In February 1972, President Nixon made his ice-breaking visit to Beijing. That journey changed the world and allowed the US to make handsome Cold War gains — Americans managed to pull out of their Vietnam War while the Soviets sunk deeper into their Afghan quagmire. Less than 20 years after the trip, the Soviet Union imploded and failed to hold its once formidable empire together. What Nixon and his close associate Dr. Kissinger did back then — tipping the China-US-USSR triangle off balance with a China-US rapprochement — has long gone down as an extraordinary diplomatic success story in the world.
With Donald Trump becoming the new US president, there is a rising anxiety around the world, notably about some of his tough rhetoric toward China. Discussions about the China-US-Russia triangle have resurfaced in both US and China. Some American scholars argue that the Nixon-Kissinger advocacy of US-China entente had been obsolete and US-Russia collaboration would be needed to keep China down so as to help the US regain glory as the Cold War winner.
Can Trump become another Nixon? That, at least in this writer’s opinion, is a far-fetched proposition. Borrowing a page from Nixon’s past strategy and making America strong again by pitting Russia against China is nothing but wishful thinking and even daydreaming.
To begin with, today’s China is not yesterday’s Soviet Union. Diplomatically, China began to follow an independent foreign policy of peace in the 1970s. It has never sought to build a bloc of countries similar to the Warsaw Pact or NATO, nor did it go around invading Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan or drawing up its own sphere of influence. Economically, China has embarked on a road of market economy characterized by free competition and opening to the outside world since adopting its reform and opening up agenda in the late 1970s. China’s huge market has created an unprecedented amount of business opportunities to Western countries. According to the 2016 World Investment Report by UNCTAD, China attracted $135.6 billion in foreign investment in 2015, ranking the third in the world. A 2016 investigation by the American Chamber of Commerce in China shows that over 60% of its members list China as one of the three top global investment destinations and 68% have plans for increased investment in China. Politically, China steadfastly follows its socialist road of development and rule by the Communist Party. But it has no longer sought to export its political model or challenge Western value systems. The much-talked-about “China model” or “China road” in global academic circles are no more than a summary of China’s own record of development, and the Chinese government has shown no zeal for exporting such experience internationally.
Second, today’s China-US relations are entirely different from yesterday’s USSR-US relations. In the 1960s and 1970s, the US and the Soviet Union were locked in a heated Cold War confrontation. Besides the touch-and-go Berlin crisis and the Cuban missile crisis, they were engaged in fierce standoffs and even hot wars through their proxies in Europe, Mideast, Asia and Africa. Economic exchanges between their blocs were practically nothing. In 1970, US-USSR trade volume was a mere $200 million, amounting to less than 0.5% of US foreign trade. On the other hand, rather than confronting the US, China has, beginning in the 1970s, sought to advance its own interests and development by meticulously preserving the international order advocated by the US after WWII. In other words, China’s development has not been achieved at the expense of US interests — the bilateral relationship is one of non-confrontation, equality, win-win and mutually beneficial cooperation. It is precisely because of this that China-US relations have elevated to such a level of complexity and interdependence, a level nothing like old-time US-USSR relations. According to the US Department of Commerce, US-China two-way trade totaled $598.07 billion in 2015 and $578.59 billion in 2016. China’s investment in the US surpassed US investment in China for the first time in 2014, and China’s investment in the US in 2016 was expected to top $30 billion. At the same time, China holds over $ 1 trillion in US Treasury bonds, and Chinese students total 328,000, 31.5% of the international student population inside US. That alone can translate into $11.4 billion in direct contribution to the US economy. What is more, China and the US work together to fruitfully address climate change, environment, transnational crime, nuclear proliferation and other global issues.
Lastly, there is simply no comparison between today’s China-US-Russia relations with yesterday’s China-US-USSR relations. With the East-West Cold War as the general background, China saw a rupture of its relations with the Soviet Union from sweetheart allies to bitter foes, whereas the US went from having an upper hand to being an underdog in its Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. Across the whole world from Europe, the Mideast, South Asia to the Indochina Peninsula, the US was under mounting pressure from the Soviet Union. It was their common perception of the threat from Soviet expansion and hegemony around the world that prompted China and the US to gradually replace their Korean War-shaped relationship of confrontation with one that was characterized by mutual reassessment and mutual respect. The older generation of Chinese and American leaders made the collective move to decisively pull off the “second transformation” in Asia since the China-USSR alliance came into being. As Nixon wrote in Beyond Peace, it was the common fear that moved America and China closer and linked the two countries together in the Cold War.
Now, with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of cold war, China not only normalized ties with the Soviet Union’s successor, Russia, but also settled the long-standing border issue between the two countries and established with it the “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” in 2014. In terms of strategic trust, scope and level of cooperation, the close partnership enjoyed by China and Russia is rarely seen among major countries. In the meantime, the China-US relationship has evolved from one that featured rather simple military and political cooperation to one that is a lot deeper, more comprehensive, mutually cooperative and one that is perhaps the world’s most complicated relationship of interdependence. It is absolutely unrealistic for anyone in a three-way relationship to device a strategy whereby it can pit the other two against each other. Such a strategy will be extremely costly while entailing great risks and an unpredictable future.
Given the above, I can only say that viewing the current China-US-Russia relationship in the same light of the old-time China-US-USSR triangle is much too shallow and superficial. America’s biggest enemy today is neither China nor Russia. It is something from its inner soul which is hard to grasp and harder to get rid of. For example, it refuses to admit that America’s domination is declining. It refuses to leave the “alliance mentality” trap in which it finds itself. It is unwilling to treat others on equal footing and heed their legitimate interests and demands with respect, and it cannot bring itself to admit the strategic mistakes it has made. For American leaders, it is not difficult to find others in the world to blame for mistakes of their own making. But it will not serve any useful purpose. More often than not, such a practice may risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, turning potential friends into foes, which could lead the country in a terrible direction.