US-China Relations: Nixon and Mao, 50 Years Later
US-China Relations: Nixon and Mao, 50 Years Later

US-China Relations: Nixon and Mao, 50 Years Later

Fifty years ago this week, US President Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China and met with Chinese Communist Party President Mao Zedong. Nixon was the first president of the United States ever to visit China.

At the time, both the United States and China needed an ally against the aggressive Soviet Union. Nixon also wanted Mao’s support to leave the Vietnam War. And after decades of internal unrest, Mao needed American technology to help rebuild China.

The two heads of state met for just over an hour. However, the meeting changed the course of history, helped speed up China’s opening up and laid the foundation for their countries’ future relations. Nixon considered the opening of relations with China as his greatest achievement and called his visit ‘the week that changed the world’. But even the strategically experienced Nixon could not have imagined how dramatically the world would change.

After its establishment in 1949, China was for two decades internationally isolated, poor and ravaged by internal struggles. The Sino-Soviet rift in 1960 paved the way for an opening with the United States. The turning point came in 1971, when the UN General Assembly approved the People’s Republic as China’s sole representative in the world body, in the process of expelling Taiwan.

As they had not had any formal relations for two decades, the first steps of the two countries were preliminary. Pakistan, which had good relations with both, proved to be the most convenient channel. In October 1970, Pakistani President Yahya Khan conveyed a message from Nixon to Prime Minister Zhou Enlai that the United States wanted to normalize relations.

This was followed by ‘ping-pong diplomacy’, the much-publicized visit by the American table tennis team to China in April 1971 and the secret visit of National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to Beijing in July.

Nixon’s visit to China followed, on 21-28. February 1972. Nixon was assisted by the legendary Kissinger and Mao by the urban Zhou.

The meeting with Mao was held on the first day in the chairman’s study. Kissinger describes the discussion as far-reaching, including building relations, Taiwan and a US withdrawal from Vietnam. Mao left Nixon and Zhou to find out the details. At that time, there was no other meeting, apparently due to Mao’s poor health.

The visit resulted in Shanghai communiqué where the United States recognized the one-China policy. The visit had consequences all over the world. America’s Asian allies were concerned as most had defense agreements with the United States. Taiwan was concerned about its special status and Tokyo stepped in shock. The biggest shock, however, was in Moscow, which had warned the United States not to take advantage of the Sino-Soviet division and quickly agreed to a bilateral summit with Washington.

According to Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan, Nixon wished to bring stability to Asia. Kissinger goes a step further and suggests that Nixon wanted a more peaceful world order.

When Deng Xiaoping announced in 1978 that China would open its economy, the West expected a broader change. The assumption was that growth would bring prosperity and that China’s middle class would expand, increasing the pressure for democracy. Gradually – as the optimists thought – China would join the rule-based international order.

To begin with, there was change in the air. Beijing joined the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, creating special economic zones, and foreign funds began to flow. For two decades, Washington used democratization to justify its support for China’s economy. From 1980, the United States annually granted China the status of most-favored-nation, and few restrictions were placed on technology transfers.

However, two events intervened: the violent suppression of Tiananmen Square’s pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later. The Tiananmen incident led to the ouster of reform-oriented CCP Secretary-General Zhao Ziyang, who shifted power to Prime Minister Li Peng’s hardline conservatives. Economic reforms stalled.

The collapse of the Soviet Union deeply shocked the CCP and led to a thorough internal audit. To avoid a similar fate, the party reformed its structures and strengthened internal discipline. Its plans are currently implemented by 95 million carefully selected cadres.

Within two years of Tiananmen, President George HW Bush again granted China MFN status, and in 2001, China was locked into the World Trade Organization.

If Nixon and his successors in a crystal ball had seen China’s rapid rise as a rival superpower, would they have supported China as openly as they did?

University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer has long criticized US support for China. He wonders why four presidents, George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, all proactively helped strengthen China, even though this was contrary to America’s natural geopolitical interest in maintaining its position as the world’s. leading superpower.

Of the four key participants in the Nixon-Mao meeting, only the 98-year-old Kissinger is still alive. According to him, in 1972 Nixon could not have imagined a world where the Soviet Union had collapsed, China had risen to its current stature, and the United States and China were on the brink of a new kind of Cold War.

In a speech in 2021 at the McCain Institute, Kissinger warned of the apocalyptic risks the world faces if war were to break out between the United States and China. The US and Chinese military arsenals are far more devastating now than those from the Cold War, especially given the role of artificial intelligence. And China is wealthy, which the Soviet Union has never been.

50 years later, it almost sounds like a concession from Kissinger that he helped Nixon open Pandora’s box.

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