Few geopolitical events in the 20th century could compare to Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China 40 years ago. Today, the “week that changed the world” is chiefly remembered as a bold gamble in diplomatic revolution that paid off handsomely for the American president and the United States. Even more obvious today, however, is that the Nixon visit started a process that eventually ended China’s self-imposed isolation and paved the way for the Middle Kingdom’s re-emergence as a great power. Over the last 40 years, China has gained far more than the United States from the Sino-American strategic rapprochement.
In terms of security, the quasi-alliance established between the United States and China following the visit vastly enhanced China’s ability to stand up to the Soviet Union, which amassed 30 to 40 divisions against China and was contemplating a preemptive strike on Chinese nuclear facilities shortly before the Nixon visit. Of course, adding China as a balancer against the Soviet Union helped the United States wage the Cold War. But the United States would have ultimately defeated the Soviet Union in this contest even without the Chinese contribution, which was modest in substantive terms.
Given the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the economic dividends of the U.S.-China rapprochement would have to wait a few more years. It wasn’t until Deng Xiaoping’s return to power – and the economic revolution his reforms launched – that China began to appreciate the economic importance of its ties with the United States. Obviously, the astute Deng himself grasped this importance instinctively. That’s why the first overseas visit he made after gaining political supremacy in December 1978 (the month during which, incidentally, Beijing and Washington formally normalized relations) was the United States. He knew that China’s economic reform and opening couldn’t succeed without investment and technology from the United States. The model that drove China’s economic rise – high investment, openness to foreign direct investment and trade, and de-centralization – would have delivered far less impressive results had the U.S. market been closed to Chinese goods and American companies banned from investing in China (as they were before the Nixon visit).
So this past week, four decades after the Nixon visit, the verdict is in: China has been the clear winner. Luckily, the U.S. didn’t lose, either. It has been a rare win-win game in geopolitics. Nevertheless, even in this win-win situation, China has undoubtedly gained far more than the United States. The tallying of such relative gains makes one wonder why so many Chinese elites should harbor such anti-American resentments today.
The underlying reason for the mutually beneficial U.S.-China relations since the Nixon visit is quite clear. The two countries shared important interests: security against the Soviet threat during the Cold War and growing economic benefits from trade and investment after the Cold War.