This week, the United States and China are marking the golden anniversary of their modern relationship. In February 1972, US President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, boarded a plane in Beijing and met shortly after Chinese Communist Party President Mao Zedong. Their visit triggered a geopolitical earthquake, what Nixon referred to as ‘the week that changed the world’.
This historic rapprochement swept away two decades of enmity between the People’s Republic of China – known by most Americans at the time as Red or Communist China – and the United States. The opposition had its roots in the Chinese Civil War, in which the United States supported the anti-communist nationalist side, which lost and was forced to escape to Formosa (Taiwan) in 1949. The following year, Chinese and American soldiers started struggling and killed each other in the Korean War.
Rising Sino-Soviet tensions in the late 1960s created a diplomatic opening. Nixon and Kissinger, along with Mao and Zhou Enlai, China’s prime minister and leading diplomat, viewed the Soviet Union as a common opponent. China sought protection from a one-time benefactor with whom it had fought a deadly battle border collision in 1969. Nixon and Kissinger meanwhile believed that an entente with China would give the United States leverage against the Soviets and could hasten the end of the Vietnam War. It was a classic case of my enemy’s enemy being my friend.
Even with this convergence of interests, a breakthrough was not easy. The two governments had to agree to deal with, rather than resolve, many of their disagreements. The carefully negotiated document released at the end of Nixon’s journey, the Shanghai communiquénoted the differences between the political systems and foreign policies of the two countries.
With regard to Taiwan, the most controversial issue, China stated its position that the Communist government on the mainland was China’s only legitimate government and that Taiwan was a province of China. In an example of creative diplomacy at its best, the United States recognized, but did not support, the Chinese position and highlighted its interest in a peaceful settlement of the conflict.
Common hostility to the Soviet Union was the glue that held together the Sino-US relationship for the next two decades, until the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. China and the United States then thought they had found a new justification for their relationship in budding economic ties. Each side wanted access to the other’s market; the Chinese also wanted access to US capital and know-how. Bilateral trade increased dramaticallyfrom about $ 20 billion in 1990 to $ 120 billion a decade later.
Bilateral trade accelerated further with China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, as did the United States Supported in the hope that it would promote the emergence of a more market-oriented, liberal China. For a while, this seemed like a reasonable, albeit long-term, bet. But over the past decade, under President Xi Jinping, the role of government in the Chinese economy has grown, subsidies have increased, and intellectual property theft has continued. The economic relationship became more and more one-sided, with the annual US bilateral trade deficit with China consistently running into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Likewise, the hope that economic engagement would lead to political liberalization showed, in vain. During Xi, China has become more oppressive than at any time since the Mao era. The central government has crushed democracy in Hong Kong, introduced strictly controls over the Internet, and forced about one million Uighurs into re-education camps in an attempt to erase their religious and cultural identity.
In addition, China has become much more assertive abroad. It has militarized the South China Sea, used power against India and repeatedly sent its military to threaten Taiwan and Japan. As a result, a new Cold War between the United States and China is largely assumed to be either inevitable or already underway. Some observers even argue that the whole effort to integrate China into an American-led world order was an ill-considered fantasy, a doomed game that accelerated the emergence of a great power rival.
Adding spot to injury is the reality that what began 50 years ago as Sino-US cooperation against the Soviet Union has turned into Sino-Russian cooperation against the United States. In a recent joint declaration, Russia supported China’s position on the origin of Covid-19, as well as on Taiwan. China returned the service by opposing further NATO enlargement and, as an additional intervention to Russian policy towards Ukraine, failed to reiterate its long-standing foreign policy principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs.
The worsening trend in Sino-US conditions is dangerous for the world. The growing geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China can not only lead to conflict, but also risk excluding cooperation on global challenges ranging from climate change and infectious diseases to cyber threats and nuclear proliferation.
Half a century ago, the United States responded to the Sino-Soviet divide with a foreign policy that was creative in design and execution. Nixon’s diplomatic coup helped ensure that the Cold War remained cold and ended on favorable terms for the West.
The best way to mark the 50th anniversary of the opening to China is not with champagne, but by creating an equally imaginative approach to reviving the relationship. This, in turn, would recognize the differences between the political and social systems of the two countries, continue to refine their disagreement over Taiwanmaintain economic ties other than those involving sensitive technologies, and foster cooperation on regional issues such as Afghanistan and North Korea, in addition to tackling global challenges together.
It is no less important that the United States address its national divisions, expand its cooperation with European and Asian allies to deter Chinese aggression, and join regional trade pacts. Regular high-level discussions with Chinese leaders are imperative. The goal should not be to transform China, anything beyond our ability, but to influence its behavior.
Diplomacy is an instrument of national security that must be used if other instruments, including the military, are not to be overused.