America + China - Nixon’s 1972 Visit

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During the 2014 APEC Summit in Beijing, US President Barack Obama and Chinese State Chairman Xi Jinping announced important changes to visa policies and climate change policies and hailed it as the zenith of Sino-American relations. Unlike the United States and European nations or China and its Asian neighbours, the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China have only been officially friends since 1972.
 
The media today often describes the relationship between the United States and China as the most important bilateral relationship of this coming century. It is a relationship they say that will shape everything from global economics to cultural tastes for decades to come. This series will look at the relationship between these two great nations at opposite ends of the Pacific, how it began, and what it might mean for the future.
 
China in the 1960s
During the 1960s China had largely isolated itself from the world and pulled itself out of any official alliances with any major power. It was in a particularly interesting place in relation to the Cold War: it was enemies with both the Americans and the Soviet Union. China in 1961 had implemented a “split” with its once solid ally the Soviets after its new leader Nikita Khrushchev had denounced Joseph Stalin in a “secret speech”.
 
Mao Zedong was less than pleased having been a huge admirer of Stalin and saw Stalin’s death as the time when China would go from junior partner to the senior one in the communist world. Alas this was not how the Soviets saw it. China ungratefully kicked out the Soviet advisors sent to help it modernize the economy and accused the Soviet Union of communist revisionism (basically being a sell-out to the cause). Now friends only with the handful of small unorthodox communist regimes and movements (Albania, the Khmer Rouge, and North Korea) China had only itself to rely on in world affairs.
 
At the same time the Nationalist government in Taiwan held China’s seat on the UN Security Council and represented China in most other international institutions. The world from the Chinese perspective was dangerous and lined up against the interests of the communist movement (which was partially true). China became a black hole of information to much of the Western world at this time.
 
After isolating China from the world, and then launching a “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” tasked with destroying culture, the state, and the economy, Mao and China by the 1970s were in pretty dire straits. Mao by this point was looking for a bold move that would put China back on track and that would take care of his perennial fear of a nuclear war with one of the superpowers (particularly the one China shared a large land border with). China was open to suggestions and there was someone out there who had one.
 
Why did Nixon go to China?
In a move that at the time must have seemed bizarre US President Richard Nixon, the great anti-communist red-baiter, announces that within months he would travel to the People’s Republic of China to beginning the process of normalizing relations with that country. The American right wing (and Taiwan) was furious; the American left was as usual sceptical of what ‘Tricky Dick’ Nixon was really up to. But despite this in February of 1972 Richard Nixon became the first sitting American President to go to China and meet with the government there.
 
Richard Nixon’s great advantage was that he was such a famous anti-communist and his negotiating with Mao Zedong could not be seen as being soft on communism. Nixon in his time in the wilderness, that is, his time not in high office, had written many an article and given speeches on what he considered his new approach to world affairs in light of the changes in geopolitics brought about by deepening American involvement in the Vietnam War.
 
Making an alliance with China would get the attention of the Soviet Union who was dragging its heels on a treaty to reduce nuclear weapons; it was also a way to get the United States out of Vietnam. The Vietcong were allied with the Soviet Union and Nixon knew if he could get China’s support they could help resolve the Paris Peace Talks to end the war.
 
His rational was not purely geopolitical or strategic, it was also humanistic: you cannot have 600 million people in the world angry, isolated, and in hatred of the rest. This for him was equally as important, for a world order that largely excluded the world’s largest nation, a fifth of humanity, was no world order at all. He could see that a humiliated China, isolated, but with an arsenal of nuclear weapons represented a future danger to world, one which could be solved now rather than later.
 
What happened in China in February of 1972 was an extraordinary moment of diplomacy. A whirlwind tour of banquet dinners, sightseeing, and speeches in Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai by President Nixon, his wife, US foreign policy officials, and a gaggle of American reporters eager to broadcast glimpses of the mysterious Middle Kingdom back to Americans that for so long had been closed to them.
 
The Shanghai Communique
The result of this trip was the document that still to this day serves as the foundation of the US-China relationship: The Shanghai Communique. Signed on the 28th of February, this document outlines the goals to normalize the relationship between the two countries and how they would both get around the awkward issues that set them apparent ideologically since the revolution in 1949.
 
The Communique focusses on the issue of Taiwan, a difficult needle to thread for at the time the Taiwanese were a very influential lobby in US politics and they were not happy that Nixon might sacrifice them for a deal with the communist devils they hated. To get everyone happy the document is cleverly worded: “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” 
 
Note that it does not lay claim to who should govern this one China, the Communist-controlled mainland or the Nationalist-controlled Taiwan, just that there is only one “China” and that Taiwan is part of that one China. Diplomatic speak at its finest and acceptable enough to both sides that they could both claim victory. Taiwan overnight became a country in a diplomatic grey zone and remains so to this day.
 
Conclusion
It is from this historic visit in 1972 that the relationship between the United States and China has developed for the last 40 years. While full diplomatic relations did not come into being until the Carter administration, 1972 was the year that America and China aligned their respective interests to isolate the Soviet Union in a brilliant act of high strategy geopolitics.
 
The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 would leave the United States and China facing each other as rivals into the new millennium especially as the communist regime managed to survive the revolutions of 1989. What Richard Nixon did in 1972 certainly changed the course of history in the relationship of America to China and it is this event that continues to shape the complex back and forth that these two countries have had since that visit.
 

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