On February 21, 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon set foot in Beijing, a seminal visit that broke the ice in a relationship that has come to shape – and define – the post-Cold War global order.
“Only Nixon could go to China”: the adage from Star Trek remains popular. Besides the observation’s historic importance, it also provides insights for Sino-American relations today.
The meaning of the proverb is that only Nixon could have gone to China, given his distinctively hawkish and conservative stance on Sino-American relations during his ascent to power. Nixon was widely viewed to be a leading (albeit somewhat restrained) voice in the country’s struggle against communism.
And the converse, oft-overlooked in international discourses, equally holds true. Only Chairman Mao Zedong – with his consolidated presence as the supreme leader of Chinese politics – could have had the political resolve and wherewithal to push back against the strong undercurrents of the then-raging Chinese Cultural Revolution to forge ties with the United States.
Fifty years on, bilateral relations between the United States and China have reached arguably their lowest point since Nixon and Mao’s meeting. Tensions between the two great powers have been exacerbated by the U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, American fears over consolidating Sino-Russian ties, and the prolonged continuation of extensive travel restrictions by China. Some Washington think tanks have even expressed concern that war could break out between the two great powers, specifically in light of simmering tensions over the Taiwan Straits and Western opprobrium toward domestic policies within China.
At this time of rapidly escalating hostility, both Beijing and Washington alike should turn to the Nixon-Mao meeting as a guide for how leaders can leverage both their individual strengths and broader geopolitical currents to advance shared interests. More concretely, both parties should resume in-person talks at the highest levels; break down ongoing trade talk agenda items into more manageable, digestible chunks where concessions can be sought; pursue shared opportunities in business and finance; and cooperate to tackle global issues like health crises and climate change.
How Washington Should Learn From Nixon’s Approach
From an ideological purity perspective, Nixon was the perfect man for the normalization job. Yet he also benefited from conducive, opportune structural conditions, upon which he swiftly capitalized. As the U.S. war in Vietnam raged on into its second decade, the decision to travel to Beijing was publicly shocking, but a logical consequence of two forces undergirding the United States’ search for a turning point to the Cold War.
First, upon his inauguration, Nixon was confronted with an increasingly unassailable and trenchant Soviet Union that sought to leverage its extensive domestic and international presence to advance the communist agenda on American soil. A visit to China was as symbolic as it was instrumental. It equipped Nixon with the leverage to force Moscow concessions over Vietnam and brew antagonistic reaction toward Soviet rule in Eastern Europe.
Second, Nixon’s administration was keen to develop a functional relationship with a prospective partner of convenience – one that would not only sow instability within the Communist bloc, but also offer a potentially emphatic counterbalance against Moscow. The visit was to signal to Russia that Nixon’s approach to diplomacy was not purely rooted in ideology. It was this distinctive blend of pragmatism, bluffing brinkmanship, and strategic deception that precipitated his presidency’s foreign policy successes.
Taken at face value, today’s White House could not be any more different from Nixon’s. China, as opposed to Russia, is now touted by many as the United States’ primary strategic competitor. Moreover, Biden faces the other side of Nixon’s coin. Traditionally perceived to be “doveish” on China, trying to rebound from a year in which he was seen as responsible for a failed Afghanistan withdrawal and a brewing storm in Ukraine, and confronted with a drastic heightening of bipartisan antagonism toward China, Biden has only so many options to choose from when it comes to calibrating his China policy.
Yet these dissimilarities should not obscure the broader points to be made. Nixon sought a partnership with China to confront the Soviet threat. We are living in a world defined by the looming, existential threat of climate change, as well as equally salient – albeit less existential – challenges concerning surveillance technology and Big Tech, public health crises, terrorism and international security threats. Swap out the Soviet Union, and swap in these plethora of devastating problems that require international collaboration, and it becomes immediately clearer that some degree of tenable collaboration, without acquiescence to the mutually incompatible values of the other side, is very much needed.
Nixon was arguably an excessively Machiavellian pragmatist who under-valued the importance of ideological and moral integrity in his diplomacy. Biden, on the other hand, has his hands tied by the need to appear adamant.
One of the most critical problems with Sino-American relations today is the rhetorical “othering” and cognitive gap that permeate at the highest levels of politics. Washington’s public diagnosis of Beijing’s motives is broadly unidimensional and centered around the latter’s alleged search for global military hegemony; Beijing’s reading of Washington evokes tropes and sentiments that the Anglo-American world order was a hegemony seeking to pounce on any and all rivals. The dearth of nuance – inflicted partially by the all-or-nothing approach to public negotiations and language deployed at the highest levels – behooves the U.S. president to extend an active olive branch, to be willing to engage in dialogue with his Chinese counterpart in search for a mutually agreeable modus vivendi. Once sufficient trust is rekindled through such rhetorical shifts, through quiet and proactive diplomacy, improvements on areas like labor rights and civil liberties could then be raised.
