What would Nixon do? U.S. President-elect Donald Trump might contemplate that question as he prepares to confront the multiple challenges from China after eight years of the Obama administration and seven previous administrations, starting with Richard Nixon’s.
Fifty years ago, as he was commencing his second run for the presidency, Nixon wrote a Foreign Affairs article entitled “Asia after Vietnam.” Published In October 1967 with the United States still mired in the war in Indochina, it laid out his strategic vision for what was to become the seminal, titanic American pivot to Asia.
Inevitably, Nixon focused on the emergence of the People’s Republic of China. Since 1949, it had become the world’s most dangerous exponent of violent global revolution through its support for wars of national liberation in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
China had also fought the United States and the United Nations to force Communist reunification of Korea, shelled Quemoy and Matsu to demonstrate its intention to take Taiwan, and was, at the time of Nixon’s article, aiding North Vietnam in its conquest of South Vietnam.
Nixon decided the situation had to change dramatically and he saw the need to “open China to the world and open the world to China.” He warned that a China relegated to “angry isolation” was a regional and global danger. “We simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors.”
However, the problem he saw was not simply Western exclusionary policies against China, but the nature of the Chinese Communist system itself:
The world cannot be safe until China changes. Thus our aim, to the extent that we can influence events, should be to induce change. The way to do this is to persuade China that it must change: that it cannot satisfy its imperial ambitions.
When, as president, he began his opening to China, Nixon knew he was undertaking a huge “strategic gamble.” Nevertheless, he began the process with a series of unilateral initiatives and concessions by the United States.
First was America’s unsolicited intervention in the growing Sino-Soviet dispute that saw Soviet forces deploying near the Chinese border in 1969.
Nixon sent a clear message to Moscow that Washington would respond to any Soviet aggression against China — an unprecedented security guarantee to a country that at the time had forces fighting alongside America’s enemy in Vietnam. Yet, the U.S. asked nothing in return, and China offered nothing.
Then, further to show American good faith prior to his trip to China, Nixon gave Mao Zedong most of what he wanted on Taiwan. He ordered the Seventh Fleet out of the Taiwan Strait and the progressive withdrawal of U.S. forces from Taiwan, where they had been stationed pursuant to the U.S.-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty of 1954 (when Nixon served as President Eisenhower’s vice president).
The unilateral U.S. moves paved the way for the 1972 Shanghai Communique — the original sin of U.S.-China relations. There, Beijing stated its one-China “principle” that Taiwan is part of China and would eventually be “reunified” with it by either peaceful or non-peaceful means.
Washington used the communique to state its own one-China “policy,” which implicitly accepted Taiwan’s future merger with China as long as it was accomplished more or less peacefully.
Having deterred a Soviet attack on China and given Beijing a long-term green light to absorb Taiwan, Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, hoped only for Beijing’s help in arranging an honorable, or at least a face-saving, way out of Vietnam. But the two realists had already violated Kissinger’s general observation about negotiating strategy:
We [Americans] have a tendency to apply our standards to others in negotiations. We like to pay in advance to show our good will, but in foreign policy you never get paid for services already rendered.
In the end, the graceful exit from Vietnam never came. China continued its flow of arms, material, and some fighters in support of Hanoi’s final conquest of South Vietnam and America’s humiliating retreat.
Exactly when Nixon concluded that he and Kissinger may have made a bad deal with China is not clear, but he began expressing doubts as early as 1978 when he stated in his memoir (emphasis added):
We must cultivate China during the next few decades while it is still learning to develop its national strength and potential. Otherwise we will one day be confronted with the most formidable enemy that has ever existed in the history of the world.
Nixon’s thinking about China was evolving, from ambiguity to ambivalence to renewed concern on China — and to a new clarity on Taiwan. In October 1989, he visited China and met at length privately with Deng Xiaoping. His public statements about the U.S.-China relationship afterward were tactfully positive.
But his “Personal & Confidential” memorandum to Congressional leaders just days after the trip struck a more worried and pessimistic tone: “Sino-American relations are in the worst condition they have been in since before I went to China seventeen years ago.” He said the gap in perceptions over Tiananmen “is totally unbridgeable.”
