Fifty years ago this week, U.S. president Richard Nixon paid an official visit to China, thus ending an official diplomatic boycott that had lasted since the Communists took power in 1949.
The visit, which took place from February 21-28, 1972, was a diplomatic spectacle as few others have been. Few events in modern diplomatic history have astounded the world as much as Nixon’s visit to China. Only Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s official visit to Israel in November 1977, which ended the diplomatic boycott of Israel that existed since its foundation in 1948, can be compared to it. Nixon’s visit was the culmination of a major diplomatic breakthrough and the beginning of an emerging relationship between the two former foes.
Nixon’s visit came in the wake of a secret meeting between U.S. national security advisor Henry Kissinger and China’s Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, in July 1971.
Since the Chinese Communists came to power in 1949, the United States had no official diplomatic contacts with the government in Beijing as it recognized the nationalist government in Taipei, Taiwan, as the legitimate Chinese government.
The enmity between the United States and Communist China reached a peak during the Korean War (1950-1953), when the two countries fought each other.
But increasing hostility between the two Communist powers, the Soviet Union and China, which then led to armed clashes between the two in the winter of 1969, offered an opportunity for the United States to attempt a rapprochement with its long-time rival.
To be sure, before he was even elected president, Nixon had written a Foreign Affairs article in 1967 arguing that Communist China was too important to be relegated on the sidelines of the international system.
After becoming president, Nixon and Kissinger set out to explore the possibility of a diplomatic thaw with Communist China. Following some unsuccessful attempts, the Pakistani government, which maintained close links with both countries, facilitated negotiations, finally leading to Kissinger’s secret mission to China and subsequently to Nixon’s official visit.
An official presidential visit of such a long duration would be difficult to countenance nowadays, particularly with a country with which the United States has no diplomatic relations. Nixon would describe his visit as “the week that changed the world,” which reflected the contemporary view that the visit was a singular turning point in the history of international relations. The same can be said fifty years later.
Following Nixon’s visit, the United States had to maneuver between its desire for an ever-closer dialogue with Communist China and its pledge to Taiwan’s security. The dilemma facing the United States was not simple. To achieve a rapprochement with Communist China was one thing; establishing full diplomatic relations was another. The United States had to strike a delicate balance between its moral commitment to Taiwan and its pragmatic interest in forging closer links with Communist China. That lead to diplomatic ambiguity, such as the Shanghai Communique published at the end of Nixon’s official visit to China, in which the United States stated that “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China.”
This statement, in principle, was something both Communist China and Taiwan could agree on. After all, both believed that there was but one China; they just differed on which regime should rule over it.
Nixon’s visit changed the nature of the Cold War. Pursuing a policy of détente towards the Soviet Union, the United States was able to manoeuver between the two Communist powers. Détente created a situation, as Kissinger put it, in which the Soviet Union and Communist China were more distanced from each other than either was from the United States.
Arguably, the bipolar international system that existed until then turned into a tripolar one.
To be sure, Communist China under Chairman Mao Zedong was a totalitarian state. Mao and his regime were responsible for the deaths of millions of Chinese citizens and the persecution, humiliation, and torture of a large section of the population. The cult of personality in China reached Stalinist levels. The diplomatic opening to Communist China and the long-term effects were certainly not prompted by any ideological affinity.
Indeed, Nixon and Kissinger had already made clear that the principal motivating factor in their foreign policy was serving the U.S. national interest. There was a strong pragmatic streak behind their policy. Ideological reasoning was not completely absent from their decisionmaking process, but it was secondary. As Kissinger himself would argue many years subsequently, Nixon’s rhetoric was more idealistic than his actions; his objectives were defined in Wilsonian terms, while the tactics he employed were more pragmatic.
Nixon did not consider Communist China more politically enlightened than the Soviet Union. Most did not regard Mao and the Chinese Communist leadership as more open-minded than their Soviet counterparts. In this regard, the initiative behind U.S. policy was founded upon a strong belief that Communist China was too important an international actor to be left on the sidelines of U.S. foreign policy. In the context of the Cold War and the prevailing bipolar international system, Nixon believed that a rapprochement with Communist China, which was at loggerheads with the Soviet Union and thus more amenable to opening up a serious diplomatic dialogue with the United States, was needed. Such a policy would lead the Soviet Union to be more flexible towards the United States to prevent a further rapprochement with Communist China. The United States would conduct a policy of détente with the Soviet Union aimed at moderating the super-power conflict, which for its part would lead Communist China to welcome an ever-closer dialogue with the United States to prevent an anti-Chinese alliance between the Soviet Union and the United States.
With the benefit of hindsight, many regarded Nixon’s opening to China as his most astounding foreign policy success. It was not merely an ephemeral, tactical achievement, but rather a deeply influential, long-lasting crowning of a presidency marred by the Watergate scandal, which brought about Nixon’s downfall in August 1974. Although Watergate tarnished his reputation, Nixon managed to make a remarkable comeback into public acclaim as he became an elder statesman, whose opinions on foreign affairs leaders and policymakers frequently sought.
Dr. Yoav J. Tenembaum is a lecturer in International Relations at Tel Aviv University. He holds a doctorate in Modern History from Oxford University and a master’s degree in International Relations from Cambridge University.