit China in 1971, a prelude to the diplomatic breakthrough between U.S. President Nixon and China’s Chairman Mao, and an important signal of Chinese willingness to come together with the U.S. against the backdrop of hostility with the USSR.” Platt continued, “Remember that the first China tour of the Philadelphia Orchestra in September 1973 revolutionized Chinese perceptions of Western music and ushered in a lasting and dynamic relationship that continues to this day.”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of China-U.S. diplomatic relations. Earlier this year, Platt accompanied the Philadelphia Orchestra on its annual China tour to participate in the celebratory activities. “I was worried that current tensions would poison our tour. They did not. I found that culture had escaped the controversies that were damaging other areas of our relations. Audiences filled up the concert halls in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Hangzhou, and Nanjing.”
Platt explained, “Our relationship resembles an iceberg, with the jagged edges of strategic mistrust clearly visible above the surface. But below the waterline is a big mass of private relationships maintained by tactical trust that provide stability.”
“Holding on to Each Other”
“U.S.-China relations have experienced numerous ups and downs over the past four decades, and we have seen a growing China in search of its status on the global arena. We all know it is a natural thing and we welcome it. It is quite natural for a country as big as China that is growing as fast as China to attract lots of the world’s attention,” Platt accentuated.
In recent years, there have been some anxieties and suspicions in the United States regarding China’s rise as a threat. While for Platt, who has a long view of the arc of the bilateral relationship, China and the U.S. have spent decades together, both competing and cooperating. "It is a common phenomenon; China also benefits from this competitive relationship. It is unavoidable for the world’s two biggest economies to cross the current turbulence, and we can work it out eventually."
“The long arc of my historical perspective gives me confidence for the future. We have been competing and cooperating for decades and will continue to do so in the future. Interdependence is complicated and not very comfortable, breeding new problems every step of the way. But it is vibrantly alive, a force in its own right,” Platt accentuated.
Platt cited the former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who said that the safest place in the boxing ring is in a clinch, where the opponents are holding on to each other, so closely entwined that they cannot inflict serious damage on one another. “We should work to keep it that way.”
Discussing about the future cooperative opportunities, Platt said that both the U.S. and China are big nations. They need to collaborate on solving some global issues, such as the climate change. “U.S.-China relations have exerted a huge impact on the world and the two nations have to keep in touch.”
“We have no choice but to press ahead with the focus on practical solutions rather than ideological pronouncements. We must learn to solve the contradictory problems between us, to pursue the common interests of our two peoples, and the co-evolution of two societies.”
Experiencing the ups and downs of China-U.S. relations many times, he thinks the current turbulence is all about how China and the U. S. should deal with each other in the new era, and he is confident that both countries can work it out. Platt concluded, “We can survive these pressures. The future will be determined by the next generation of our two peoples.”