Despite years of engagement with China, Nixon said the two governments still had “irreconcilable differences.” Arguing against closing China off from the world, he repeated some of the same words he had used in his 1967 article:
To leave the present and future leaders of China isolated, nurturing their resentments and even hatred of the United States because of what they consider to be unjustified actions against China is senseless and counterproductive.
Before his death in 1994, Nixon confessed to real fears about China’s direction. In an interview with his former speechwriter, William Safire, he was asked whether economic engagement and “our strengthening of [the Chinese] regime [had] brought political freedom.”
Nixon’s response was a chilling acknowledgement that his visit to China, which he had proclaimed in his Beijing toast as “the week that changed the world,” may have changed it for the worst. “That old realist,” Safire wrote in the New York Times, “who had played the China card to exploit the split in the Communist world, replied with some sadness that he was not as hopeful as he had once been: ‘We may have created a Frankenstein[‘s monster].’”
On the critical question of Taiwan, Nixon also adjusted his views to the changing reality, but here it was in a more positive direction, at least from a Taiwanese perspective. By 1994 he had concluded that history had passed unification by, and Taiwan’s democratic course made it an incompatible marriage partner for Beijing. “The situation has changed dramatically … The separation is permanent politically, but they are in bed together economically.”
Kissinger, on the other hand, never wavered in his adherence to the bargain he and Nixon had struck with Mao and Zhou En-lai. Indeed, on the question of Taiwan, he sometimes seemed more Catholic than the Pope.
When Mao told the two Americans that China would decide to use force against Taiwan any time within the next hundred years, Kissinger expressed surprise China could wait that long.
Similarly, Kissinger told the Asia Society in 2007 that Taiwan should recognize that “China will not wait forever” for unification. Xi Jinping echoed the warning in 2013 when he said “the Taiwan question cannot be passed from generation to generation.”
Unlike Nixon, who had made two trips to Taiwan as a private citizen in 1964 and 1967 (both as Chiang Kai-shek’s houseguest), Kissinger has never visited the place that was the centerpiece of U.S.-China negotiations. There is speculation that he has deferred his first visit until the original Nixon-Mao deal is consummated and the flag of the People’s Republic finally flies above Taipei’s presidential palace (where it has never been — so much for reunification).
Over the years, Kissinger has also often blurred the distinction between Washington’s one China policy, which essentially defers to the parties to negotiate a peaceful resolution and Beijing’s one China principle, which says the final outcome is non-negotiable and will be settled by force if necessary.
As keeper of the one China flame, Kissinger has encouraged all successive administrations after Nixon’s, as well as all five of China’s leaders, to adhere to the basic understandings and to do nothing to allow the Taiwan issue to upset U.S.-China relations.
Enter President-elect Trump and his telephone talk with President Tsai Ing-wen and his dismissal of the one China policy as sacrosanct historical principle. It might have been expected that Kissinger, privately and publicly, would have taken the untutored president-elect to the policy woodshed.
Instead, the 94-year-old former secretary of state suddenly undertook a remarkable flurry of shuttle diplomacy between New York and Beijing, engaging in a series of Kissinger-Xi and Kissinger-Trump meetings.
Then, in a Sunday talk show interview, Kissinger declined to share the Trump-inspired alarm expressed by many in the foreign policy establishment at the president-elect’s one China heresy. Rather, he seemed impressed that the new leader was “asking a lot of unfamiliar questions” and presenting “an extraordinary opportunity”:
[H]e operates by a kind of instinct that is a different form of analysis as my more academic one … [H]e’s raised a number of issues that I think are important, very important and, if they’re addressed properly, could lead to — could create results.
(Unlike most of his professional colleagues, Kissinger is again exhibiting the equanimity he displayed as a college professor in 1958 when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s ultimatum over Berlin alarmed much of academia over a superpower confrontation. Kissinger calmly told his Harvard students that it would all blow over, not blow up. So it did.)
While the president-elect may well consider what the departed Nixon might do on China and Taiwan today, the rest of us are left to ponder what nonagenarian Kissinger is doing in support of the new president’s emerging Asia policies.
One thing is clear: a few post-election tweets on China’s posture toward Taiwan and North Korea have signaled a sounder U.S. policy direction than have decades of orthodox presidential pronouncements.
Joseph A. Bosco is a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest and a nonresident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served as China country desk officer in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-2006.