A handshake that changed the world: 50 years after Nixon’s trip to China

U.S. President Nixon shakes hands with Chinese President Mao Zedong (Feb. 21, 1972, AP)

nikkeiFeb. 21 marks the 50th anniversary of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s trip to China, a turning point in international relations.

Washington and Beijing joined together to counter the Soviet Union, but China did not democratize as the U.S. hoped. It has now become an economic and military powerhouse under the one-party rule of the Communist Party. A half-century after the handshake that changed the world, cooperation has turned to confrontation. The U.S.-China relationship and global affairs have all undergone tumultuous change.

The global order has changed over 50 years

U.S.-China rapprochement, a turning point in the Cold War

The U.S. and China had a confrontational relationship, including direct combat in the Korean War. The U.S. had formed a military alliance with and provided support to Taiwan, but it sought better relations with China, which supported North Vietname, in an effort to escape the quagmire of the Vietnam War. With the Sino-Soviet border dispute of 1969, China also seriously reconsidered the U.S.’ intentions, and the common interest of countering the Soviet Union brought the two together. The improved bilateral relations led to the normalization of Japan-China relations and detente between East and West.

China overtakes U.S. GDP in purchasing power parity

China’s gross domestic product converted into purchasing power parity, which accounts for differences in prices, was estimated to be $22 trillion in 2021, greater than the U.S.’s $21 trillion and the largest in the world. Having weathered the 2008 financial crisis through massive fiscal stimulus, China gained confidence in its state-led economic management and started expanding its economic influence toward Europe and Africa with the Belt and Road Initiative. It is also promoting domestic production of cutting-edge technologies.

Source: University of Groningen, based on IMF data; figures for 2021 and beyond are estimates

Democracy vs. authoritarianism: prolonged U.S.-China conflict

China is on track to surpass the U.S. in nominal GDP. Faced with declining national power and domestic divisions, the U.S. has been unable to respond effectively to challenges posed by China and Russia. An invasion of Taiwan by the Xi administration in China is now being openly discussed. The U.S. is trying to find a path forward by acting in unison with other democratises like Taiwan, Japan, Europe, Australia and India, but it is unclear whether this will succeed.

What was discussed during Nixon’s visit to China?

What was discussed during Nixon’s visit to China? The “shadow presence” was the Soviet Union, and the U.S. and China discussed the Sovet threat. The biggest focus was “Taiwan,” which revealed the two countries’ determination to put aside the values of their different political systems and work toward normalization. Nixon’s visit lasted about a week, during which time he spoke energetically with Mao Zedong once, five times with Zhou Enlai, and twice in plenary sessions with senior officials. The transcript of the series of talks was partially declassified in 1999, and released in full in 2003.

Anti-communist Nixon and Mao find common ground

Mao Zedong – I like rightists. People say you are rightists, that the Republican Party is to the right.

Nixon – I think the important thing to note is that in America, at least at this time, those on the right can do what those on the left talk about.

Agreement on Soviet threat

Nixon – The question is which danger the People’s Republic faces, whether it is the danger of American aggression or Soviet aggression.

Mao Zedong – At the present time, the question of aggression from the United States or aggression from China is relatively small; that is, it could be said that this is not a major issue.

Removing U.S. forces from Taiwan

Nixon – …two-thirds of our present forces in Taiwan are related to the support of our forces in Southeast Asia. Those forces … will be removed as the situation in Southeast Asia is resolved. … the reduction of the remaining third of our military presence on Taiwan will go forward as progress is made on the peaceful resolution of the problem.

Zhou Enlai – The Taiwan question can be discussed rather easily. … We have already waited over twenty years — I am very frank here — and can wait a few more years. … Even when Taiwan comes back to the Motherland, we will not establish any nuclear bases there.

Putting aside political differences and prioritizing normalization

Nixon – We do not ask you to compromise your principles, just as you would not ask us to compromise ours.

Zhou Enlai – … there exists now such great differences between us and in the future there will still be differences. But … we will invariably find common ground to promote the normalization of relations between us.

Source: U.S. Department of State

Turning points in photographs

1972 – February – Normalization of U.S.-China relations

U.S. President Nixon (third from left) and aide Henry Kissenger (second from left) meet with Premier Zhou Enlai (second from right). (Feb. 21, 1972, AP)

On Feb. 21, 1972, Nixon went to China and met with Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai. It was the first visit by a U.S. president to modern China, founded in 1949. The joint statement, issued in Shanghai on Feb. 28, the last day of the visit, said that the U.S. “acknowledges” and “does not challenge” China’s position that “there is but one China and Taiwan is a part of China.” After secret diplomacy, Nixon in July 1971 announced his intention to visit China. This, together with the announcement the following month that the exchange of gold for dollars would be suspended, constituted the two “Nixon shocks,” rocking the world.

