Nixon had the right to play on China by Minxin Pei
Nixon had the right to play on China by Minxin Pei

Nixon had the right to play on China by Minxin Pei

Revisionist critics claim that the US President’s visit to China in 1972, far from being a diplomatic masterpiece, was a major strategic blunder. But a policy of commitment that helped create 40 years of peace, prosperity and stability between two formerly loyal enemies must be considered a resounding success.

CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – With China currently the only country capable of deposing America as the leading global power, many in Washington may wish that US President Richard Nixon had never made his historic trip to China 50 years ago this month. In their revisionist story, it was Nixon’s meeting with the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong, and the policy of engagement it initiated that helped make China an economic superpower and a geopolitical threat to America. For these critics, the Nixon visit was, far from being a diplomatic stroke of genius, one of history’s greatest strategic blunders.

But such revisionist arguments preclude the significant benefits the United States gained from Nixon’s gambit and decades of American-Chinese engagement that followed. Although China did not directly help the United States, Nixon’s visit changed the perceived balance of power of the Cold War and affected the strategic calculations of both the Soviet Union and North Vietnam, resulting in immediate American gains. America and the Soviet Union signed the first Treaty on the Control of Nuclear Weapons (SALT I) in May 1972, and the United States liberated itself from Vietnam a year later.

The engagement with China also yielded significant long-term geopolitical and economic benefits for the United States. Regional tensions in East Asia eased dramatically, diminishing the Chinese threat to vital American interests there, while the US-China quasi-alliance against the Soviet Union in the 1980s contributed to America’s victory in the Cold War.

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