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Common and respective strategic interests brought the former US President Nixon to Beijing 50 years ago. Now the two countries see their relations stand at another crucial point

By Yu Xiaodong Updated May.1

A special event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Ping-Pong Diplomacy between China and the US in Shanghai, April 10, 2021

A Chinese and an American Ping-Pong player train together in China, April 1971

February 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of former US president Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972. Along with his national security adviser Dr. Henry Kissinger, Nixon met with Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong and premier Zhou Enlai. Concluding with the joint statement known as the Shanghai Communiqué, the visit paved the way for the establishment of formal relations between the two countries in 1979.  

Referred to by Nixon as “the week that changed the world” and described by Zhou as an event that “would shake the world,” the visit triggered a geopolitical earthquake, tipping the balance of the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. But as the China-US relationship has taken a downturn in recent years, the historic significance of Nixon’s trip has been increasingly challenged and opened to reinterpretation in the US, which poses risks to Sino-US relations. 

The Rapprochement 
To understand the relevance of Nixon’s China visit to the current China-US relationship, one needs to look back on the history of the China-US relationship. When Nixon embarked on his groundbreaking trip, the two countries had been locked in animosity for two decades since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, after the Communist Party of China (CPC) defeated the US-backed Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), which fled to Taiwan, an island liberated from Japanese occupation at the end of World War II just a few years earlier.  

After the Korean War broke out in 1950, troops from China and the US directly engaged on the Korean Peninsula, prompting China to adopt the so-called “leaning to one side” policy and tilt to the socialist camp led by the Soviet Union, while the US put Taiwan under its protection.  

But as ideological and border disputes led to rising tension between China and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and 1960s, a diplomatic opening emerged as both China and the US regarded the Soviet Union as a strategic adversary and shared converging interests in improving ties with each other. Leaders from both countries grasped the chance for a diplomatic breakthrough.  

Given the long-standing hostility between the two countries, it required shrewd diplomatic wisdom and bold and creative maneuvers to achieve such a breakthrough. This involved a visit from the US table tennis team to China in April 1971, in what became known as Ping-Pong diplomacy, and a secret trip by US National Security Advisor Dr. Henry Kissinger to China in July 1971.  

The real breakthrough, however, came during Nixon’s visit to China, where the two governments agreed to manage rather than resolve their differences, particularly on the Taiwan issue.  

In the Shanghai Communiqué signed by the two sides at the end of Nixon’s visit, China declared that the government of the PRC was the sole legal government of China and that Taiwan was part of China. The US, on its side, “acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position.” It would take further negotiations for the two sides to settle the issue before they could agree to establish formal diplomatic relations. The joint communiqué announced the two countries would establish diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979, saying the US “recognizes the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China. Within this context, the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.” But it was Nixon’s trip that jumpstarted the US’s engagement with China.  

For the US, the rapprochement with China helped end the Vietnam War and allowed it major leverage against the Soviet Union, which eventually led to its victory in the Cold War. For China, it helped end its international isolation and paved the way for the reform and opening-up policy China launched under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping in late 1970s.  

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the rationale underlining the partnership between China and the US shifted from security to economic ties. Bilateral trade increased from US$7.7 billion in 1985 to US$116 billion in 2000. After China joined the World Trade Organization with the backing of the US, China gradually established itself as “the world’s factory,” and bilateral trade between China and the US increased to more than US$756 billion in 2021, almost 100 times of the 1985 level. 

Historical ‘Revisionism’ 
But as China’s economy grew to become the world’s second-largest and is expected by many to surpass that of the US in the foreseeable future, China is increasingly seen as an economic and strategic adversary rather than a partner. Under the Trump administration, the US launched a trade and technology war against China, which was later strengthened under the Biden administration.  

With rising anti-China sentiment, Nixon’s visit, once hailed as a masterstroke of diplomatic genius, is now described by many in the US as one of the worst strategic blunders in America’s diplomatic history.  

In a speech made during his trip to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in California on July 23, 2020, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Nixon failed in his mission in China, as it had not brought the change in China he had hoped to induce. Pompeo called for the Western world to adopt a united front to stand against China to “set the tone” of engagement with China.  

But most political scientists in both China and the US consider this a revisionist interpretation that distorts historical facts about Nixon’s visit. According to Wu Xinbo, a professor and dean of the Institute of International Studies at Shanghai-based Fudan University, Nixon’s trip was never about changing China’s political system, but about seeking common ground despite their differences. During his visit, Nixon explicitly said that “it is not our common beliefs that have brought us together here, but our common interests and our common hopes.”  

In his meeting with Mao and Zhou, Nixon said that the two countries were to “build a new world order, in which nations and peoples with different systems and different values can live together in peace, respecting one another while disagreeing with one another.”  

According to Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, Nixon’s engagement with China yielded significant longer-term geopolitical and economic dividends for the US. Not only did it shift the Cold War balance of power and contribute to an American victory in the Cold War, joining the world’s supply chain helped contain US inflation with China’s lower-priced products. In exchange, Nixon did not make any substantial concessions to China, except some changes of rhetoric on the Taiwan issue.  

In an article published in the Foreign Service Journal in June 2021, Robert Griffiths, a professor at Brigham Young University who served as consul general in Shanghai from 2011 to 2014, argued that the disappointment among many Americans that China did not become what the West desired it to be stems from an unrealistic and self-made expectation, one not based in the rapprochement between China and the US.  