1978 – December – China’s reform and opening up

Deng Xiaoping (left) at the 3rd plenary session of the 11th Central Committee (December 1978, Getty Images/Bettmann)

Deng Xiaoping, the most powerful man in China, announced at the 3rd plenum of the 11th Central Committee meeting that China would pivot to “reform and opening up” by adopting market reforms to restore the economy that was on the brink of collapse after the Cultural Revolution. It was the catalyst for China to break away from a focus on class struggle and to achieve rapid economic development. Deng advocated a theory of “get rich first.” Aid, investment, and technology transfers from the U.S. and Japan greatly boosted China’s subsequent growth.

1979 – January – Normalizing U.S.-China ties, breaking with Taiwan

Deng Xiaoping, left, visiting the U.S. and meeting with President Jimmy Carter (Washington, Jan. 31, 1979, Getty Images/Dirck Halstead)

Deng Xiaoping became the first dignitary from communist China to visit the U.S. in January 1979, the month the two countries established formal diplomatic relations. The U.S. broke off relations with Taiwan and withdrew its troops from the island. At the same time, the U.S. government struck a balance by enacting the Taiwan Relations Act, which states the U.S. will support Taiwan in strengthening its defense capabilities.

1989 – June – Tiananmen Square Crackdown

A man stands before a tank in Tiananmen Square. (June 5, 1989, Reuters)

Many students protested peacefully in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in Beijing, calling for freedom for speech, democratization and redress of corruption, but an armed crackdown caused many casualties. China was strongly condemned by the international community and was temporarily isolated by sanctions imposed by Western countries. After the incident, Deng announced a policy of “hide your strength, bide your time,” stressing the importance of moving forward with economic development without conflict with the West. However, the U.S. did not change its engagement policy in consideration of its economic interests.

1989 – December – End of the Cold War

U.S. President George H.W. Bush, left, and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev declare the Cold War to be over. (Dec. 3, 1989, AP)

U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union declared the end of the Cold War at Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. In October 1990, East and West Germany were reunified, and Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991. The 15 republics that made up the Soviet Union, including Russia and Ukraine, became independent. The U.S., after leading a multinational force to an overwhelming victory in the Gulf War in 1991, became intoxicated with its position as the world’s sole superpower, but the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s sapped its national strength.

1995 – July – Third Taiwan Strait crisis

The U.S. aircraft carrier USS Independence sails off the coast of Taiwan. (Mar. 1996, Reuters)

Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui made an unprecedented visit to the U.S., a move that was fiercely opposed by China. Shortly after, China launched a ballistic missile to threaten the island. The U.S. dispatched two aricraft carriers to the waters around Taiwan as a warning to China to stop its provocations.

China was helpless before the U.S. military superiority. This humiliation is thought to have spurred China to upgrade its military capabilities, and it now possesses the DF21 ballistic missile, said toe be an “aircraft killer.” Some have suggested that China’s military power now equals or exceeds that of the U.S. in the Western Pacific.

2001 – December – China accedes to the WTO

World Trade Organization (WTO) approves China’s membership. (Nov. 11, 2001, Reuters)

China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) as a market-based economy earned it significant tariff reductions on auto parts imports and other products. China solidified its position as the “world’s factory” by benefitting from free trade, but the U.S. and Europe criticized it for forcing foreign companies to transfer technology and maintaining barriers to entering its domestic market. Many now believe that U.S. policy allowed China to cherry-pick the system, and that it should not have been permitted to join the WTO.

2018 – March – U.S.-China trade war

U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to sign a memorandum on intellectual property tariffs on high-tech goods from China. (Mar. 22, 2018, Reuters)

In March 2018, the Trump administration announced sanctions that imposed high tariffs on Chinese products because of China’s infringement of intellectual property rights. They went into effect that July. China countered by imposing retaliatory sanctions on U.S. products. The U.S.-China trade war has rocked the global economy and forced companies to rethink their supply chains. The Biden administration has kept the sanctions in place to protect domestic manufacturing in principle, and they remain a source of conflict between the two countries.

2022 – February – Russia and China emphasize ties

President Xi Jinping meets with President Vladimir Putin, left. (Feb. 4, 2022, Reuters)

In conjunction with the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited China and met with President Xi Jinping. China supports Russia’s demand that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization halt its eastward expansion. Russia aligned with China in the joint statement, clearly saying it opposes indepedence for Taiwan. It clearly demonstrated that the world is divided into two camps: a democratic one centered on the U.S. and Europe, and an authoritarian one centered on China and Russia.

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