US President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China showed how one meeting can change the course of history
This week marks the 50th anniversary of a meeting that culminated in one of the biggest, and perhaps most consequential, ‘political earthquakes’ of the 20th century.
The Cold War rivals, USA and China, were fierce Cold War adversaries. However, on February 21, 1972 the US President Richard Nixon visited Beijing and spent a week with Mao Zedong. This meeting changed the US-China relationship for ever and provided political momentum for forces that advocated openness and reform in Beijing.
But, fifty years later, it is clear that the world and China are very different places. There has been a thawing in relations, but this was replaced by frosty trades and what some call a new Cold War. As tensions and uncertainty rise between Washington and Beijing it is clear that the single meeting between Washington and Beijing has had a greater impact on peace and hopes between the superpowers.
The 1971 meeting was a success.
Prior to Nixon’s visit, China was in a state of effective Cold War with the West, but also simultaneously, against the Soviet Union. Mao Zedong, a radical approach to China’s leadership, advocated an international struggle for socialism and against imperialism. However, by the 1970s Mao Zedong’s death, the forces of change had begun to creep in. China’s prospects and economy were severely affected under the Great Leap Forward campaign and Cultural Revolution campaigns. Moscow was seen as a threat.
At the same time, President Nixon was working to reorient America’s foreign policy. Moving away from the explicit confrontation that marked the 1960s, Nixon began to lay the foundations of shifting the US into a period of ‘détente’ with its adversaries. He would later visit Moscow, meet Leonid Brzezinski, the Soviet leader and make preparations for the end of the Vietnam War. Nixon saw an opportunity to create a wedge between Beijing and Moscow, which had suffered from intra-communist rivalry since the Sino-Soviet split. The American president saw an opportunity to explore China and expand his horizons. “American influence” and, in turn, bring Beijing into their sphere of influence.
That he did. On a large scale, the Nixon-Mao meeting would have broken the ice. It led to a domino effect of growing engagement between the US and China which, as I wrote about recently, laid the groundwork for Deng Xiaoping’s ‘reform and opening up’ following the death of Mao in 1976. America and China were transformed from enemies to effective diplomatic partners. In fact, the US switched its recognition of Taiwan’s Republic of China to Beijing’s People’s Republic of China. It opened China up to the possibility of integrating into the global economic system. It is not surprising that this meeting has been hailed as a significant milestone in the ties between these two countries. The meeting was a symbol of hope, optimism and peace. It also demonstrated how ideologies can easily be overcome and shared interests.
The world is changing
But 50 years on, many still consider that historic visit a failure because it was viewed as an attempt to embrace a China that is perceived as antagonistic and hostile to America’s interests.
That’s how then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to frame it in his 2020 speech hosted deliberately at the Richard Nixon presidential library in California, whereby he set out to try and reset US foreign policy with China and bring the ‘Mao-Nixon era’ of positive engagement to an end. He attacked the open approach to China as a failure and whipped up fear. In the end, he advocated competition and confrontation with Beijing for the new normal. “What do the American people have to show now 50 years on from engagement with China?”
Unfortunately, the Biden administration would embrace that foreign policy legacy, signifying a changed geopolitical context in how whilst a weak and impoverished China was embraced, the rise of China as a political, economic, and military power globally, which did not change to suit America’s political vision, is now rendered a mistake and a misdeed.
Now, Nixon-Mao’s meeting with Mao is remembered as the story of America’s changing relationship to China from one of possibility, to danger. Yet, those who continue to drum the beat of Cold War or Yellow Peril should understand that time cannot be rewinded. Many people have believed, maybe naively that China’s huge economic relationship can be ended and China will be exiled back to its past of poverty and isolation during the Maoist Era. They dream of an America that was strong and had unparalleled military and economic dominance.
However, it is impossible. Whilst the power dynamics between the US and China are one thing, it is also telling how the 1972 meeting has become a reflective scapegoat for America’s own failures, such as how the woes of neoliberal capitalism and the death of the American dream are projected onto a legacy of “engagement with China” – as if all 50 years of it have been a failure and zero-sum loss that never delivered any benefit, as Pompeo claims.
These beliefs are as dangerously false and dangerous as they seem. Geopolitical frictions may have become a conflict on many fronts but it is true that both sides can learn a lot from those fateful events 50 years ago. The starting point must be used as a guideline and should not be destroyed.
These opinions, statements and thoughts are the sole opinion of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of RT.