“Had we not embraced the Chinese nation... but instead obstructed China’s development despite its great promise in so many areas, history would have judged us very harshly,” Griffiths wrote. He believes that given China’s long history, deep culture and its experience of humiliation at the hands of Western powers, regaining its place in the world is a shared aspiration among the Chinese people, not an invention of the Chinese leadership.  

According to Jin Canrong, an outspoken professor from the Beijing-based Renmin University of China, the US gained more far from its rapprochement than China. Arguing that the so-called “favorable” trade policy of the US toward China has been exaggerated, Jin stressed that exports to China were always tightly controlled by the West in the past decades, first by the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (CoCom) established by the West after the end of World War II, which was replaced by the Wassenaar Arrangement in 1996, an export control regime which bans the exports of defense and dual-use goods and technologies.  

In contrast, the US adopts much more favorable trade policies toward its allies, including countries with similar economic conditions to China such as Mexico, but none has achieved what China has. Jin said that China’s success is mostly a Chinese story, and the rapprochement with the US only served as one of many contributing factors. 

Despite the heated debates and discussions about the significance of Nixon’s visit to China, a bipartisan consensus has emerged in the US of the need for a tougher stance against China. It is no surprise that many now view the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s visit to China with much apprehension, and that the anniversary was largely ignored by the White House.  

When asked whether the White House would make any comments on the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s visit to China in a regular press conference on February 23, White House spokesperson Ned Price appeared to be caught off guard. “There are some anniversaries that we commemorate there. There are other anniversaries that we don’t. I’m not aware of any plans at the moment for a statement,” Price said.  

In comparison, China commemorated the event, though not at the highest level. In a speech delivered to one of the commemorative events held on February 22, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on the US to return to a “rational and pragmatic” policy toward China and to adhere to the political commitments the US government made in the Shanghai Communiqué, particularly on the Taiwan issue. 

Way Forward 
According to Professor Zhang Baijia, former deputy director of the Party History Research Center of the CPC Central Committee, despite vast differences in the bilateral relationship, some fundamental factors that led to the rapprochement in the first place are unchanged.  

“What drove the rapprochement between China and the US was realistic and pragmatic considerations 50 years ago, and it is still in the two countries’ interests to cooperate with each other,” he said.  

In an article published on February 18, Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent writing in the US-based Foreign Policy argued that what the Biden administration can learn from Nixon’s trip is to take “an equally imaginative approach” to revive the bilateral relationship.  

Positing that the only way forward for the China-US relationship is to adopt what Kissinger called the “pragmatic concept of coexistence,” Hirsh argued that instead of trying to change China’s political system, the US should acknowledge the two countries’ different political and social systems, like Nixon did, and foster cooperation on various regional and global issues between the two countries.  

Citing Kissinger’s famous quote that ambiguity is sometimes “the lifeblood of diplomacy,” Hirsh added that the Biden administration should continue to “finesse their disagreement on Taiwan.”  

“Contrary to the simplistic notion that he [Kissinger] and Nixon turned China into a friend or ally, the two countries stated explicitly where they disagreed but agreed to focus on the places they could cooperate,” Hirsh wrote.  

According to Tao Wenzhao, a senior research fellow at the American Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), the China-US relationship is now at a new crossroads. Speaking at a commemorative forum organized by Peking University and Phoenix TV on February 25, Tao described Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 as the first “reset” of the bilateral relationship, and former Chinese president Jiang Zemin’s visit to the US in 1997 and US president Bill Clinton’s reciprocal visit to China in 1998 the second reset.  

“Last year was the year that the two countries reset their relationship for the third time,” said Tao, adding that under the Biden administration, the free-fall trajectory of the China-US relationship has stopped as the two sides resumed high-level talks. But to prevent the bilateral relationship from becoming irreversibly damaged, the two sides need to resume dialogues at all levels and in all sectors.  

According to Professor Wu Xinbo, the spirit underlining Nixon’s trip to China remains as relevant as 50 years ago. “Just as Nixon and Kissinger opened a new chapter for the relationship between China and the US by adjusting their perception of China 50 years ago, the current leaders of the US should have the wisdom and courage to choose a better path for the bilateral relationship by correcting its misunderstanding of China and adopting a pragmatic and constructive policy toward China,” Wu said.  

As the China-US relationship has become the most important bilateral relationship in the world, the direction and prospect of the relationship in the coming year will have a far-reaching impact.  

During his trip in 1972, Nixon told Mao and Zhou that “if our two peoples are enemies, the future of this world we share together is dark indeed... The world watches, the world listens, the world is waiting to see what we will do.” What Nixon said 50 years ago still reverberates today.

Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping visits the US on invitation from President Jimmy Carter in January 1979. He was the first Chinese leader to visit the US after the founding of the PRC

US General Alexander Haig (front, second from right), who served as the White House Chief of Staff, stands on the roof of Broadway Mansions Hotel in Shanghai, January 1972

US President Richard Nixon is received by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing, February 21, 1972

Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai meet Richard Nixon and US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger at Zhongnanhai in Beijing on February 21, 1972

Zhou Enlai talks with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger before signing the Sino-US Joint Communiqué in Beijing, in February 1972