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Foreign Policy

The Lesson of Nixon’s China Visit

Feb 26, 2022
  • Wang Zhen

    Research Professor, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

The ice-breaking visits to China in the 1970s by U.S. President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger opened the doors for China-U.S. relations and greatly changed the global Cold War and international strategic pattern. Five decades later, the wisdom and historic achievement of that visit are as brilliant and inspiring as they were at the time. With  China-U.S. relations currently stranded in stalemate, the historic value of the ice-breaking trip appears particularly precious and offers important lessons and reference for today’s people. At least three lessons may be learned:

First, the development of China-U.S. relations calls for both sides to get rid of ideological shackles. Considering their differences in historical traditions, cultural customs and social systems, ideological divergences are inevitable between China and the U.S., and how to treat these is of critical importance. China was at the peak of the “cultural revolution” when Nixon arrived in 1972. Driven by “ultra-leftist” thinking, the society couldn’t have been more closed, conservative or radical. Still, the leaders of both countries were able to stride over the tremendous ideological gap and enter dialogue and cooperation. As Nixon said, despite the deep ideological divergences between the two countries, they had no reason to become enemies and every reason to become friends.

China is far more open, inclusive and free than it was 50 years ago, and China and the U.S. are economically interdependent as never before. It is completely unjustifiable for anyone to continue to hedge regarding China, using such excuses as “democracy” and “human rights.” If ideology did not prevent the two countries from normalizing ties in the past, it should in no way impede development of bilateral relations today.

Second, the development of China-U.S. relations calls for both sides to fully respect each other’s core interests and properly handle their differences. Based on different core interests, the two countries have dramatically divergent opinions and stances on some issues, yet differences don’t necessarily mean conflict and confrontation. On Taiwan, for instance, the Chinese government has never accepted the U.S. side’s position, but neither has it forsaken its sovereignty.

Nixon wrote in his memoirs that Taiwan was the touchstone for both sides. However, since the two parties were able to treat each other with respect, communicate candidly and seek common ground while shelving differences, they finally found ways to make compromises. The past five decades have shown that although their differences over Taiwan have never disappeared, so long as they can practice restraint and mutual respect, the matter’s impact on the big picture of China-U.S. ties won’t escalate and get out of control.

Third, the development of China-U.S. relations calls for strategic circles in both countries to overcome prejudices and think rationally. Before becoming U.S. president, Nixon also had plenty of prejudices against communism and China, and had criticized both. When he realized that improving relations with China would benefit the U.S. and world peace, however, he made decisive, bold policy adjustments, demonstrating outstanding strategic foresight.

Unfortunately, the courage and wisdom Nixon displayed at the time are ridiculed and criticized by some Washington politicians today. Even if such criticisms don’t originate from prejudice or ulterior motives, they at least reveal ignorance or a misreading of history. In his book “Beyond Peace,” Nixon said, “It is ironic that many liberal scholars in the United States who strongly supported our opening to China in 1972, when Mao allowed neither political nor economic freedom, now oppose close U.S.-Chinese relations because of China’s denial of political freedom and abuse of human rights.”

Both China and the U.S., along with the entire international community, have undergone great changes since Nixon’s China visit. The Soviet Union has long been a thing of the past. China has turned from being the weakest in the China-U.S.-Soviet Union triangle into the world’s second-largest economy. Thanks to both sides’ efforts, the connotations of the China-U.S. relationship have far exceeded the initial strategic purpose of coping with the so-called Soviet threat. With direct trade between China and the U.S. in 2021 alone reaching above $755 billion, their common interests, interdependence and cultural exchanges do not compare with those between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

In addition, the two countries share common interests in meeting global challenges such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and regional crises. Facing such new conditions, as Professor Susan Thornton suggested, the two countries should “adapt together, evolve together.” They should also learn lessons from past decades. In short, though the Cold War had ended, the strategic wisdom and historic feat of Nixon’s China visit remain valuable and should be cherished and respected by later generations. 

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