A reminder of the importance of American diplomacy with China

With the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, it may be more insightful to look back not at what occurred in 1979, but rather in the summer of 1944, when the two countries were allies in World War II.

In July 1944, an aircraft carrying senior American officials landed in the Yanan province of China. Known as the Dixie Mission, it represented the first ever contact with the Chinese Communist Party. One of the key Chinese intermediaries was a young revolutionary official then serving as political commissar in Yanan. More than 40 days days later in September 1944, hundreds of miles away, a American Navy plane was shot down over the Pacific Ocean by Japanese weapons. Those two seemingly unrelated events may offer an opportunity to look beyond current trade disputes and commemorate a deeper historic legacy involving two families.

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The young pilot of that aircraft happened to be George H.W. Bush. The Chinese commissar in Yanan was Xi Zhongxun, the father of President Xi Jinping. Following the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979, their lives would again intersect, this time in the state of Iowa. In January 1980, Bush, who had enhanced the relationship between the United States and China while heading the liaison office in Beijing, pulled off a stunning upset of Ronald Reagan in Iowa. It was a victory that would propel him to the vice presidency and eventually the Oval Office.

In October 1980, Xi Zhongxun stepped out from a plane in Des Moines, leading the first group of Chinese provincial governors to visit the United States. As a key adviser to Deng Xiaoping, the visit by Xi Zhongxun would help shape his ideas that would lead to the dramatic transformation of the Chinese economy and its agricultural policies. In 1985, as part of this new focus on agricultural modernization, a young party secretary from Hebei Province arrived in Iowa as part of a “corn processing” delegation. His name was Xi Jinping. The warm welcome he received, particularly in the town of Muscatine, created his unique personal connection to the state.

Over the next three decades, as the bilateral relationship flourished, the sons of those two political leaders would rise to prominence and political leadership. George W. Bush would become governor of Texas and then the 43rd American president. In China, as the policies that his father advocated transformed the country, Xi Jinping would rise within the Chinese Communist Party eventually to the top position of president.

In February 2012, on the cusp of assuming that highest office, Xi Jinping made a sentimental return to Iowa, where once again those two family legacies symbolically came together in Des Moines. Xi Jinping delivered the keynote address at the an international agricultural symposium hosted by the United States and China at the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, a building in which hangs a portrait of George H.W. Bush, who served for two decades on the advisory council of that agricultural organization.

During that conference, a formal agricultural cooperation agreement was finalized, and contracts were signed for $3.5 billion in American soybean exports to China. The return visit of Xi Jinping to Iowa could be seen as representing the zenith in relations between the United States and China. In May 2018, with that relationship now roiled by the imposition of tariffs and with the sale of American agricultural commodities significantly diminished, Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai came to that same Hall of Laureates to help launch a new book about the relationship, authored by Sarah Lande, who had hosted a young Xi Jinping in Muscatine in 1985.

As the ceremony came to a conclusion, the volatile Iowa weather changed dramatically, as the sky darkened and sirens sounded the warning of an approaching tornado. It was an ominous and threatening moment. When the heavy winds subsided and the dark clouds had passed, in the distance it was possible to see that the nearby Chinese designed pavilion, built on the first site that Xi Zhongxun visited in the state in 1980 and which had been dedicated by two former Chinese ambassadors, was left untouched.

That day seems a metaphor for the state of relations between the United States and China. The dark cloud of the ongoing trade war threatens to severely damage the ties that have been nurtured over the past 75 years. Thus, with the commemoration of the anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, the place that offers the best opportunity to inspire the political steps needed to return to that high point of the relationship may be found not in Washington or Beijing, but rather in Des Moines.

Kenneth Quinn serves as the president of the World Food Prize Foundation. He is a former American ambassador and diplomat who spent more than 30 years as a career foreign service officer with the State Department.