51 years after Nixon’s groundbreaking visit, China-US relations at an all-time lowhttps://en.majalla.com/node/287096/documents-memoirs/51-years-after-nixon%E2%80%99s-groundbreaking-visit-china-us-relations-all
This was the one-word cable that US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger sent to the Nixon White House after secretly visiting China in July 1971. He had just managed to successfully negotiate what would soon become a game-changer in international politics: President Richard Nixon groundbreaking visit to China, which came at the height of the Cold War.
It was the first such visit for an American president since the country fell under communist rule in 1949. Kissinger’s secret diplomacy went through Pakistan, the only country in the world that enjoyed good relations with the United States, China, and Soviet Union.
Before it happened, however, the stage had to be set and the American public needed to be prepared. Nixon delivered a televised address on 15 July 1971, telling the American people that he would soon be visiting China.
This was a very bold thing to say. The Vietnam War was still ranging, where thousands of young Americans had died for the “great fight” against international communism. China too had to prepare public opinion, inviting an American ping-pong team to a series of games in 1971, which was dubbed “ping-pong diplomacy.”
No other president had visited China while in office. Ulysses S. Grant did it after leaving the White House, but that was back in 1879. Before coming to office, President Herbert Hoover had lived in China as a mining manager, but that was in 1900. Dwight Eisenhower had made a state visit — not to Beijing — but to Taiwan, in 1960.
No other president had visited China while in office. Ulysses S. Grant did it after leaving the White House, but that was back in 1879. Dwight Eisenhower had made a state visit — not to Beijing — but to Taiwan, in 1960.
Nixon had built his entire career on standing up to international communism, whether in the USSR, East Europe, or North Vietnam and China. In the 1940s, he had harshly condemned his predecessor Harry Truman for "losing" China to the communists, in reference to the American failure to prevent the communist revolution in China.
Diplomatic relations were suspended in 1949 and consecutive US administrations recognised no other state than the Taiwan-based Republic of China, led by their aging ally, Chang Kai-shek. Travelling to Beijing to meet Chang's archenemy, Mao Zedong sounded rather obscene to many Americans, hovering on the edge of ideological heresy.
With time, however, they began to appreciate its audacity, vision, and courage.
Nixon in Beijing
The presidential visit took place on 21-28 February 1972. People around the world stood glued to their television sets, watching in bewilderment as Nixon got off Air Force One, accompanied by his wife Pat, who was wearing a long red coat, carefully chosen to match with "Red China."
The presidential couple toured three cities, visiting the tombs of the Ming Dynasty and the West Lak of Hangzhou. Pictures of Nixon standing before the Great Wall then taking a toast to Chinese premier Zhou Enlai made world headlines.
In his 1982 memoirs Years of Upheaval, Kissinger would later describe Zhou as "among the shrewdest analysts of international affairs that I have encountered." The Chinese prime minister was, in Kissinger's words, "electric, quick, taut, humourous."
That was a far cry from 1954, when former secretary of state John Foster Dulles had famously refused to shake hands with Zhou, when they met at convention in Geneva.
Then came the Kodak moment that the world had been waiting for: Nixon's meeting with Mao Zedong, a man who Americans had been taught to hate for three solid decades.
At the age of 79, Mao was ill, having checked out of hospital just nine days earlier. It took plenty of courage for both men to sit down together, and even, exchange smiles and jokes.
"I believe our old friend Chiang Kai-shek would not approve of this," Mao joked. He then turned to Nixon and smiled: "I voted for you during the last election" (in reference to 1968, when Nixon had been defeated Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey). Nixon charmingly replied: "You voted for the lesser of two evils."
The meeting ended with a porcelain swan statue, presented as a gift to Chairman Mao.
The Shanghai Communique
Nixon's 1972 visited ended years of American-Chinese hostility, and would eventually hasten the conclusion of the Cold War in East Asia. He would later describe it as "the week that changed the world."
In his back-to-back meetings with Zhou, the US president discussed a basket of pressing international issues pertaining to Vietnam, Russia, and the future of Taiwan. The Americans did not formally renounce their commitment to the island but, before Nixon returned home, they signed the Shanghai Communique, which called for a "One China Policy."
In very careful language, the communique mentioned that "all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China." It would be the first of three major communiques between the two countries that aimed at reducing tension, building trust, and advancing bilateral relations.
Nixon then made a final toast to his Chinese hosts at Shanghai's Jinjiang Hotel, saying: "If we can find common ground on which we can both stand; where we can build the bridge between us and build a new world, generations in the years ahead will look back and thank us for this meeting that we have held in this past week."
If we can find common ground on which we can both stand; where we can build the bridge between us and build a new world, generations in the years ahead will look back and thank us for this meeting that we have held in this past week
Then-US President Richard Nixon
Meanwhile, Kissinger commented: "Whenever I left a communist country — with the exception of China — I have experienced an overwhelming sense of relief."
