Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy

Richard Nixon’s Asian Prophecy

Richard Nixon foresaw America’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific more than 40 years before it occurred.

By Francis P. Sempa for
Richard Nixon’s Asian Prophecy
Credit: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

The October 1967 issue of the American journal Foreign Affairs included an article by Richard Nixon, then a former vice president and likely Republican nominee for President in 1968, entitled “Asia After Viet Nam.” This article later became famous as a foreshadowing of his administration’s “opening to China.” But there was much more to Nixon’s article than that. “Asia After Viet Nam” was Nixon at his analytical best — peering into the future with a firm grasp of history, geography, and domestic and international politics.

Nixon began the article by recommending that the United States needed “to look beyond Viet Nam” and to appreciate the global transformation that was manifesting itself in the Asia-Pacific region. He did not discount the value to the region of America’s commitment in Vietnam nor the importance of seeing that commitment through to what he called “a satisfactory conclusion.” But he believed U.S. policymakers needed to view Asia in broader, global terms — as part of “a vast Pacific community” of which America was a key member.

“Since World War II,” Nixon wrote, “a new Asia has been emerging with startling rapidity.” Asia, he noted, was “changing more swiftly than any other part of the world” even while Asian powers were thinking in “regional terms” about global problems and issues. Asia’s economic growth — in places like Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and elsewhere — and political confidence were leading to “an increasing disposition to seek Asian solutions to Asian problems” and a recognition “that Asia can become a counterbalance to the West.”

Nixon also sensed that smaller Asian countries viewed China with growing concern. Asian leaders, he wrote (in words that sound familiar today) “recognize that the . . . United States now represents not an oppressor but a protector.” “[T]here has been an important shift in the balance of their perceptions about the balance of danger,” he argued, “and this shift has important implications for the future.”

Nixon recognized that one of the legacies of the war in Southeast Asia would be a reluctance on the part of the United States to militarily intervene in the region again — what was later called the “Vietnam syndrome.” “Bitter dissension has torn the fabric of American intellectual life,” he wrote, “and whatever the outcome of the war the tear may be a long time mending.” He recommended that “the nations in the path of China’s ambitions move quickly to establish an indigenous Asian framework for their own future security.” The United States would likely assist those nations with training, equipment, and counsel, but not with overt military intervention. An Asian-led regional buffer, Nixon explained, would separate the “distant great power” (the U.S.) from the immediate threat. “Only if the buffer proves insufficient does the great power become involved.” Here, Nixon foreshadowed “Vietnamization” and the broader “Nixon Doctrine” that he implemented after becoming president.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Nixon thought that the Asian and Pacific Council (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, South Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand) that was formed in 1966 could be the foundation of a “military grouping designed to forestall the Chinese threat.” Nixon even mentioned India as a possible member of an anti-China regional alliance.

U.S. policy, Nixon advised, should seek to promote economic and political stability in the less-powerful Asian nations — those conditions were more important than the “democratic” nature of such governments.

Geopolitically, Asia’s future, Nixon predicted, would be determined by the “four giants” of the Asia-Pacific: India, Japan, China, and the United States. He urged greater cooperation between the U.S. and India, and suggested that Japan should play a greater role, commensurate with its economic power, in the security architecture of the Asia-Pacific.

Above all, Nixon memorably wrote, “[a]ny American policy toward Asia must come urgently to grips with the reality of China.” That means, he wrote, “recognizing the present and potential danger from Communist China, and taking measures designed to meet that danger.” But in the long run, he argued that “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.” China cannot and should not be isolated. But it should be induced by U.S. policy to change because, in Nixon’s words, “[t]he world cannot be safe until China changes.” That means China must be convinced that its own national interest “requires a turning away from foreign adventuring and a turning inward toward the solution of its own domestic problems.”

China, after Mao, and in part due to Nixon’s triangular diplomacy, for a time did precisely what Nixon urged it to do — it turned inward and solved many of its domestic problems. But as China grew economically and militarily its global ambitions returned. China’s energies are once again turned outwards. Many observers believe that China’s long-range goal is to replace the United States as the leader of the world order.

Echoing George Kennan’s famous “X” article about U.S. policy toward Soviet Russia, Nixon wrote that an ambitious China had to be contained by “a policy of firm restraint … of a creative counterpressure designed to persuade Peking that its interests can be served only by accepting the basic rules of international civility.” U.S. policy, he continued, needed to “proceed with both an urgency born of necessity and a patience born of realism” in containing China’s ambitions.

Echoing Winston Churchill’s famous “iron curtain” speech on the eve of the Cold War, Nixon called for the United States “to fashion the sinews of a Pacific community” designed to forestall Chinese aggression, but ultimately to welcome a different China as a partner in that community of nations.

Nixon closed his article with a reflection on America’s domestic politics that is eerily similar to what is happening today. “Weary with war, disheartened with allies, disillusioned with aid, dismayed at domestic crises, many Americans,” Nixon wrote, “are heeding the call of a new isolationism.” He warned his countrymen against becoming too parochial and dangerously isolationist. “[T]here can be neither peace nor security a generation hence,” he concluded, “unless we recognize now the massiveness of the forces at work in Asia.”

Richard Nixon in this seminal article foresaw America’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific more than 40 years before it occurred.

Francis P. Sempa is the author of the books “Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century” and “America’s Global Role,” and has written frequently on history and foreign policy for the Asian Review of Books, the University Bookman, the Claremont Review of Books, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, Orbis, Joint Force Quarterly, Strategic Review, the New York Journal of Books, and other publications. He is a federal prosecutor and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.