Nixon and China: 50 Years Later

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Nixon and China: 50 Years Later

Revisiting Nixon’s famous trip to China and his own analysis of China-U.S. relations in the decades that followed.

Nixon and China: 50 Years Later

U.S. President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai share a toast, February 25, 1972.

Credit: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

From the moment U.S. President Richard Nixon landed in China on February 21, 1972, he understood that global politics would undergo a transformation that would last well into the 21st century and beyond. Indeed, even before that dramatic historic moment, Nixon envisioned China’s rise in an article he wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1967. And in his post-presidential years, he wrote a series of books in which his view of China’s place in global politics was further refined in response to geopolitical developments.

Fifty years after the “opening” to China, it is worth revisiting Nixon’s evolving estimate of U.S.-China relations in the context of global geopolitics.

It is a shame that Nixon never wrote a book specifically about China. It would have been the crowning achievement of his post-presidential writings. Instead, to analyze Nixon’s worldview of China it is necessary to delve into all of his post-presidential books, from “RN” (his memoirs) to his last book “Beyond Peace,” which he completed shortly before his death in 1994.

“RN,” published in 1978, is among the best presidential memoirs, not just because of Nixon’s crisp and concise writing style, but also because his life and political career touched interesting and consequential events in history: the Great Depression, World War II, the espionage case against Alger Hiss, the Eisenhower administration (in which Nixon served as vice president), the tumultuous 1960s, his presidency, the end of the Cold War, and the beginnings of the post-Cold War world.

In his memoirs, Nixon detailed the step-by-step diplomatic approach to normalizing relations with China early in his presidency. In February 1970, he sent a Foreign Policy Report to Congress, which stated that China “should not remain isolated from the international community,” and opined that it was in the United States’ interest “and in the interest of peace and stability of Asia and the world, that we take what steps we can toward improved practical relations with Peking.” These were sentiments that Nixon had made public in his 1967 Foreign Affairs article, published the year before his election. And he followed that up the next month by ordering the State Department to relax restrictions against travel to China, and the following month he eased trade restrictions between the two countries.

Nixon understood that overturning two decades of hostility between China and the United States would not be swift or without political risks. Important substantive moves to improve relations, therefore, were at first conducted in secret by opening “back channels” to China via Pakistani and Romanian envoys. Meanwhile, China for its own reasons let it be known that it would welcome a visit by a high-level U.S. official. Ultimately, Nixon would select his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to carry out secret talks with China in anticipation of a presidential visit. Nixon told Kissinger that the biggest diplomatic stumbling block with China would be Taiwan, and the biggest domestic political stumbling block would be the conservative reaction within the U.S. to opening relations with the communist regime.

Nixon recounts in “RN” that preceding his historic visit to China there were “messages and signals” – both public and private – sent by both sides for more than two years. It was a diplomatic minuet that Nixon and Kissinger conducted brilliantly. On May 31, 1971, Kissinger received a message from the Romanians that Chinese leader Mao Zedong was prepared to meet with Nixon for “direct conversations” and would welcome Kissinger to China to work out such arrangements with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. When Nixon read the Romanian message, Kissinger remarked, “This is the most important communication that has come to an American President since the end of World War II.”

Nixon then subtly began to prepare the American public for the historic opening to China, including a speech in Kansas City on July 6 where he told reporters that China’s potential was so great that “no sensible foreign policy could ignore or exclude it.” Kissinger secretly traveled to China in July 1971 to lay the groundwork for Nixon’s visit. And before leaving for China, Nixon met with the French philosopher Andre Malraux, who told Nixon, “You are about to attempt one of the most important things of our century,” and compared Nixon to the 16th century European explorers “who set out for a specific objective but often arrived at an entirely different discovery.” Malraux then told Nixon, “All men who understand what you are embarking upon salute you.”

Nixon landed in Beijing on February 21, 1972. He was met at the airport by Zhou. Nixon remembered that at the 1954 Geneva Conference, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had refused to shake hands with Zhou. “I made a point,” Nixon wrote, “of extending my hand as I walked toward [Zhou]. When our hands met, one era ended and another began.”

