BEIJING – At the height of the Cold War, US President Richard Nixon flew into Communist China’s power center for a visit that would over time transform US-China relations and China’s position in the world in ways unimaginable at the time. .
Relations between China and the United States would always be a challenge, and after half a century of ups and downs, it is more crowded than ever. The Cold War is long gone, but on both sides there is fear of a new one could be incipient. Despite repeated Chinese rejections, America worries that the democratically led world that won over the Soviet Union could be challenged following the authoritarian model of a powerful and ever-increasing China.
“The relationship between the United States and China has always been controversial, but one of necessity,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a China expert at Stanford University. “Maybe 50 years ago, the reasons were primarily economic. Now they’re mostly in the security zone. But the relationship has never – and never will – be easy.”
Nixon landed in Beijing on a gray winter morning 50 years ago on Monday. Billboards carried slogans such as “Down with American imperialism,” part of the upheaval during the Cultural Revolution that banished intellectuals and others to the country and subjected many to public humiliation and brutal and even deadly attacks in the name of class struggle.
Nixon’s trip in 1972, which included meetings with President Mao Zedong and a visit to the Great Wall of China, led to the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979 and the simultaneous severance of formal relations with Taiwan, which the United States had recognized as the Chinese government after Communists seized power in Beijing in 1949.
Premier Zhou Enlai’s translator wrote in a memoir that Nixon, to the best of his recollection, said, “This hand extends beyond the Pacific in friendship,” as he shook Zhou’s hand at the airport.
For both sides, it was a friendship born of circumstances, rather than natural fidelity.
China and the Soviet Union, former communist allies, had split and even clashed along their border in 1969, and Mao saw the United States as a potential counterweight to any threat of a Soviet invasion.
Nixon sought to isolate the Soviet Union and leave a protracted and bloody Vietnam War that had divided American society. He hoped that China, an ally of communist North Vietnam in its struggle with the US-backed South, could play a role in resolving the conflict.
The US president put himself “in the position of supplicant to Beijing,” said June Teufel Dreyer, a Chinese policy specialist at the University of Miami. Chinese state media promoted the idea that “a prosperous China would be a peaceful China” and that the country was a huge market for American exports, she said.
It would be decades before that happened. First, the United States became a huge market for China, driving the latter’s rapid progress from a poor nation to the world’s second largest economy.
Nixon’s visit was an “important event that heralded China’s outward turn and subsequent rise globally,” said University of Chicago’s Dali Yang, author of several books on Chinese politics and economics.
Two years after Mao’s death in 1976, the new leader Deng Xiaoping ushered in an era of partial economic liberalization, creating a mixture of state-run capitalism and one-party rule that has survived to this day.
China’s wealth has enabled a greater expansion of its military, which the United States and its allies see as a threat. The Communist Party says it is only seeking to defend its territory. However, it includes attempts to control islands, which Japan also claims in the East China Sea and by Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea, home to important shipping routes and natural resources.
The military has sent an increasing number of warplanes on training missions to Taiwan, a source of friction with the United States. China claims the autonomous island off its east coast as its territory. The United States supplies Taiwan with military equipment and warns China against any attempt to take it by force.
Yet Nixon’s trip to China was subsequently hailed as the signature foreign policy achievement of an administration that ended in disgrace with Watergate.
Starting the process of bringing China back into the international fold was the right step, but the last half century has not yet put the relationship on a stable track, said Rana Mitter, professor of Chinese history and modern politics at Oxford University.
“The United States and China have still not figured out exactly how they will both fit into a world where they both have a role, but find it increasingly difficult to accommodate each other,” he said.
Chinese officials and scholars see the Nixon visit as a time when the two countries sought communication and mutual understanding despite their differences. Zhu Feng, dean of the School of International Studies at Nanjing University, said the same approach is key to overcoming the current stalemate.
“The commemoration of Nixon’s visit tells us if we can draw some kind of power from history,” he said.
Although his trip to China gave the United States leverage in their rivalry from the Cold War with the Soviet Union, America now faces a new geopolitical landscape – with echoes of the past.
The Soviet Union is gone, but the Russian and Chinese leaders, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, find common ground as they push back against American pressure over their authoritarian ways. The Vietnam War is over, but America is once again experiencing that society is divided, this time due to the pandemic and the last presidential election.
US President Joe Biden has said he wants a more predictable relationship with China, but major differences in trade and human rights make mutual understanding impossible. The prospect of long-term stability in the bands raised by Nixon’s visit appears to be still further out of reach.
“China-US relations are terrible,” said Xiong Zhiyong, a professor of international relations at China Foreign Affairs University. “There are actually people who are hoping to improve the relationship, but it’s completely hard to achieve.”