Zhou Bo: 50 Years After Nixon’s Historic Trip, US-China Relations Can Be Brought Back From The Brink

  • Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (ret) is a senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a China Forum expert

    Richard Nixon may never be considered agreat American leader, being the only president to resign from office, following the Watergate scandal. The legacies he left, however, are not easily forgotten: China, China, China – that is, his landmark visit to China in “the week that changed the world” in 1972; an opera titled Nixon in China; and the phrase “only Nixon could go to China”, now used to describe a political leader’s unique ability to accomplish something particularly daunting or taboo.

    Fifty years after Nixon’s visit, the worldis unrecognisable. China, now the world’s second-largest economy, is no longera place where “a billion of its potentially most able people … live in angry isolation”, as Nixon wrote in 1967.

    Russia, once the common enemy of China and the US, is China’s closest strategic partner today. The US, fearful of losingthe primacy it has enjoyed since the Spanish-American war in 1898, has entereda “great power competition” with China and Russia.

    What marked Nixon’s presidency was his exceptional vision and audacity, or more precisely, vision-inspired audacity on China policy. When relations between the Soviet Union and China reached a nadiras a result of border clashes between the two, Nixon sent private word to the Chinese that he desired closer relations.

    When Mao Zedong invited American table tennis players to visit China, Nixon took the message of goodwill and sent his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to conduct a visit in secret, bypassing cabinet officials. The trip, made without informing Japan – America’s key regional ally in the region – caused the “Nixon shock” in Japan.

    These feats of great daring were the result of a grandmaster’s exact calculations on the chessboard of international politics. In those days, the main preoccupation for Washington was Soviet expansionism. Therefore, it was in America’s best interests to embrace “Red China”.


    No more. Competition with China, initiated by president Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed “stable genius” who made decisions based on instinct rather than vision, is intensifying. President Joe Biden’s China policy is basically “extreme competition” short of war. Since competition is only a process, such a strategy not only lacks vision, but is also without a purpose. Worse still, when the competition becomes extreme, it might lead to what Biden wants to avoid: a war.

    Yet seeing the U-turn relations have taken is not necessarily believing, given how strong US-China ties really remain. Despite bruising political tensions and a lingering trade war, bilateral tradesoared by 28.7 per cent and amounted to US$755.6 billion in 2021. This speaks volumes about the resilience of the relationship and the absurdity that climate change and nonproliferation have become the only areas in which Washington wishes to cooperate with Beijing.

    Even Nixon, a leading anti-communist, could put ideology and values aside for mutual interests. By contrast, the Biden administration convened the Summit of Democracy to “renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad”.

    Nixon made his 1972 trip to break the ice with China. Trump sought to freeze things over with decoupling. Presumably, decoupling is not impossible in some selected hi-tech industries.

    Yet the irony is that any American tech sanction could only strengthen China’s efforts in developing its own hi-tech industries to the extent that, one day, China won’t need American hi-tech productsany more. This is entirely possible. As early as 2010, China had overtaken the US to become the world’s No 1 industrial powerhouse.

    As a stolid realist, Nixon came to China looking for an alliance against the Soviet Union, not to change China. But his visit did sow the seeds of hope among his successors that, as long as the West engages China, it might become “one of us” one day. Seeing China grow stronger yet remain different, the disillusioned US has embarked on a path of competition.

    The outcome of the competition is far from certain, though. An obvious example of Washington’s ability to make grandstrategic blunders is Afghanistan, where the US fought the longest war in American history without knowing who the real enemy was.

    The Afghanistan Papers, Craig Whitlock’s bestseller, shows how, over two decades, mistakes which no one dared to admitwere covered with lies that eventually led the US to lose a war that was overwhelmingly supported by Americans in the beginning. But isn’t the same true of the Vietnam war? No man ever steps in the same river twice, but the memory of a superpower is often short.

    If a China-US contest is inevitable, then our best hope is that it won’t become confrontational. There is no guarantee of that, even though Biden has expressed hope of establishing “some commonsense guardrails”. The US-Soviet rivalry was global, while the China-US competitionis regional, centred in the Western Pacific. Unlike competition between the Nato-Warsaw blocs, this is a one-on-one competition in which neither US alliesnor China’s partners are keen to take sides. But it is more dangerous.

    The US-Soviet rivalry was controllable because of clear-cut spheres of influence which allowed the two powers to avoid direct confrontation. Now, there isn’t even a buffer zone between China and the US. US military ships and aircraft provocatively enter the Taiwan Strait or South China Sea on a regular basis. The question is how long an ever stronger PLA will tolerate it.

    If Washington has indeed lost direction, then it is crucial that Beijing doesn’t. China aims to realise its centenary goal, the “Chinese dream”, by mid-century. This process cannot be derailed evenif China is drawn further into competition with the US. But the best way for China to compete is not by wrestling with the US. It is by further deepening its own reforms and opening up to the whole world.

    Whatever one might think about the future of the China-US relationship, Nixon’s visit half a century ago offers a useful reminder: if enemies could become friends then, competitors are not bound to be come enemies today. Not only Nixon could go to China.

    (Origianlly pulished on South China Morning Post on Feb. 18, 2022)

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