Later that evening, Nixon met with Mao, and the two leaders talked history and philosophy, and broached several substantive issues. The more detailed substantive talks were with Zhou, and the historic summit ended with the Shanghai Communique, which dealt with the status of Taiwan but, more importantly, contained what Nixon described as “a provision [that] subtly but unmistakably made it clear that we both would oppose efforts by the USSR or any other major power to dominate Asia.”

At the end of his historic trip to China, Nixon spoke briefly at a banquet and predicted that the U.S. and China “will… in the years ahead… build a bridge across 16,000 miles and 22 years of hostility which have divided us in the past… We have been here a week. This was the week that changed the world.”

When Nixon looked back at that week in China in “RN,” he wrote that the United States “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.” How sage that advice looks 50 years after Nixon’s trip.

But “RN” was only Nixon’s “first take” on our developing relationship with China. Two years later, Nixon wrote the first in a series of post-presidential books on foreign policy, “The Real War” (1980). In that book, Nixon sounded like James Burnham, describing the Cold War with the Soviet Union as World War III. “World War III,” he wrote, “has proceeded from the Soviet seizure of Eastern Europe, through the communist conquest of China, the wars in Korea and Indochina, and the establishment of a western hemisphere outpost of Soviet power in Cuba, to the present thrusts by the Soviet Union and its allies into Africa, the Islamic crescent, and Central America.” World War III, he continued, was a global and total war.

Nixon referred to China in “The Real War” as the “awakening giant,” and briefly described its historic enmity with Russia and later the Soviet Union after the Sino-Soviet split. China, he wrote, “potentially could decide the world balance of power in the last decades of the twentieth century,” and could emerge as “the most powerful nation on earth during the twenty-first century.” China possessed a “huge population,” “enormous natural resources,” and “some of the ablest people in the world.”

Nixon called the China-U.S. rapprochement of 1972 “the most dramatic geopolitical event since World War II.” But, he wrote, “the most significant geopolitical event was the Sino-Soviet split that preceded it.” The Sino-Soviet split, which Nixon did so much to exploit, erased (at least for the time being) “the specter that haunted the world” – that of an “aggressive, monolithic Sino-Soviet bloc.”

Nixon wrote that he believed that Sino-U.S. relations could improve because “[g]reat nations act on the basis of interest, not sentiment.” Differences in ideology, even differences over Taiwan, took a backseat to common fears of Soviet hegemony on the Eurasian landmass. The key questions looking forward, Nixon wrote, were how long the Sino-Soviet split would last, how permanent improved China-U.S. relations would be, how China would deal with economic and political reform at home, and what role in the world China’s leaders envisioned for themselves in the 21st century.

Nixon was certain that China would become a great power with a formidable military. He envisioned China becoming an economic colossus and perhaps the “strongest power on earth” in the 21st century. Chinese leaders, he explained, see China as “the center of the world, the celestial empire, ‘all under Heaven.’” And he presciently warned that if China reverted to the communist policies of the 1950s and 1960s, it would pose “an enormous threat to the peace of the world and to the survival of the West.”

Three years later in “Real Peace” (1983), Nixon wrote that the China-U.S. relationship “is a key element of our strategy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.” For Nixon, it didn’t matter that both China and the Soviet Union were communist countries. What mattered was that “[t]he Soviet Union threatens us. China does not.” And he warned that if the United States forced China back into the Soviet orbit, the threat to U.S. security “would be infinitely greater than it is today.”

Nixon also wrote that the China-U.S. relationship should not be limited to playing the “China card” against the Soviets. If Washington followed that track, the relationship will collapse like a house of cards, he warned. The China-U.S. relationship, he continued, was based at the time on common interests and fears of the Soviet Union. If those interests changed and the fears faded (which is what later happened), there would be nothing to prevent China from becoming an adversary. What’s worse, Nixon warned, there could be no real peace if China and Soviet Russia renewed their strategic alliance (which is what we confront today).

In 1988, Nixon wrote “1999: Victory Without War,” a book that appeared just as the Cold War was winding down. Here, Nixon was looking ahead to a new century. He was not convinced that the Soviet Union was finished yet, but he foresaw that China would surpass the Soviet Union economically by the 21st century. Nixon noted that a Chinese leader once told him that if the Soviet Union did not reform, it would disappear as a great power. Nixon believed that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev understood that and it was the basis for perestroika and glasnost.

