It was “the week that changed the world”. February 21, 1972, Chinese leader Mao Zedong and US President Richard Nixon met in Beijing to reset the conditions of their countries, which had been frozen for the previous two decades.
China needed protection from the USSR. Washington was keen to get a new heavyweight partner to counter Moscow. But the long-term goal of the United States was to bring the most populous country into a growing global economic order. The strategic interests of the two great powers were as connected at the time as they collide today.
The Nixon-Mao meeting was only the beginning of a lasting, stable relationship. A few years after Nixon’s China trip, “normalization”Was obtained by Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping, and the United States finally moved its embassy from Taiwan to Beijing.
The relationship has since survived two crucial passages. First, it managed through Ronald Reagan’s administration from 1980 to 1988. This was marked by spiritual support for Taiwan, which in the early days meant representatives such as Vice President (and later President), George HW Bush and former National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger had to carry out some diplomacy of compensation.
Most strikingly, the relationship survived through the suppression of Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Despite the shock to the world, Bush bypassed what Kissinger described as “the bureaucracy and his own ban on high-level exchanges”writes a secret letter to Deng addressing him as lao pengyou – old friend – in memory of the years Bush had spent as a liaison officer in Beijing.
If the US-China train did not derail, it was because the US at the time continued to prioritize economic interests. In fact, a positive peak was reached during the 1990s. With a passionate speech in March 2000, Bill Clinton tried to convince the US Congress that support for China’s accession to the World Trade Organization was the right thing to do for those leaders who believed in “a future of greater openness and freedom for the people of China. [and] in a future of greater prosperity for the American people ”.
This was enough for one military crisis in the Taiwan Strait in 1995-96 and the United States bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 – declared involuntary by the Americans – so as not to ruin the diplomatic efforts of Nixon and others. But this would not hold.
China’s defense spending grew rapidly, and when George W Bush started his race for the White House, he described China as “a competitor, not a strategic partner”. In the meantime, to his Foreign Minister, Condoleeza RiceChina was a “potential threat”.
The shock of 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008 meant that structural tensions between the US and China could be hidden under the carpet through the 2000s. Men Barack Obama “turn to AsiaLaunched between 2011 and 2012, implemented with more war-torn rhetoric by Donald Trump through his trade offensive, revealed that the world is just too small for two great powers like these, no matter who the leaders are.
So tensions between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) did not end when Donald Trump left the White House in January 2021. Just two months ago, Joe Biden invited the West to join the United States in a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics – a practices unheard of since the Cold War.
The current situation is probably too complex to make a mark on – although the trend is clearly diplomatic unraveling. Five decades after the meeting between Nixon and Mao, there are four important lessons to be learned.
1. Nothing is eternal
Everything is changing faster than Western strategists think. Fifty years is a short time in historical perspective, and during this time we have managed to move from a cold war with Russia and the unlocking of relations with China to a new type of cold war between the United States and China.
Many will admit that economic interdependence means we are in a much better place compared to the years of the Cold War. Still others might note that at that time there was a balance of power and diplomacy was able to function effectively with necessary agreements. In the case of the current relations between the United States and China, we instead have a clearly declining superpower with a clearly increasing economic and military power with a wide range of complaints, and the two are unable to reach much-needed diplomatic arrangements.
2. Den liberal international order was never really global
It spread unevenly. This is a critique of the West’s tendency to see the world on its own terms, but in this lesson there is probably an even harder truth. Conceptions of two competing orders are taking shape. Like two China-based researchers, Adam Grydehøj and Ping Su has pointed out:
One person’s “wolf warrior foreign policy” and “debt trap diplomacy” may be another person’s pursuit of a “harmonious world” and “common destiny community”.
This truth is hard to digest. On the one hand, the United States seeks to prevent the erosion of the liberal international order through the containment of China and initiatives such as Bidens Build a better world back (B3W). On the other hand, there is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “common prosperity” campaign and a magnificent strategy based on the concept of “harmony”. These reject domestic interference and seek to shape international regimes to suit China’s model of society.
3. There is no United States without China, and vice versa
The paths of both powers have at least been linked to each other over the last 50 years. It is unrealistic at all to think of a modern history in China without looking at its relationship with the West, especially during the “century of humiliation”, where China had to see – and be ruled by – imperialist nations that ruled the world. The same is true specifically for its relationship with the United States, especially since 1972.
4. National interests still matter
The United States has learned that the neoliberalism of the 1990s has weakened the country as the production of many strategic goods – such as rare earths and widely used drugs – has moved to China. Few people would admit that such a shift was also inspired by the objective success of capitalism with Chinese characteristics.
But if this shift is welcome, the COVID-19 emergency, economic austerity and social unrest could cause us to copy China and introduce this politico-economic model in an illiberal way. This is a lesson that we would be better off taking into account and avoiding now instead of in a few decades.