American-Sino relations have ‘come full circle’

There are lessons to be learned from US President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China 50 years ago

Fifty years on from what United States President Richard Nixon called ‘the week that changed the world,’ it is appropriate to recall one of the most radical policy turnarounds of all time.

Nixon’s opening to Communist China reversed two decades of animosity and war, containment, isolation, and non-recognition, two crises in the Taiwan Strait, as well as threats of nuclear attack.

Yet, we seem to have come full circle back to the state of affairs that rendered Nixon’s historic visit to the People’s Republic of China so dramatic in the first place.

Today, despite more than 40 years of diplomatic ties, China-US distrust is sufficiently high that we expect many points of contention to evolve into crises.

Each side pays close attention to the capabilities and intentions of the other and the Taiwan issue remains a major source of discord.

Two strategic questions underpinning Nixon’s radical shift on China policy remain. First, how to cope with China?

Communist axis

By the end of the 1960s, after 20 years of trying, many in the US knew it was impossible ignore the most populous nation on earth and one-half of the Communist axis driving the Cold War. But which was preferable – a powerful or a weak China?

Nixon’s opening was premised upon the idea that a weak and isolated China was dangerous because it lashed out and incited revolutions elsewhere.

But the subsequent buffering that the US provided to facilitate Chinese security against the USSR in the short-term and Beijing’s economic reforms and ascendance in the medium-term brings us back to those earlier, contentious debates about how a powerful China should be countered or contained.

Second, how to situate China policy within its wider context, especially great power competition?

Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger were preoccupied with manipulating the US-Soviet Union-China ‘strategic triangle’ to maximize US leverage.

Russia’s military has launched sustained attacks on Ukraine. Photo:

After the Cold War, Washington grew accustomed to thinking about China’s policy bilaterally. Yet, current worries over its support for Russia’s campaign in Ukraine remind us about the wider context.

Strategic triangles pivot upon one common adversary. Today, will that be the US or Russia? China is once again the ‘swing voter’ that Washington and Moscow may vie over.

During these times of transition and uncertainty, Nixon’s China trip helps us to think through a crucial question – how does radical policy change occur? How did the US shift from confronting China as its worst enemy to treating its communist leaders as equals and allies?

There were four necessary conditions.

Prior competing ideas and policy debates provided the seeds for change. In conceiving and justifying the opening to China, Nixon drew in 1960s debates and revisionist ideas for changing China policy within US foreign policy and intelligence communities.

Radical change

Those disagreements and often combative policy positions constituted a significant storehouse of well-argued and refined ideas and recommendations for reconciling with China when the time came.

The other side had to be ready for radical change as well.

Earlier US efforts to relax China policy during the Johnson administration went nowhere for the simple reason that the Chinese leadership did not respond.

But the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the 1969 Sino-Soviet border war convinced them that the bigger threat was the Soviet Union. Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai were ready to reach out and would have done so even if it were not Nixon in power.

Big geopolitical changes were afoot, and the two sides’ preferred policy options converged. The divorce between the Soviet Union and China fundamentally divided the Communist opposition, and both Mao and Nixon chose to react to these changes.

Richard Nixon with Premier Zhou Enlai during his trip to Beijing in 1972. Photo: Flickr

It was a choice, not an automatic response. The other policy options considered by US officials to the Sino-Soviet split were to stand by and let them fight it out or to take either the Soviet or the Chinese side against the other.

Finally, Nixon and Kissinger determined how the opening to China was effected. Initially, their conception of triangular relations entailed the United States simultaneously relaxing tensions with both Moscow and Beijing.

They were playmakers in managing to negotiate mutually acceptable terms for reconciliation with China, including Taiwan’s status and US commitments to the island.

Kissinger was also a game-changer. In emphasizing the common threat of the Soviet Union, he took the new relationship with China further towards a tacit alliance that even the Chinese leaders were comfortable with.

By 1973, he offered Zhou a US hotline early-warning system, the sale of superior high-resolution satellite images to help Chinese targeting on Soviet sites and in the event of a Sino–Soviet war, covert aid for Beijing.

Thorny problems

Zhou politely declined, but such cooperation was achieved in the late 1970s under different leaders.

As we approach the thorny problems that will dog China policy for decades to come, it is worth asking whether ours is a system that allows room for different ideas and policy options to be developed and debated.

Are we alert to important shifts in the other sides’ perceptions and imperatives? How do we scan the horizon for significant and unexpected changes in the geopolitical landscape? Are we nurturing creative thinkers who can make a play and change games?

Evelyn Goh is the Shedden Professor of Strategic Policy Studies at The Australian National University. She is the author of Constructing the US Rapprochement with China, 1961-1974 (Cambridge, 2004).

This article is republished from East Asia Forum under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.