Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Maybe Nixon Should have Skipped China

More than fifty years ago President Nixon visited China. At the time, the visit was heralded as a major and smart breakthrough in U.S. foreign policy, realpolitik, and international politics. But perhaps in hindsight the visit and what transpired subsequently condemn the decision as perhaps not so good. It laid the roots for contemporary politics that features an ascendant China perhaps on the verge of invading Taiwan and an emboldened Russia invading Ukraine, and both countries challenging the global order rules in place since the Second World War.

Richard Nixon was a classic anti-communist cold warrior. He cut his teeth on the House Un-American Activities Committee persecuting communists both real and imagined. He was also a conservative. In 1972 Nixon was president. The Vietnam War was on, and the USSR and the U.S. were engaged in a costly Cold War rivalry. America officially did not diplomatically recognize the People’s Republic of China. It viewed the then-corrupt and anti-democratic Republic of China (Taiwan) and the Kuomintang as the legitimate Chinese government. This was true even though in 1971, Taiwan was expelled from the UN and its seat was given to the People’s Republic. The U.S. had mutual defense treaties with Taiwan. And Nixon was up for re-election.

Secret negotiations involving Henry Kissinger and Chinese officials produced the February 1972 Nixon visit. For many, especially conservatives and Nixon supporters, their mantra was “Only Nixon could have visited China.” For them, his impeccable conservative and anti-communist credentials made him uniquely capable of this visit.

Nixon’s visit to China and his meeting with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai was seen as a major coup. Fostering better relations with China served U.S. interests in countering Soviet influence, and for China, it allowed it to play the U.S. off of the Russians. The opening to China also may have facilitated the end of the Vietnam War, opened its markets to U.S. goods, and fostered significant cultural exchanges between the two countries.

Richard Nixon in China
Richard Nixon in China.

Yet during his visit, Mao and Chinese officials insisted on what would become the “one China” policy. The People’s Republic viewed Taiwan as within its sovereign control, desiring eventual reunification. The U.S. and China agreed to put aside this question about Taiwan’s status during the visit. In the Shanghai Communiqué, the U.S. acknowledged that “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait [but] maintain there is but one China.” In effect, to forge relations with the People’s Republic, the U.S. was unwilling to unequivocally affirm the sovereignty of Taiwan despite the fact it was an ally and international law spoke to the importance of state borders.

Eventually, though, China had its way with the U.S. and the world. In 1980, the U.S. canceled its defense treaty with Taiwan, and with that formally recognized the People’s Republic as the sole China. With this, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the breakup of the USSR, China became the major alternative to the U.S.

Yet even at this point, China was not a global superpower. Its economy was still far smaller than the U.S. but put into motion in the 1970s by Deng Xiaoping were the market reforms that would transform China. The U.S., hoping that trade with China and its expanded role in a global economy would eventually democratize it, pushed under Bill Clinton for its membership in the World Trade Organization and other international organizations. For the U.S., market reforms and global trade held the key to containing and transforming China into a stable partner if not a democracy.

But none of this worked out as planned. As recently pointed out in Mao and Markets, the West underestimated the cultural influence of communism and Mao’s teachings upon the Chinese brand of business. The U.S. also yet again overlooked the importance of political culture and national interests in another country. China prospered with business enterprises having a distinct Mao accent.

Fast forward to the present. China now approaches the U.S. in its GDP. It also aims to build an alternative world order premised not on democracy and human rights, but on its vision of the world. The Belt and Road Initiative is its way to expand its economic influence. And now China is amassing a nuclear and military might to support its foreign policy initiatives. It bullies its neighbors, it has not democratized, and it threatens the sovereignty of an isolated Taiwan.

Now with Russia ostracized by much of the world over its invasion of Ukraine, it and China grow ever closer.

What might have looked like a good move by Kissinger and Nixon in 1972 now looks less promising. Hope for rapprochement with China, its democratization, and the triangulation to check Russia are fantasies. China stands as the rival superpower to the U.S. Nixon’s visit to China, especially with the agreements that took place then, set in place the seeds of a current world order threatening U.S. interests and global democracy.

There is an apocryphal story that when Nixon visited China either he or Kissinger tried to act smart, and they asked Mao or Zhou Enlai: “What impact do you think the French Revolution has had on the world?” The response came back: “It is too soon to tell.” Perhaps now enough time has passed to ask whether the Nixon visit, what they agreed to, and the forces unleashed, as a result, were beneficial to the U.S. and the world order.