It has been 50 years since US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972.
Nixon’s visit achieved the normalization of US-China relations, drove a wedge into Sino-Soviet relations, and established a foothold to free the United States from the swamp of the Vietnam War.
The visit was a diplomatic achievement by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.
Half a century later, amid the proliferation of the omicron variant and the crisis in Ukraine, the United States is at least not in the mood to celebrate the anniversary of Nixon’s visit and the “China fever” it triggered. On the contrary, some American critics claim that the aggressive, overbearing China today is the direct result of the American engagement policy that began with the “Nixon in China” extravaganza.
For American supporters of engagement with China, the decade after the Lehman shock of 2008 can be described as a “decade of treason,” which included: military and civilian integration; progress for state-owned enterprises at the expense of the private sector; the belt and the Road Initiative and the expansion of China’s sphere of influence; unilateral and aggressive demands for new territory and territorial waters; cyber attacks, cyber theft and repeated infringements of intellectual property rights; economic coercion and disarmament of markets and supply chains; political intrigue and “wolf war diplomacy”; and finally the emergence of a Sino-Russian entente.
Where did it go wrong? Was the US policy of engagement with China a mistake? Was it a mistake from the beginning – from the time of Nixon’s visit in 1972? Was it because the United States was simply unaware of China’s long games? Or rather, was it because the United States was deceived by China? If the latter, then who was just deceived? And by whom?
In an article written before joining President Joe Biden’s administration as National Security Council Coordinator for Indo-Pacific, Kurt Campbell declared that US policy of engagement with China was a failure. Similarly, NSC China Director Rush Doshi argued in a book published before joining the Biden administration that in the wake of the global financial crisis, China has signaled its readiness to displace the United States as the world’s leading power. Nixon himself was reportedly concerned in his later years that “we may have created a Frankenstein.”
So the question remains: Who has deceived whom?
In the US, Wall Street has been denounced for its secret cooperation with China – specifically for listing Chinese companies, taking huge commissions, creating more and more Chinese billionaires and destroying Main Street and US manufacturers in the process.
Recently, another culprit has emerged: Henry Kissinger, who, as national security adviser, laid the diplomatic foundation for Nixon’s visit to China. For the past half-century, Kissinger has been playing the “Hamelin bird of prey” by leading successive U.S. presidents toward a policy of reconciliation with China.
In his recently published book “America Second: How America’s Elites Are Making China Stronger,” Isaac Stone condemns Fishinger’s consulting business with China as a symbol of the frozen cooperation between China and American elites. Stone Fish sees Kissinger as the archetype of the “elite prisoner”: an influential former politician, government official, or military official in a democratic state who has essentially been “bought” by Russia or China.
Still, it would be far too simplistic to claim that US policy toward China has consistently erred since Nixon’s visit in 1972. The idea that the US was foolish because they did not realize that China was acting on a 100-year plan to overtake the United States – established by the Chinese Communist Party when the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949 – is contrary to historical facts.
Nevertheless, the time has come to reconsider the basis of Kissinger’s strategic approach to China – namely the Group of Two (a G2 in the US and China) theory and its natural extension, the coevolutionary argument.
As China’s power grows, China will not hesitate to change the international order or rules. And if US power declines, China will have little interest in adhering to a G2 or coevolutionary approach. However, limiting the United States to a narrow “G2 outlook” makes it easier for China to close the whole of Asia within its own sphere of influence.
The United States itself can no longer compete with China. Unless the United States strengthens strategic dialogue and cooperation with allied and like-minded countries across the Indo-Pacific region, it will lose the ability to resist or compete with China.
To be sure, Kissinger’s ready wit – his ability to charm the Chinese – may well be a necessary diplomatic tactic to remain in “competitive coexistence” with China.
Back in 1999, I attended a small, informal retreat in a cottage in Tarrytown, New York. The theme of this meeting was Sino-American relations, and one afternoon Henry Kissinger joined our discussion as a special guest. I remember Kissinger saying, “Without exception, every American president works to build a friendly relationship with China – even if he showed no interest in China before he became president. That’s because it’s in the national interest to do so. . ”
I was impressed with Kissinger’s speaking skills. Still, I wondered how many times he had used the exact same words before a Chinese audience.
Yoichi Funabashi is the President of the Asia Pacific Initiative and former Editor-in-Chief of Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.
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