Normalization of Relations: China and the United States
In December of 1969, the U.S. ambassador in Warsaw was asked to allude to his Chinese colleague President Nixon's interest in opening “concrete discussions” with China1; three short years later the relationship had progressed more quickly than anyone a few years ago would have thought possible. The symbolic culmination of this development came in January of 1972, when the President of the United States of America, Richard Nixon, visited Beijing for a largely ceremonial meeting with the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong. (Warner) The two governments had been engaged in various proxy wars—and heated rhetorical opposition—for four decades before this moment; how and why were these erstwhile enemies suddenly drawing so close? Far from being the work of two, or even a hundred, superhuman minds, rapprochement was an inevitable process, driven by the two countries' strategic outlooks. The establishing of ties between the U.S. and the People's Republic of China (PRC) resulted from mutual distrust of the Soviet Union and realpolitik attitudes of the nations' leadership. It was the U.S. view of the Soviet Union as the penultimate global threat and Chinese fears of national weakness in face of the Soviet threat hat drove the normalization. China was seeking to maintain its independence from foreign influence after more than a century of occupation, and the U.S. was guided by the logic of the Cold War-era domino and containment theories that posited a world of two opposing international camps. Indeed, the very fact that both governments of China elected to work with the United States—and U.S. willingness to share state secrets with a communist regime—demonstrates the indispensability of the relationship to both sides.
True appreciation for the surprise that U.S.-China rapprochement caused at the time can only be gleaned by situating the event in the proper context; that is, understanding the relationship the two countries enjoyed previously, and a brief overview of the domestic histories of both countries.
China, by the founding of the PRC in 1949, had effectively been under foreign occupation for nearly one hundred years, since the first Opium War with Britain that “opened” the country to trade with the West. Other imperial powers, including the United States, quickly jumped into the treaty process and negotiated—under the threat of further military invasion—for more treaty ports. Shanghai was one of these treaty ports, with the cities' various districts administered by foreign nations and whose non-Chinese residents enjoyed extra-territoriality; meaning they were subject not to Chinese laws, but the laws of the nation they were from. Needless to say, this made the Chinese rather second-class citizens in their own cities, and was a sharp reversal of the traditional power dynamic that China was used to with foreign nations. A desire to end the subjugation of China to foreign power and interests was the overriding concern of successive Chinese governments during the early twentieth century. Both the Guo Min Dang (KMT)2 and Communist (CCP) parties, despite their names, were highly nationalistic in their
rhetoric. It was for this reason that Mao became increasingly wary of blindly adhering to advice from Moscow—it would be folly to rely purely on advice from the Soviet Union, when advice
could so easily fade to become orders. Mao gained breathing room by breaking a path between the two superpowers, allying wholly with neither. At the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 1, 1949, Mao Zedong stood in Tiananmen square and famously proclaimed to the world: “The Chinese people have stood up.” They would continue to stand against “Superpower Hegemony” for decades to come; but above all, they would stand for themselves on their own terms.
The United States, meanwhile, suffered no such fate, but was more susceptible to internal political pressures and had many military obligations around the world. The U.S., at the time of reconciliation with China, was only a decade and a half out of the violently anti-Communist McCarthy era at home, and saw itself as providing the only global alternative to the Soviet Union and Communism around the globe. (Westad) U.S. foreign policy was guided by the mutually reinforcing “domino theory” that posited a single country “going Communist” would lead to others following suit, and a policy of “containment,” whereby countries that the U.S. did not firmly control were capable of “going Communist.” The world was divided into two (rather distinct) camps: those countries with the U.S., and those countries who were—or were in danger of soon being—on the side of the Soviet Union. (Foreign Relations; Kissinger) The United States took its role in the world to be that of a universal role model and leader, with U.S. action, both military and otherwise, merely meant to guide those “errant” nations into the “proper” system. It was through both of these frameworks that the U.S. entered into, and made sense of, it's military involvement in the Korean and later Vietnamese war. Both wars were seen as proxies to war with the Soviet Union, and not as direct military conflict between the two global camps, thus allowing the Cold War to retain its perceived chill. As the Sino-Soviet split widened throughout the late 1950s and only grew more pronounced, the U.S. sensed that China was, in essence, “coming over.” Informed by this dualistic view, the U.S. decided to treat China as a very important possible ally, hoping to decisively win it away from the Soviet Union. Informed by this interpretation of China's actions and convinced of its global importance, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon labored to woo the Chinese state into the U.S. sphere of influence.