While Nixon held no delusions concerning the intentions of Mao to retain substantial political control over China, the former recognized that only through contact and engagement could baselines and core interests be laid bare for both parties to reckon with. Mao’s “understated and unorthodox way” in setting “forth the main lines of Chinese policy,” as then National Security Council staffer Winston Lord recounted, was vital in establishing what Beijing truly wanted out of its international engagement efforts – and areas in which Washington could make magnanimously instrumental offers (e.g. concerning trade) without sabotaging its anti-communist efforts at large. Following Nixon’s footsteps, Biden would benefit from openly and vocally entertaining the room for collaboration – even as he stands firm on U.S. interests.
How Beijing Could Benefit From Taking a Leaf out of the Mao-Nixon Book
This brings us onto the takeaways for Beijing, of which there are two. The first concerns Nixon’s distinctive credibility surplus, which enabled him to undertake the political risk – and cash in on longer term political gains – of appearing to be more concessionary and amicable on China. President Xi Jinping is arguably China’s most powerful leader since the halcyon days of Deng Xiaoping, with substantial domestic support and a string of successes in poverty alleviation. As the helmsman of a new China seemingly forged in ideological opposition to the U.S., Xi is in an optimal position to play a steering role in cooling down a rapidly heating Cold War.
As compared with Biden, whose hands are tied by both a hostile opposition in Congress and unfavorable ratings in the aftermath of the rampaging pandemic, Xi wields considerably greater influence under his strongman-centered leadership of modern China. While the decision to engage with a fierce rival may be seen as one demanding moral courage, leaders also stand to gain in the domestic political sphere by demonstrating discretion and pragmatic nuance in their foreign policy – as already evidenced by Xi’s calling for a more “trustworthy, lovable, and respectable” China and open championing of a more multipolar world. For leaders that are seen as broadly ideological uncompromising, a willingness to engage with a politically oppositional rival can reflect the acumen to pick and choose battles to fight, while not casting doubt on their underlying political allegiance.
A tonal shift in how each power engages the other is needed. During Nixon and Mao’s conversations, the two diametrically opposed leaders built camaraderie around their mutual respect for each other’s leadership and contributions to their country’s domestic developments. Mao was complimentary on the resilience of the United States’ democratic-electoral institutions, while Nixon found Mao’s seismic transformations of China’s economy remarkable. Their conversation was proof that China’s liaising with the United States need not be packed with antagonistic, structurally repudiatory rhetoric aimed at systemically discrediting the electoral institutions that undergird U.S. governance.
Beijing stands to gain both internationally and domestically through rekindling more constructive, dynamic, and multilaterally collaborative ties with the United States. The current leadership is uniquely equipped to harness the vast economic and market potential of China, as well as its rapidly growing middle class and educated intelligentsia, in signalling to the West that beyond mutually beneficial financial reforms and economic opening up, there could be further constructive room for peaceful coexistence across areas ranging from technology to public health to sociocultural norms and values. Beijing is also in a unique place to harness the self-confident and benign nationalism underpinning overseas returnees in curbing the excesses of extreme jingoism amongst certain segments of the population. A dose of Nixon’s pragmatism could well prove to be of benefit not just for China, but to the world at large in 2022.
Finally, in preemptive response to skeptics who dispute the room for mutual concessions and dialogue, it is well worth noting that the structural conditions that precipitated the 1972 thawing of Sino-American relations – epitomized by the Shanghai Communique – began years earlier. Tasked with reassessing and rectifying China’s catastrophic mistakes during the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese Communist Party leadership openly denounced the Soviet Union for its move toward de-Stalinization, while concurrently advancing quiet reforms that rehabilitated and empowered reformist liberals who eventually came to spearhead the country’s seminal market reforms and opening-up.
Likewise, 50 years on, perhaps it would behoove actors involved in Beijing to see the moralistic, normatively laden rhetoric of Washington not as an impediment to, but as a necessary prerequisite for, the constructive search for compromise. Not every feisty rhetorical allegation must be fought with fire; some could be brushed aside lightly, with more important end-goals on the table.
The Path Ahead?
Of course, a recreation of the Mao-Nixon meeting today could not fully resolve the malaise. One healthy, face-to-face conversation alone would be insufficient to completely change the course of China-U.S. relations. Indeed, the countries’ diplomatic relationship was not formally normalized until January 1, 1979, nearly seven years after Nixon’s visit.
The purpose of an official visit would not be to overhaul the nature of China-U.S. “cooperative competition,” a phrase employed by former Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying. It is unlikely that core ideological-normative disputes could be easily resolved, or that national security worries would be thus easily assuaged.
Our argument is not that these ethical questions around rights from the U.S. perspective, or on foreign interference from the Chinese perspective, are unimportant. They are central, and moral considerations should guide foreign policy for both sides. Rather, our argument for practical diplomacy also reflects the ethical consequences of not collaborating on easy implementable points of cooperation, particularly in spheres of commerce, business, people-to-people ties, climate change, and public health crises, where the political costs of action would be relatively low, but the economic and, in the case of public health and climate, human costs of inaction could be tremendously high.
The case for nuanced political leadership from both sides of the Pacific has never been stronger. To go with the flow of populists and ethnonationalists who seek to see the two powers at loggerheads would be regrettable. To stand against the tides of popular or partisan pressure in order to secure mutual gains for a wider audience and the two publics in question would not only be a choice of great valor and courage, but a strategically viable one for both countries’ leaders.