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.