Nixon’s China Legacy and its Contemporary Reversal

Nixon’s China Legacy and its Contemporary Reversal
Remarks to a Panel at the Woodrow Wilson Center

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
Washington, DC, October 17, 2019

The Wilson Center was established fifty-one years ago, in 1968, about the time I returned to Washington from my first tour in the U.S. Foreign Service, in south India.   At that time, man had not yet landed on the moon and neither Kissinger nor Nixon had yet landed in Beijing.

Before he was elected, President Nixon had already concluded that no world order excluding China could be stable.  After he took office, in 1969, clashes broke out along the Sino-Soviet frontier.  Nixon feared the geopolitical consequences of a Soviet military conquest or humiliation of China.

So, his administration began the politically and institutionally difficult process of changing U.S. policy toward China.  It switched from using Taiwan to contain the PRC to enlisting the PRC to contain the USSR.  Doing so required addressing Chinese demands that the United States withdraw our military presence from Taiwan, terminate our defense treaty with Taipei, and recognize Beijing rather than Taipei as the capital of an undivided China.  Nixon knew this.  He believed it was in the strategic interest of the United States to proceed.

There was no sentiment in Nixon’s decision.  He was famously cynical.  He did not imagine that recruiting China in support of the so-called “free world” would result in China joining it or embracing America’s liberal democratic ideology.  If he was remorseful about switching sides in the Chinese civil war, he showed no sign of  this.

In 1972, Nixon dramatically visited Beijing, the capital of a then-hostile regime Americans did not recognize and with which the alternative Chinese government we had long championed was locked in an unresolved civil war.  Nixon artfully finessed the Taiwan question, privately assuring Mao and Zhou that he would recognize the PRC in his second term.

Watergate then struck Nixon down.  Gerald Ford’s accidental presidency was too politically precarious for him to implement Nixon’s pledge.  It was left to Jimmy Carter to “normalize” relations with the PRC, then led by Deng Xiaoping.

Deng needed an opening to the United States for two reasons: (1) tactically, to put the USSR off balance as he used force to convince Hanoi that allying itself with Moscow would cost it vastly more than it could ever hope to gain, and (2) strategically, to de-Sovietize China’s domestic political economy.  Some Americans understood Deng’s geopolitical strategy.  None understood his ambitions for domestic reform.  But it was Deng’s opening of China to American influence that transformed not only China but also world affairs.

It is instructive to compare the situation then – before Deng’s policies of “reform and opening” – with now.

In 1972, the United States was concerned about China’s weakness and backwardness.  Now, we are apprehensive about its strength and technological advance.

In 1972, the United States was very much the senior partner in the Sino-American relationship.  Now we must deal with China as an equal.  Both countries are having trouble adjusting to this change.

In 1972, Sino-American relations were remodeled by mutual accommodation.  Now they are being transformed by escalating antagonism.

In 1972, the United States was concerned about the consequences of China’s exclusion from the Pax Americana.  Now Washington is obsessed with the consequences of China’s inclusion in global and regional governance.  Americans seek to preserve our global and Indo-Pacific primacy.  Chinese insist on a role in global and regional governance commensurate with their regained  economic and military power.

In 1972, the United States and China set aside ideological differences to pursue some common interests.  The United States now sees such differences as impediments to cooperation with China even on obvious common interests.

In 1972, the United States and China began to forge an entente (limited partnership for limited purposes) to check the politico-military threat to both that Soviet aspirations for global hegemony represented.  Together, over the next two decades, Americans and Chinese helped validate George Kennan’s judgment that, if isolated, the Soviet Union’s defects would eventually bring it down.

With no common military adversary to confront and contain, the Nixon-Carter finesse of the Taiwan issue and the cross-Strait understandings that have kept the peace between Taipei and Beijing are now unraveling.  The risk of a war to determine Taiwan’s relationship with the rest of China is the highest it has been in decades.

Apart from the potentially devastating consequences of mismanaging the Taiwan issue, the threats to China and the United States are global in nature and have no conceivable military solutions.  Human-induced climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, regional instability in China’s near abroad, Islamist terrorism, and maintaining a world order conducive to stability and prosperity are or should be concerns of both countries.  These interests provide an obvious basis for cooperation.  Yet, in almost every arena, China and the United States are now working at cross purposes.

To both Americans and Chinese, it was simply inconceivable that the notoriously anticommunist Richard Nixon would reach out to the famously anti-capitalist Mao Zedong.  Richard Nixon had been the single Republican most closely associated with Joe McCarthy.  In the early 1950s, he had taken a lead in smearing America’s “China hands” as traitors bent on enabling a communist victory over Chiang Kai-shek.  In 1950, Mao had taken China into alliance with the Soviet Union, then into combat with the United States in Korea.  But, when either Nixon or Mao saw a strategic opportunity for his country, each proved able to set aside both prejudice and the conventional wisdom to seize it.

If such courageous and visionary leaders are alive today, they are hiding themselves very well.  Sino-American relations are in the process of returning to the fallacious stereotypes and unreasoning hostility that Nixon and Mao acted to set aside five decades ago.  This promises to make the world a much more dangerous and less prosperous place than it has been since the two sides decided to replace enmity with peaceful rapprochement and expanding cooperation.

All three members of this panel can remember a time when China and the United States knew nothing of each other and imagined that was everything we needed to know.  Beijing and Washington each snarled and pronounced anathema on the other.  Neither benefited from this, but most in both countries took it for granted that we were mortal enemies and destined to remain so.  Sadly, we now seem to be headed back to a level of estrangement that endangers us and everyone associated with us.

Nixon, Kissinger, Mao, and Zhou were right.  There is more to be gained by求同存异 [qiú tóng cún yì] – “seeking common ground while shelving differences for later resolution” – than by tit-for-tat antagonism.  The United States and China can be for each other on some issues even as they are against each other on others.  And if Americans and Chinese cannot bring ourselves to act jointly to realize common interests, we can still act in parallel, “taking  different roads to a common destination” – 异途同归 [yì tú tóng guī].  That common destination had better not be war, which could literally be fatal to both societies.

The restoration of mutual respect that can assure peace and  prosperity for the people of both China and the United States awaits a new Nixon.