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.
Normally, fear and greed are sufficient to shore up bilateral relations between most nations – but not between great powers. Enduring strategic trust, based on shared values and similar political institutions, is far more critical in determining the nature of relationship between great powers. There may be exceptions, such as in the case of the Nixon visit, which took place when both China and the United States faced an extraordinary security threat – the Soviet Union. That was why Nixon and Henry Kissinger, both consummate practitioners of realpolitik, weren’t bothered by the nature of the Chinese regime at that time. Survival instinct, not lasting strategic trust, compelled the two countries to seek cooperation.
But today, the structure of U.S.-China relations has changed beyond recognition. In terms of security, they have become quasi-competitors, instead of quasi-allies, each viewing the other as a potential threat and planning their national defense strategies accordingly. Their economic relations have grown interdependent and have formed the most solid basis for continuing cooperation. But even here, strains have emerged, in particular in the form of massive bilateral trade deficits originating in part from China’s undervalued currency and restrictions on market access by U.S. firms.
The ideological conflict – between American liberal democracy and China’s one-party state – has grown sharper in recent years. Those who advocate engagement with China have based their argument on the assumption that China’s economic modernization and integration with the West will promote political change and make the one-party state more democratic. This “liberal evolution” theory has sadly not panned out. Instead of embracing political liberalization, the Chinese Communist Party has grown more resistant to democratization, more paranoid about the West, and more hostile to liberal values.
As a result, of the three pillars of U.S.-China relations, security, economy, and ideology, only one – shared economic interests — remains standing. In the realm of security and ideology, U.S.-China relations are growing more competitive and antagonistic. If anything, strategic competition will most likely become the principal feature of U.S.-China relations for the foreseeable future – as long as China’s one-party state remains in power. The underlying cause isn’t difficult to identify. Because genuine strategic trust is impossible between an America infused with liberal democratic values and a China ruled by a one-party state, the security competition between the U.S. and China will only intensify. Chinese leaders shouldn’t bemoan the so-called “trust deficit” because they know very well why it exists. In addition, the political economies of a liberal democracy (which favors free competition) and an autocratic regime (which favors state control) are fundamentally at odds with each other. Such institutional differences are responsible for economic policies that are bound to collide with each other. So the risks that even shared economic interests between the U.S. and China could erode as a consequence of the clash of their political systems are real.
Such a pessimistic forecast of the future of U.S.-China relations may not be appropriate for marking the 40th anniversary of the Nixon visit. Yet, if one accepts the premise that the persistence of one-party rule in China, not American desire for containment of a rising power, is the fundamental obstacle to an enduring cooperative and friendly Sino-American relationship for the foreseeable future, we will do ourselves a huge favor by acknowledging this reality and trying to change it.