What Nixon’s Opening to China Can Teach Donald Trump about Dealing with North Korea

President and Mrs. Nixon’s arrival in Beijing. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Looking at the U.S.-China experience in the mirror, could the Trump administration apply a similar template to North Korea?

February 1, 1969“I noted in your January 31 report the interesting comments from a Polish source. I think we should give every encouragement to the attitude that this Administration is ‘exploring possibilities of rapprochement [sic] with the Chinese.’ This, of course, should be done privately and should under no circumstances get into the public prints from this direction. However, in contacts with your friends, and particularly in any ways you might have to get to this Polish source, I would continue to plant that idea.”

Richard Nixon wrote this memorandum to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger in the opening days of his new administration, nearly five decades ago. As history would have it, that communication would become one of the many baby steps that put the president of the United States in Beijing in 1972. By breaking Mao’s great wall and laying the foundation for the normalization of relations, Nixon dramatically changed history forever, and in doing so he cauterized China’s emerging nuclear-weapons risk.

Flash forward to today and Donald Trump’s recent interview with Bloomberg restating the campaign remark that he would be willing to meet with Kim Jong-un were the conditions right. Off the cuff—or a trial balloon—Trump’s observation recalls Nixon’s China outreach prompting the question: could a Trump meeting with the North Korean leader reduce nuclear concerns posed by Pyongyang? It would take some doing, but the Nixon history with China suggests it is plausible.

However success would come at a price, Trump would have to take the audacious step that President Lyndon Johnson initiated and Richard Nixon sealed vis-à-vis China, namely halt U.S. efforts to stem Pyongyang’s nuclear program and work to normalize the North as a nuclear-weapons state. How and why the United States settled on this course in handling Mao’s China has much to teach about how to deal with Kim’s Korea today.

Serious U.S. concern over nuclear China began with the arrival of the Kennedy administration. When John Kennedy assumed office in 1961, the president, like Donald Trump today, faced a world of trouble stretching from the Soviet Union, across Europe, to Cuba on to Southeast and beyond. But the most concerning specter was Beijing’s nuclear rise. At the time, the United States viewed “Red China,” as Washington called it then, as the most implacable, bitterly hostile, bellicose, ideological adversary of all—a North Korea on steroids. It was, after all, Mao’s China that ousted the United States-supported nationalist government in 1949, that fought U.S. forces to a standstill in Korea, that contested Washington in the Taiwan Straits, and supported wars of national liberation while at home it communized the country at the cost of millions of lives. In the words of Walt Rostow, one of Kennedy’s key foreign-policy advisors, the possibility that such a China would get its hands on the bomb “was likely to be historically the most significant and worst event of the 1960s.” But this would be the China with which the United States would eventually deal.

However, in the run up, stopping the nuclear threat became a priority, which set in motion an intense U.S. government review that lasted several years. The Joint Chiefs of Staff evaluation gives insights into a dozen or so options that the administration considered, including diplomatic pressure, support of a nationalist invasion of the mainland and the dropping of tactical nuclear weapons on Beijing’s nuclear sites.

At the time of Kennedy’s death, with advisors stumped, it would be left to Lyndon Johnson to decide whether or not to act militarily. On September 15, 1964, key members of the president’s team met to make their recommendation: there would be no military action to halt the looming Chinese weapons test. In the event that conflict broke out with China at some future date, “we would expect to give very close attention to the possibility of an appropriate military action against Chinese facilities.” After they reported to the president in the Cabinet Room, Johnson signaled his approval.

With the assumption of Nixon’s presidency, China’s public reputation as Asia’s bête noir had only grown as commentators characterized Hanoi as Beijing’s “lips” in the ongoing Vietnam war that had killed thousands of U.S. servicemen. But the Nixon administration saw something else further north: deeper cracks in the Sino-Soviet alliance that had burst into seven months of border skirmishing in 1969, prompting Moscow to threaten to use nuclear weapons. Kissinger characterized the scare in his notes to Nixon following his 1971 visit to Beijing: “I believe they are deeply worried about the Soviet threat to their national integrity . . . and see us as a balancing force against the USSR.”

For Nixon, the Sino-Soviet dispute, the tumult unleashed by the Cultural Revolution and China's willingness to talk opened an opportunity to turn international politics on its head. The Shanghai Communiqué that Nixon negotiated laid the foundation for the normalization of diplomatic relations. Mindful of Kissinger’s concession to Zhou En-lai in 1971 that the United States would not push nuclear arms control on China, normalization itself offered an effective substitute. By bringing the two countries into a more or less ordinary relationship, normalization eliminated the underpinnings of nuclear stress. As a result, today China’s nuclear weapons barely play in the dialogue between the two countries despite periodic dustups.