Tomorrow marks 40 years since Henry Kissinger made his momentous trip to China. Yoav J. Tenembaum looks back on the implications of the visit, and how it was kept secret even from some in Kissinger's own delegation.
US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger's secretive visit put an end to more than two decades of diplomatic rupture between the United States and Communist China, and in a sense, it was to be the beginning of a new era in US foreign policy. The nature of superpowers relationship was to change significantly as a result of the visit.
Relations between the two countries had reached their nadir during the Korean War, when the US and its allies’ approach to the Chinese border prompted a Chinese intervention that led to a prolonged armed confrontation that left thousands of Chinese and US soldiers dead.
Communist China was seen by the United States as an ideological foe and a geo-strategic menace; but so too was the Soviet Union, and yet the US had full diplomatic relations with it. Yet in contrast with the case of the Soviet Union, there was an alternative government in Taiwan that professed to be representing China as a whole, and the United States had decided to recognize it, rather than the Communist government in mainland China.
The diplomatic boycott of Communist China may have been understandable when Communism seemed to be gaining ground in different parts of the globe, when Communism was perceived to be a monolithic force intent on pursuing an expansionist policy. However, a multi-layered conflict emerged between the Soviet Union and China, which ultimately led to armed clashes between the two armies in the winter of 1969.
The enmity between the two former Communist allies offered a propitious opportunity for a diplomatic opening that Nixon and his national security advisor wanted to take advantage of.
As early as 1967, as outlined in an article in Foreign Affairs, Nixon had envisaged the re-incorporation of China into the international order. He argued that China couldn’t be left on the sidelines of international diplomacy for long. Although he didn’t call for the United States to recognize Communist China, this was noteworthy considering Nixon had been known throughout his political career as a staunch anti-Communist.
But from the beginning of his presidency, Nixon tried to approach the Chinese government in Beijing, initially through an already existing diplomatic channel in Warsaw, but to no avail.
The decision was therefore taken to pursue a different venue, through the Pakistani government. Pakistan, which maintained close diplomatic relations with both China and the United States, began to play the role of facilitator, leading ultimately to the setting up of a secret meeting between Kissinger and the Chinese leadership in Beijing.
The United States asked for the meeting to be kept secret. Indeed, the visit by Kissinger and a close-knit entourage of assistants was meticulously planned in such a way as to conceal it even from part of the US delegation that was then visiting Pakistan with Kissinger. The person running Kissinger's diary had to keep three different diaries designed for three different groups of individuals accompanying Kissinger on his trip to Pakistan. It was an outstanding organizational feat as well as a major diplomatic achievement.
The Chinese were as keen to pursue this diplomatic opening as the United States was. Mao Zedong and the Communist leadership in China welcomed Nixon’s initiative as a means to counter the threat represented by their Soviet neighbour. Once the news of Kissinger’s trip to China was made known, the reaction across the globe was one of utter astonishment. It was a diplomatic achievement that was as effective for its contents as for the manner it was carried out. Secrecy added to the effect. In this case at least, secrecy in the conduct of diplomacy was necessary to avoid leaks that might have derailed the initiative.
A few days later, Nixon announced he would be visiting Beijing at a date to be coordinated by both governments. The success of this diplomatic move, originally devised by Nixon and subsequently conducted by Kissinger, was complete.
Nixon was to pay an official visit to China in February 1972: a political spectacle as few others until then, it was to be the culmination of a major diplomatic breakthrough and the beginning of an emerging relationship between the two former foes.
In the short run, at least, a triangular diplomacy emerged. The closer the United States moved towards China, the more flexible the Soviet Union became in its dealings with the US. The closer the US moved towards the Soviet Union, the more the Chinese wanted to enhance the newly-developed relationship with the United States.
In a sense, it could be argued that the Nixon-Kissinger opening to China transformed the bi-polar international system of the Cold War into a tri-polar one.
Still, it was only under President Jimmy Carter in 1979 that full diplomatic relations would be established between the two countries. The victim, so to speak, of this final move would be Taiwan, as the United States was compelled to break off diplomatic relations with it. Of course this didn’t stop Taiwan continuing to develop into one of the most solid economic powers in the region.
Yoav J. Tenembaum is a political analyst and writer. He lectures on the Diplomacy Programme at the University of Tel Aviv.