Menu
Share
Share this story
Close X
 
Switch to Desktop Site

Leonard Woodcock in China: listening to the unspoken

A black limousine with the Stars and Stripes fluttering on its fender cruises down Peking's broad Changan Boulevard, past the Gate of Heavenly Peace and the yellow-tiled roofs of the Forbidden City, and turns south into the entrance of the massive Great Hall of the People.

Out steps a heavyset man of medium height, keen eyes peering from behind thick glasses. Leonard Woodcock, former president of the United Automobile Workers and American envoy to Peking for the past 2 1/2 years, is on another of his innumerable daily tasks -- perhaps routine State Department business, perhaps escorting a delegation from New York or Pennsylvania, perhaps preparing for a Chinese visit to Washington.

About these ads

When he is not doing any of these things (and during one particularly strenuous stretch he had to attend 15 Chinese banquets in a row), Mr. Woodcock likes to stay at home with his wife, Sharon, reading and listening to music. He has just finished reading "American Caesar" by William Manchester, he told a recent visitor. Mr. Woodcock is friendly, but with a hint of shyness. His speech is direct and to the point.

Somewhere in his accent there is a trace of the Lancashire town (Oldham) in which he spent his childhood and early teens. (Mr. Woodcock, born in Providence , R.I., was taken by his British parents to Germany and Britain before returning to the United States at the age of 15.) One feels, instinctively, that here is a man whose yea means yea and whose nay means nay.

Mr. Woodcock is considered by many professional diplomats to be the most successful of the individuals to have occupied the post of US representative in Peking since President Nixon's historic visit in February 1972.

He was the chief negotiator of the process known as "normalization," whereby the US derecognized Taiwan and established full diplomatic relations with Peking. How did he, neither a China expert nor a professional diplomat, manage to succeed in this difficult, delicate task?

"One of the most important things I have learned in negotiating," he said in a recent interview, "is to listen very carefully to what is not being said.

"More particularly," he continued, he learned to listen "to what is not being said now as compared to what was being said two or three weeks ago." This was a skill he acquired during the many years he sat across the table from executives of General Motors as chief negotiator for the United Automobile Workers. It stood him in good stead during the six months of normalization talks with China, from July to December 1979.

When he arrived in Peking in July 1977 as chief of the US liaison mission, Mr. Woodcock said, Sino-American relations were cool. The impetus of the visits by Presidents Nixon and Ford had worn off. Though each President had promised normalization of diplomatic relations, Washington still had an embassy in Taiwan and a defense treaty with it.

About these ads

This coolness remained for many months while the Chinese sized up the new Carter administration and its envoy to Peking. Mr. Woodcock, a strong believer in a need for normalization between Washington and Peking, traveled widely in China and spoke earnestly to various visiting American delegations about the need for normalization.

Soon after his arrival Mr. Woodcock became convinced of two things: First, China would never agree to an explicit guarantee that it would not use force against Taiwan -- not because it intended to do so, but because this was an issue of sovereignty, its right to act as it chose regarding its own territory.

Second, the US could not throw Taiwan away "like a dirty glove" -- that while severing diplomatic relations with that government it must insist on retaining the freedom to sell Taiwan "carefully selected defensive arms."

Others in the Carter administration also reached these conclusions, and in July 1978 Mr. Woodcock was instructed to begin normalization negotiations with the Chinese. The talks were a well-kept secret. Only five persons in Washington and two persons in the American mission in Peking knew of them.

American and Chinese negotiating styles were different.The US put forward its points session by session until finally its entire negotiating position was made clear. The Chinese, meanwhile, gave away nothing, repeating their own basic position until they had a clear idea of exactly where the Americans stood.

Not until months later on Dec. 4 was there a breakthrough -- a hint that if the US said publicly it expected a peaceful solution of the Taiwan question, Peking would not contradict it.

During all these sessions Mr. Woodcock listened, both to what was being said and what was not being said. His personal relations with the Chinese remained excellent. Finally on Dec. 13 he was given access to Deputy Premier Deng Xiaoping in what both sides recognized as the climax of the long talks. The climax to the talks came on Dec. 13 when Mr. Woodcock was allowed to meet with Deputy Premier Deng Xiaoping:

"Mr. Deputy Premier," he told Mr. Deng, "I have in my pocket a short communique which I'm authorized to show you if you want to see it."

Previously, the Chinese had rejected the text of a longer communique proposed by the United States, while Washington had also rejected a Chinese communique. Still, both sides agreed that relations should be normalized by Jan. 1, 1979.

Mr. Woodcock expected the deputy premier to take the new communique home with him to study overnight.

Instead, Mr. Deng had the text translated to him immediately, and then went through it point by point.

"We'll accept that. . . . We can't accept that. . . . This is nicely put. . . . How about changing this part?"

Thus the conversation went, and at the end of the day only three points of difference remained. Within two days, these points had also been cleared up.

"We will never agree to your selling arms to Taiwan," Mr. Deng told him on the 15th in regard to the final sticking point, "but we will set that aside in order to achieve normalization."

What have been the fruits of normalization -- a process that enabled Mr. Woodcock formally to assume the post of American ambassador to China?

"We're much further along than I expected," he says, then adds a caveat: "Let the relationship build itself. I hope we stay on a steady course, with no big jumps or wild leaps."

He is satisfied that Peking has kept its part of the bargain. There has been no threatening move against Taiwan.

"I am sure, he said, "that if there is no outside interference, Taiwan and Peking will find ways of reconciling their interests."

The ambassador also strongly opposes any notion of the US playing the "China card" against the Soviet Union. The more cooperative relations are among China, Japan, and the US, the better the chances for peace and stability in the Pacific , he thinks.

But such cooperative relations (by no means an alliance) involving the three should not be directed against the Soviet Union. In fact, Mr. Woodcock believes , China wants to stabilize state-to-state relations with the Soviet Union and was moving in this direction until Moscow invaded Afghanistan.

It would not surprise Mr. Woodcock, therefore, if Peking picked up its interrupted dialogue with Moscow once the Afghanistan issue was resolved.

And what of China itself, and its prospects for stability after so tumultuous a recent past? What are the chances that the present line of economic liberalization and of cautious welcome for Western trade and investment will last?

Well, says the ambassador, he has told visiting business groups that considering all the zigzags in China's recent history, he would be a fool to predict continuing stability and lasting order now. "But I'm going to be a fool and do just that," he continues.

Having seen the operating style of the Chinese leadership, Mr. Woodcock is convinced that it is by no means a one-man show. The searing experience of the Cultural Revolution, when they "literally looked chaos in the face," has taught the present leadership that it must prepare for an orderly succession. China is probably the only Communist country except Yugoslavia to do this, the ambassador says.

Mr. Woodcock would encourage American businessmen to work with China "in this relatively lean period." Those who do so now, who help China to develop its resources, to get well and truly started on the path of sustained economic growth, are most likely to be remembered once that more prosperous future arrives.


Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.