Architects of peace leave legacies of honor and admiration. That’s why Jimmy Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
Architects of global order also leave legacies. If there is one U.S. president besides Richard Nixon who remains admired in China today, it is Carter, who has now forsaken any more hospital admissions, preferring to live out the remainder of his days at his home in Plains, Georgia. His noble life, however, can create a new dawn for U.S.-China relations if Beijing prepares to honor Carter’s legacy and emulate the 39th president’s bold approach toward peace.
Blessed are the peacemakers, the children of God, who eventually calls on us all to leave this earthly paradise. Death is both unavoidable and unwelcome. It is uncomfortable to ponder or predict. The timing of a person’s passing should not forestall planning for death or be considered an affront to a magnificent legacy. Journalists pre-write obituaries. Monarchies prepare succession. States plan options and opportunities.
China should contemplate options to honor Jimmy Carter when he dies and, in the process, open today’s tightly shut door to dialogue with Washington. The U.S. can subtly encourage them to do so. I realize that advising Beijing, even openly, is not typical for an American foreign affairs analyst, but there are enormous U.S. security benefits from improved communications with our strategic competitor.
While the 98-year-old is in hospice, the Chinese leadership should contact the president and his family through the Carter Center to express sympathy for him and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. The center recently announced that the former first lady has dementia.
When Carter passes away, the People’s Republic of China ought to send a high-level delegation to the United States and a message to Joe Biden’s administration—and all Americans—that it wants to build on the Annapolis graduate’s legacy of closer Sino-U.S. ties. Such gestures from China, whose culture values “face”—a deeply ingrained Chinese cultural understanding of personal and societal honor—would show that our nations can get along and share respect for Carter and what he represented.
China’s delegation to the U.S. should be led by Chairman Xi Jinping, who could personally honor Carter at any state funeral.
If anti-communist and former redbaiter Nixon was the only American politician who had the political capital to go to Beijing to open diplomatic relations, Xi Jinping might be the only Chinese Communist leader able to deliver a breakthrough reopening to America at this moment of escalating tension and diminishing diplomacy. This should be Xi’s “Carter Moment.”
Sino-American relations are at their lowest point in the post-Mao Tse Tung era. Tension over Taiwan, trade, cyber security, forces in the Pacific, and the PRC’s partnership with Vladimir Putin only worsens things, with Sinologists and U.S. military leaders openly predicting a war between the world’s first and second-largest economies. Although Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s mission to Beijing earlier this month was welcome and well executed, it doesn’t end the impasse, as our chief diplomat would be the first to admit. In Beijing, Xi and his advisors continue to balk at what were once frequently used lines of communication between the Pentagon and the People’s Liberation Army. In the straits of Taiwan, China’s warships play cat-and-mouse games with Western navies, and Chinese jets have buzzed American reconnaissance planes. If that wasn’t bad enough, China is actively propagating a worldview of America in rapid and inevitable social, political, and economic decline, with China rising to become the world’s sole superpower.
Bad beliefs combined with bad intentions can lead to bad outcomes, and that’s why an act of goodwill could change the current trajectory.
Why should Xi make the trek and risk appearing to kowtow to Biden’s America?
First, if there is real momentum within China for the PRC to take Taiwan militarily and confront America and her allies in the Indo-Pacific, this would allow Xi to tap the brakes and reassess his position, his power, and the PLA’s preparedness. Russia’s war on Ukraine should be giving him and his forces pause. Kyiv’s unanticipated strength and resolve have reminded the world (including Beijing and Taipei) that national solidarity can stifle a ruthless aggressor, even when outgunned and outmanned. The PRC has fought few wars, none since battling Vietnam in 1979, and won still fewer. A Carter pause would be a welcome breather for a hardline Chinese leadership with no credible feedback loop or red team approach for self-critical decision-making; by all accounts, Xi and his handpicked Politburo Standing Committee are in an information bubble that does not brook bad news or critical analysis.
Getting out of that isolation chamber, if only for a day or two, would allow Xi to personally assess American power. It would also give him a moment to dwell on any late-stage adventurist trepidation he may be having regarding the use of force in Taiwan or aiding Russia’s war against Ukraine on NATO’s doorstep. An opportunity to cool the Taiwan rhetoric and ease up on the Putin coziness need not be publicly acknowledged. It could also be couched as part of a sincere effort to improve relations with Washington.
Second, it is a way for China to hold America to its commitment to the One China policy initiated by Carter. It was the 39th president who withdrew recognition of the Republic of China and handed it to Beijing, opening the door for the PRC to thrive in the global community of nations. It may be hard for Washington and Congress to swallow the implications of a reinforced One China policy at this time, and Taipei will be nervous. After all, the island feels threatened. Taiwan’s seas and skies are regularly and aggressively trespassed, even as its global power has soared owing to its overwhelming production of the world’s microchips.
Xi’s honoring and reflecting on Carter’s realpolitik balancing legacy would weigh heavily in the current equation of Washington’s support for strengthening Taiwan. As Carter did in 1979, Xi can boldly take advantage of Carter’s passing to articulate his intentions without the bluster of flybys and missile tests. Giving Xi the space to do this does not mean Congress need back down on Taiwan. It can assert its decades-long, bipartisan support of a peaceful resolution of any China-Taiwan conflict and underscore our “strategic ambiguity” policy while intimating an even more muscular American and allied resolve towards assisting Taipei in the event of a Chinese attack.
Third, state funerals allow for direct diplomacy. They stretch the boundaries of formal discourse. They are breaks from the script and moments for reflection. They can raise the spirits and lower the heat. These are opportunistic moments to have sidebar conversations, as when Barack Obama met Raúl Castro in Panama. Leaders can circumvent formal structures out of public view. Direct dialogue can prevent mistakes and miscalculations. Biden and Xi Jinping are well prepared for this.
Washington should speed the moment by dropping diplomatic hints that Xi Jinping would be welcome to come and honor Carter and that Biden would informally receive him.
Our president excels at personal diplomacy and has proven he can both hold his own and have an honest conversation, making clear America’s resolve without posturing. Such ballast comes from chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and from serving as vice president and president. If Xi comes to praise and bury Carter, it will give him a chance to make publicly and privately clear what he wants from the American president who he’s known for years. As is true at all funerals, they could discuss their families, hopes for the future, and eventual legacies. In death, Carter can inspire and continue to champion peace, hope, and love.
Markos Kounalakis is a Hoover Institution visiting fellow and California’s first Second Gentleman.