CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – With China currently the only country capable of deposing America as the leading global power, many in Washington might wish that US President Richard Nixon had never taken his historic trip to China 50 years ago this month .
In their revisionist narrative, 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. The United States 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.
On the economic front, cheaper imports from China helped curb U.S. inflation, while U.S. exports to China grew rapidly and U.S. companies expanded their reach to the country’s domestic market. Although competition from Chinese imports led to the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs, it is difficult to argue credibly that the United States has not reaped economic benefits from its engagement policy.
Admittedly, China has achieved significantly more than the United States economically from the bilateral relationship. But it was mainly due to the reform and opening process launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1979. No one, least of all Nixon or Mao, could have foreseen the Chinese economic miracle that would materialize in the decades following their fateful meeting. At the time of Nixon’s visit, Deng was in the political desert, doing little work in Jiangxi Province. It was Mao’s death in 1976 and Deng’s subsequent political rehabilitation and exaltation that changed the course of Chinese history.
If the Nixon-Mao meeting made any difference in China’s progress, it was saving Deng the hassle of having to start over with normalizing relations with the United States Without the Sino-American rapprochement that Nixon and Mao constructed (mainly to countering shared Soviet threats), Deng would have needed more time and effort to persuade the West to embrace China, which had been a pariah state before 1972.
Revisionists also seem to forget that the relationship between the United States and China that Nixon had created rested on a fragile foundation and that US engagement policy was in constant danger of being derailed by actions or events in both countries. Deng himself almost brought an end to US-China engagement when he crushed the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Only the intervention of President George HW Bush, who had served as the second US envoy to China since 1974. to 1975, the policy saved, at the expense of being criticized for having bay with the “butchers of Beijing”.
Nixon’s legacy was again jeopardized in 2001, when the neoconservatives who held dominance in President George W. Bush’s administration decided that a rapidly growing China posed a geopolitical threat and needed to be confronted. But 9/11 intervened before they could implement a new containment policy. For reasons that remain elusive, the same neo-conservatives shifted strategic focus and invaded Iraq in 2003, capturing the United States in the swamp of the Middle East for more than a decade.
Despite the volatility in US-China relations, the engagement policy drafted by Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, served the interests of both countries until about a decade ago. But China’s self-assertion and expansionism under President Xi Jinping have made it impossible to maintain this approach. Nevertheless, a policy that helped create 40 years of peace, prosperity and stability between two formerly loyal enemies must be considered a resounding success.
With the United States and its allies now facing an unfriendly China, it’s tempting to imagine repeating Nixon’s gambit, this time with an ironic twist. Specifically, some commentators in Washington believe that the United States should do a “reverse Nixon” and try to pry Russian President Vladimir Putin from Xi’s embrace.
Unfortunately, those in favor of such a strategy overlook a crucial difference with the Nixon era. The concession that Putin seems to be demanding in the midst of the war threat in Ukraine is a fundamental revision of the post-Cold War agreement in Europe. Few Western leaders, including US President Joe Biden, appear willing to accept such an award in return for weaker Sino-Russian ties.
Likewise, revisionists seem to have forgotten that in addition to risking a domestic political backlash (which never took place), Nixon did not have to make any real, let alone painful, concessions to China (the Taiwan issue was shelved through linguistic slander. ). About 50 years later, his visit to Beijing remains, as the Americans would say, a geopolitical no-brainer.
Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in the United States. © Project Syndicate, 2022.
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