Nixon expressed the hope that Sino-American relations would continue to improve in the twenty-first century, but he recognized that the economic reforms undertaken by China could threaten the political control by the Communist Party. Nixon believed, however, that China would continue along the path of economic growth without undermining communist rule. But he warned that the fear of Soviet aggression that brought the United States and China together in 1972 “may not be enough to keep us together in 1999.” He hoped that even if the common threat receded (which it did with the fall of the Soviet Union), common economic interests would sustain good relations between the U.S. and China (which they did not).

Nixon cautioned against “romanticizing the relationship” between China and the United States. “Relations between great nations,” Nixon wrote, “… are complicated, intricately structured devices that have to be watched and tended constantly.” There was no guarantee, therefore, that Sino-American relations would continue to improve after the Cold War ended.

Four years later, in 1992 (Nixon’s books tended to appear during the U.S. presidential election campaigns for maximum effect), Nixon wrote “Seize the Moment: America’s Challenge in a One-Superpower World.” In that book, Nixon briefly celebrated the West’s victory in the Cold War, but derided the notion that the world was at “the end of history” and that geoeconomics had replaced geopolitics as the fulcrum of world politics. He did believe that the U.S. needed to “reset its geopolitical compass.” There should be no U.S. “crusade” for global democracy; the very notion ignored the limits of U.S. power, he wrote. U.S. global leadership should instead be based on an understanding of “enduring geopolitical realities.”

Nixon identified the Pacific Rim as “the world’s new economic locomotive.” China was a “potential economic superpower” whose current leaders were “unwilling to relinquish their totalitarian control.” China’s “emergence as a global heavyweight,” he wrote, “is inevitable,” and it will likely become a “military superpower within decades” and may become “the world’s richest nation in the twenty-first century.” Nixon condemned the Tiananmen Square massacre but noted that there is “too much at stake in our relationship to substitute emotionalism for foreign policy.” The United States should not let human rights concerns define the relationship with China, he wrote.

Nixon was optimistic – in hindsight, overly so – that China would not be able to escape the changes that had swept communist governments from power in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. And he sensed that the Asia-Pacific region was becoming more important to U.S. interests and security than Europe.

Nixon’s last words on China appeared in his last book, “Beyond Peace” (1994). Interestingly, Nixon predicted that Russia would again become a great power, and the important question was “whether a strong Russia will be a friend or an adversary of the West.” He warned against “creating the impression that the United States wants to proceed with a new encirclement of Russia” (which is precisely what happened with the hubristic expansion of NATO eastward). He urged U.S. policymakers to help reduce tensions between Russia and Ukraine. And while Nixon hoped for a strong, independent Ukraine, he understood Russia’s preoccupation with the former Soviet republics in its “near abroad.”

Meanwhile, Nixon noted that China had awakened and was already beginning to “move the world.” It was still a communist dictatorship, but China’s growing economic power, Nixon wrote, “makes U.S. lectures about morality and human rights imprudent.” He again expressed the hope that China’s experiment with market reforms would result in a more open and freer society. Unfortunately for the Chinese people and the world, that has not happened.

Much has changed in the world since Nixon’s dramatic visit to Beijing in February 1972. It was a visit that first and foremost recognized that the world’s leading power should have formal relations with the world’s most populous country. Nixon’s visit also laid the foundation for a de facto strategic alliance that helped the United States win the Cold War. It was a politically courageous act for the anti-communist Nixon to reach out to the world’s most ruthless communist state, and he suffered the slings and arrows of conservative critics for doing so. But history judges that he was right to do so; that the “opening” to China at that time was very much in the U.S. interest. At a time when the United States’ internal divisions (over Vietnam, race relations, and more) were stark, it had a president who put the country’s interests first.

The end of the Cold War, however, removed the common threat that produced the improved Sino-American relationship in the first place. Nixon knew of course, like Britain’s Lord Palmerston, that permanent alliances and permanent enmities were not part of the real world of global politics. He was too much of a hard-headed and sensible realist to believe in “perpetual peace” or “the end of history.” Nixon’s hope that shared economic interests would cause good relations between China and the U.S. to continue was shattered. Today the powerful China that Nixon foresaw is a reality – but is viewed more an enemy than an ally of the United States.