Feb. 28, 2022, was the 50th anniversary of the Shanghai Communique, the document that marked the end of postwar hostilities between China and the United States and the beginning of the normalization of bilateral relations. It has also served as an important political foundation for the development of China-U.S. relations.
Many people consider U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China and the Shanghai Communique as geopolitical masterpieces of the 20th century in which China and the U.S. formed a quasi-alliance against the Soviet Union that would change the global balance of power and profoundly influence international relations. It’s true that the Soviet Union was an important factor in drawing China and the U.S. closer. However, if we commemorate the Shanghai Communique only for this, we are missing its broader and more important significance.
First, the Shanghai Communique was the first success in U.S. acceptance the basic norms of state-to-state relations that were advocated by China and other Asian countries. It made a historic contribution to democratizing international relations. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the U.S. viewed relations in Asia, including China, mainly within an ideological framework, resulting in hot wars. In the 1950s, China and the U.S. fought on the Korean Peninsula, and in the 1960s through the early 1970s the U.S. was caught in the quagmire of the Vietnam War, which not only damaged the Asian population but also left the U.S. economy in decline and its society divided.
Nixon wrote in Foreign Affairs in October 1967: “The war in Viet Nam has for so long dominated our field of vision that it has distorted our picture of Asia.” This pointed implicitly to the fundamental problem of America’s ideologically grounded postwar Asia policy — an inability to extricate itself.
The Shanghai Communique categorically states:
“There are essential differences between China and the United States in their social systems and foreign policies. However, the two sides agreed that countries, regardless of their social systems, should conduct their relations on the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, non-aggression against other states, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence."
The United States accepted the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence advocated by China and other Asian countries, thus freeing the mind and liberating international relations from the shackles of ideology.
Second, the Shanghai Communique, with its spirit of seeking truth, transformed China and the United States from enemies to friends and played a leading and inspiring role in promoting the process of the great international political awakening of all countries. The basis of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was the so-called domino theory — that is, if one country in Indochina became socialist, the whole region would follow suit and embrace communism.
At first many Southeast Asian countries believed in the U.S. theory, but the tragedy of Vietnam and the predicament of the United States made them begin to doubt its rationality. In August 1967, ASEAN was created because its founding states wanted to avoid becoming the next Vietnam. The idea of regional autonomy was at the core, and the group was imbued with the spirit of “ASEAN centrality,” which it now emphasizes.
Another reason the Shanghai Communique has left a mark on contemporary diplomatic practice is that it seeks truth from facts, beginning with a large and frank list of points of disagreement between China and the United States. It then emphasizes that these should not affect the development of normal relations between the two sides. The communique demonstrates that it is possible to manage the risks inherent in state-to-state relations and achieve stability and development through mutual respect and diplomacy. International relations must be guided by the principle of seeking truth from facts. The thaw in China-U.S. relations meant that the United States would abandon its domino theory and return to rationalism, a change that has since inspired many countries.
Third, the Shanghai Communique provided a new path for diplomatic practice to achieve stability and development in international relations, as reflected in the integration of two approaches: seeking common ground while reserving differences, and being highly pragmatic. This is reflected in the consensus on the “one-China principle” with regard to Taiwan. The Shanghai Communique did not resolve the Taiwan question, and even when China and the United States were negotiating the establishment of diplomatic relations, huge differences remained on Taiwan. However, because of the “one-China principle” agreed upon in the communique, the two sides were able to put aside minor differences and formally establish diplomatic relations in 1979.
If diplomatic relations had been sidelined until after the Taiwan question was fully resolved, we would not have seen the tremendous development of China-U.S. ties over the past few decades. The two paths embodied in the Shanghai Communique are actually in line with China’s new idea of “setting aside disputes and working for joint development” in dealing with territorial disputes. In this sense, as well, the Shanghai Communique is a great creation in the history of diplomacy.
The Shanghai Communique is of great significance not only because it was a victory for Sino-American relations but also because it was a successful innovation in the conceptual norms of international relations and diplomatic practice.