Diplomatic relations were not restored overnight, however, and had to wait for another six years, when they were formally established under President Jimmy Carter in January 1979. The two sides even toyed with the idea of establishing a hotline between Beijing and Washington, which did not happen until 2007.
The Nixon visit had many takeaways, some being immediate and others not so. The first achievement was bringing an end to the US-led global isolation of China.
Many countries that had previously avoided diplomatic relations so as not to upset the Americans, began opening up to China, and this included Britain, Japan, and West Germany. For these US allies, opening embassies in Beijing necessarily meant cutting off relations with Taiwan.
It also encouraged other world leaders to make similar bold moves, most notably Egypt's Anwar al-Sadat who, inspired by Nixon, made his historic trip to Jerusalem in November 1977.
Nixon's visit to China also encouraged other world leaders to make similar bold moves, most notably Egypt's Anwar al-Sadat who, inspired by Nixon, made his historic trip to Jerusalem in November 1977.
The Nixon visit ushered direct foreign investment to China, along with technology transfer, and trade. The influx of US goods served the American economy well, helping curb inflation.
But its most far-reaching impact was in politics. The US, in 1972, was still fighting an endless war in North Vietnam, which Nixon hoped to end, with the help of China.
Countering the USSR
Nixon and Kissinger were also trying to drive a wedge between China and the USSR, the two giants of international communism who were competing for supremacy, and legitimacy, ever since the death of Joseph Stalin back in 1953.
The Russians had amassed troops on the Chinese border, up from 21 armoured units in 1969 to 45 in 1972. During Kissinger's secret 1971 visit, he had proposed third-party mediation through Romania, another communist state, but the Chinese were weary of dealing with Bucharest, fearing Russian influence.
Trust was completely lacking between Beijing and Moscow in 1972. By reaching out to China, Nixon hoped that he could stir further tension in Sino-Russian relations, reminding the Soviets that there was a third superpower out there, which ought to be accommodated on the world stage.
And it was probably because of the China visit that Soviet leaders were encouraged to sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), just two months after Nixon returned from Beijing.
In May 1972, Nixon became the first US president to visit Moscow, where he was received by Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev. His China visit also broke the physiological barrier between the two countries, resulting in Deng Xiaoping visiting the US in January 1979.
A state dinner was held in his honour at the White House, attended by Carter and former president Nixon, who had been impeached following the Watergate scandal in 1974.
Current relations at all-time low
This month was the 51th anniversary of Nixon's visit to China. Twenty-one years ago, it was commemorated by a landmark visit by President George W. Bush to Beijing. This year, however, nobody seems to remember it and if they do, do not look upon it with honour or respect.
Sino-American relations are an all-time low after the US recently identified and shot down a Chinese spy balloon on 4 February 2023, off the coast of North Carolina. China insists that it was not a surveillance object, but rather, civilian aircraft doing meteorological research.
The incident triggered a diplomatic fallout between the two countries, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponing a planned trip to Beijing. Top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi described the US reaction as "unbelievable, almost hysterical," although he did meet with Blinken at a security conference in Munich a few days later.
But it wasn't just the balloon incident that cooled US-Chinese relations. The two countries have been engaged in what some have described as a "technological cold war" for years.
Battles are now being fought in cyberspace, not on the ground, with ex-President Donald Trump describing China as a "strategic competitor" in practically everything. Making things worse is President Joe Biden's lack of interest in honouring the Shanghai Communique of 1972.
But it wasn't just the balloon incident that cooled US-Chinese relations. The two countries have been engaged in what some have described as a "technological cold war" for years. Battles are now being fought in cyberspace, not on the ground.
When it was signed Biden was just starting his political career, winning a seat on the US Senate. Although he remembers its "One China Policy" only too well, the current US president has decided to scrap it, okaying an August 2022 visit to Taiwan by Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi.
Our delegation's visit to Taiwan honors America's unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan's vibrant Democracy.
Our discussions with Taiwan leadership reaffirm our support for our partner & promote our shared interests, including advancing a free & open Indo-Pacific region.
This February, he sent Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Chase to Taiwan, at the apex of the spy balloon crisis.
Towards the end of his term in 2019, Trump had similarly provoked the Chinese by sending Heino Klinck, deputy assistant secretary of defence for east Asia, to Taiwan.
The Pentagon has refused to comment on Chase's 2023 visit, but adding insult to injury, said that the US remains "aligned (to Taiwan) against the current threat of the People's Republic of China." Its spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Martin Meiners, added: "Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid."
In September 2022, Biden said that the US would defend Taiwan in the event of an "unprecedented" Chinese attack. Clearly, the Americans are unhappy with many things about China, including its cuddling up to the Russians and refusal to condemn the Ukraine War.
They have many targets to shoot at, should they want to further drain what remains of the relationship, although Biden has recently been quoted saying that he plans to speak to President Xi Jinping to "get to the bottom" of the spy balloon problem.
So far, no phone call has happened. Until it does, it seems that the Shanghai Communique, as well as Nixon's entire 1972 China visit, have both been thrown into the dustbin of history —at least for now.