Key point: Without detente, Beijing would likely have remained neutral given its strained relations with Moscow. Perhaps we'll never know how much was up to great leaders vs the pressures of great power competition.
What if Nixon had never gone to China?
China’s shift of weight towards the United States had major international implications. It heightened Soviet military vulnerability, while also providing what would become an engine of global economic growth. Within China, the pivot opened space for major domestic economic reform, although the Chinese Communist Party would not take advantage of this for several years.
We think of China’s shift as an inevitability—the consequence of timeless currents associated with the balance of power. But in fact, the summit between Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon demanded bold thinking from Chinese and American policymakers, thinking that ran against decades of foreign-policy orthodoxy in both countries. Even then, the summit required careful choreography, played out across several countries.
But domestic politics in either China or the United States could have scotched the deal, at least for a time. And what if (as some in China advocated), Beijing had decided to tilt back towards the Soviet Union? Or what if (as many in the United States contended), Washington had decided to maintain its diplomatic and economic campaign against the PRC?
In China, Mao Zedong used the Cultural Revolution to purge most of the important figures pushing for rapprochement with the Soviet Union. At the beginning, these individuals (such as Liu Shaoqi) tended to represent the technocratic, economically minded part of the Community Party. This faction understood the burden that defense autarky placed on China, and sought the enormous technical and economic assistance that a friendly Soviet Union could provide. Mao was hostile to this perspective, and the Cultural Revolution was largely an effort to destroy support for the USSR in the Party.
Still, the circle around Mao did not enjoy consensus on foreign policy. Zhou Enlai favored an approach to the United States, and would eventually help facilitate the 1972 summit. Lin Biao, Mao’s longtime confidant and heir apparent, and Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, tended to support a continuation of the independent policy China had pursued since 1961. Mao and Lin eventually fell out for reason unconnected to foreign policy, and Lin (according to the official Chinese story) died in a plane crash while trying to flee to the Soviet Union. What Lin was actually doing on that plane remains a mystery, as do his views on the potential for renewed friendship with the Soviets. Nevertheless, had Mao and Lin remained close, the latter may have represented a powerful voice against accommodation with the Americans.
In the United States, the hand of the China lobby remained strong into the 1970s. Chiang Kai-shek and his family had taken costly steps, beginning in the 1930s, to win the support of major American journalists and lawmakers. We forget now, but China policy represented a key foreign-policy litmus test in the United States from the 1950s on. When Richard Nixon proposed a renewed relationship with the PRC in a 1967 Foreign Affairs article, he threatened to touch the third rail of American foreign policy.
Given that Nixon had committed to opening China even before his election, the most plausible counterfactual for U.S. policy revolves around a Hubert Humphrey victory in the 1968. At the time, many believed that Humphrey would continue Johnson’s policy regarding the war. In fact, private communications between Humphrey and Johnson reveal that the former had much more dovish instincts that the latter. It’s impossible to say what Humphrey would have done, but a policy of significant de-escalation in Vietnam certainly would have been on the table.
While the truism that “only Nixon could go to China” overstates the difficulty of opening China, Humphrey would have had a much harder time carrying out a conciliatory policy towards Beijing, especially if he had also pursued de-escalation in Vietnam. While the Democratic Party of 1972 was in no position to attack Nixon from the right (and the GOP largely remained in line, notwithstanding disgruntlement from California governor Ronald Reagan), a GOP candidate running in 1972 against an incumbent Humphrey would have taken off the gloves, thrown them away and forgotten that they ever existed. Humphrey appreciated the bad optics, and might well have delayed any approach to China until after the 1972 election.
How those elections would have gone is anyone’s guess. However, the same conditions that favored Nixon’s reelection in 1972 could have favored Humphrey’s. Had Humphrey won reelection, we can easily envision a second-term outreach to Beijing, in which case U.S.-China rapprochement would only have been delayed a few years. Had a conservative Republican—Ronald Reagan, for example, who was harshly critical of Nixon’s approach to Beijing—won in 1972, the road would have been much more difficult.
The de facto U.S.-China alliance that developed in 1972 helped increase the Soviet sense of military vulnerability; the USSR had backed away from direct confrontation in 1969 out of concerns about the vulnerability of Siberia. But assuming Beijing remained hostile to Moscow even without Nixon, the short-term implications for the USSR would have been minimal; China and the United States never envisioned close military collaboration against the Soviets.
The U.S.-China rapprochement made itself felt in Vietnam and South Asia, however. The meeting helped ensure Hanoi’s participation in peace talks, and gave the Soviets incentive to guarantee Hanoi’s (short-run) behavior. In the absence of Nixon-Mao, negotiations might have gone even more roughly. In South Asia, the rapprochement probably enhanced Pakistan’s sense of unease, as it implicated the Sino-Pakistani relationship in the U.S.-Soviet Cold War competition. But Pakistan likely would have resorted to a nuclear program in any case.
The failure to open China would have had little immediate domestic impact in the United States. U.S.-China trade did not begin to have a significant effect on the U.S. economy until the 1990s, and it’s difficult to imagine China remaining isolated for that long under any circumstances. Still, a later bloom of the Chinese economic miracle would have shifted patterns of trade, extending the viability of much manufacturing in the United States and elsewhere.
The central factors in the transformation of the Chinese economy came as a result of internal agricultural reform, not the opening to the United States. The foreign direct investment drawn to Special Economic Zones in the 1980s and 1990s helped, but the central drivers of China’s transformation were peasant farmers, newly in control of their own economic destinies. China’s relationship to the United States played a secondary role, although if Moscow and Beijing had redeveloped a strong economic relationship, reform might have slowed.
Mao Zedong died in 1976. His succession was tumultuous; Washington (fortunately) took a hands-off approach. It’s less certain how Moscow would have reacted if China had tipped back towards the Soviets, especially as Lin Biao himself might have ascended to Mao’s position. Lin would only have been sixty-nine at the time of Mao’s death, three years younger than Deng Xiaoping. However, he was also quite ill, and likely would have lacked Deng’s longevity.
Still, had Deng Xiaoping nevertheless made his way to the top of the Chinese hierarchy, history would likely have played out very similarly to real events. China did not begin to engage in widespread economic reforms until Deng took power in any case. And Deng’s rise to the top likely would have given a U.S. president another opportunity for pivoting on the China question.
All told, U.S.-Chinese rapprochement was not inevitable, but strong forces on both sides benefitted from it. Perhaps only Nixon could go to China in 1972, but the long run re-emergence of the People’s Republic onto the international stage was hard to stop.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat. This article first appeared several years ago.