It is rare that major historical events as they play out rely so greatly upon a handful of individuals in so complete a manner as did the formation of U.S.-China relations, which was begun almost entirely by the double duos of Kissinger and Nixon, Zhou and Mao of the U.S. and China, respectively. Kissinger in particular, if not since the outset than with great retroactive success, virtually created from nothing U.S. conceptions of Chinese foreign policy and shaped U.S. action towards China. It was Kissinger that, under the pretense of staying in Pakistan to look after his “sick” son, took the secret Pakistani jet to China for the first meeting of high-level U.S. and CCP leaders in twenty years; he participated in negotiations through 1971 to arrange Nixon's historic visit in February 1972; and he continued to meet with Chinese leaders well into the late 70s, even after the transition from Mao to the more pragmatic and “open” Deng Xiaoping.
Despite Kissinger's portrayal of himself in memoirs as an early apostle of U.S.-Chinese relations, he initially saw little reason to engage China—so long as the colossus did not get “heavily engaged throughout the world,” which he felt would “be [a] very difficult and dislocating [...]” challenge for the U.S. (Warner) The dialogues between Kissinger and Zhou present in the Foreign Relations publications are surprising for direct and open the two leaders were with the other. Nixon and Kissinger shared views, intelligence, and plans with Zhou that were kept secret from even the U.S. Department of State and the Department of Defense (DoD), with Kissinger saying that “our State Department leaks like a sieve.” (Foreign Relations, Warner) The Nixon White House used the ever-present threat of Soviet spying to justify these secrecy measures, which kept U.S. China policy firmly under Presidential control. On the touchy subject of Taiwan Kissinger assured Zhou that while “our public will oppose [ending U.S. support for Taiwan],” and would “requires [sic] careful management on our side,” the U.S. would work with China towards a peaceful reunification, would slowly ease military support of Taiwan, and would move recognition of the government of China to the mainland.
Even though U.S. arms sales to Taiwan was of paramount importance to both sides and was unable to be resolved, neither let it stand in the way of closer ties. (Joint Communique) Indeed, the “hot-button” issue of Taiwan, and issues of domestic governance, comprise only a small minority of the talks present in the State Department records. (Foreign Relations) Conversations between Kissinger and Zhou, Deng, Nixon, and internal U.S. government deal almost exclusively with geopolitics—namely the Soviet Union, which the Chinese delegates often referred to as “The Polar Bear,” and was the major focus of U.S. global, and Chinese national, policy. In 1975 conversations with Henry Kissinger, Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping stressed that China was not interested in shaping U.S. policy, but in forming a joint framework of strategy.
Deng was worried that U.S. were, intentionally or not, having the effect of “push[ing] the polar bear to the East,” towards China. Deng also warned that detente, negotiations with the Soviet Union via the European Security Conference (EuroSec), would only increase the likelihood of a Soviet attack on Europe, citing Western Europe's concessions to Hitler before World War II as a past example of just such a process. The suggestion hints at Chinese mistrust of U.S. intentions, particularly of U.S. willingness to actually help China defend against a Soviet invasion, China's primary motivation in reconciliation. In the same meeting Kissinger tells Deng that, “you [China] are not all that helpful to us [the U.S.] in other parts of the world,” the implication being that the U.S. is [interested in] using China to balance the Soviet Union in East Asia. (Foreign Relations) Taking into account U.S. support for undemocratic regimes around the world in pursuit of “thwarting the polar bear,” we can see that China, because of its strategic importance, being run by an ostensibly Communist government posed no real obstacle to obtaining U.S. strategic—although not popular—support.
Overlooking China's communist regime was not at odds with the purported U.S. strategy of combating communism, as the ideological battle had, by the early 1970s, come to be perceived as less important than the geopolitical competition between the U.S. and Soviet blocs. (Kissinger; Foreign Relations) In dismissing the other sides' aggressive public rhetoric as a necessary tool for “domestic management,” discussions between U.S. and Chinese leaders focused explicitly on national interest: what each country stood to gain strategically from the arrangement, and how that was to be done.
One of the surprising features of the relationship has been its consistency—despite the U.S. changing administrations every four to eight years, official policy and actions towards China have remained remarkably consistent. (Kissinger) The smallness and connectedness of the pool of the actors involved has contributed in maintaining a consistent experience: George Bush Sr. was present at the 1975 meeting between Kissinger and Deng, while he worked in the U.S. Liason Office in Beijing, and Kissinger served as various advisers and Secretaries to two presidents. (Foreign Relations)
The rapprochement was, by any measure, a successful one, crafting a relationship between two disparate nations that has avoided major backsliding in over forty years and been heralded as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world,” by publications including the Financial Times and the People's Daily. As we move further into the twenty-first century, we may hope that this all-important relationship is able to avoid becoming one of mutual mistrust and antagonism. Such an end, surely, would be to the detriment of us all.
“We believe that the world is one entity from a strategic point of view and a political point of view.”3 -Henry Kissinger, Foreign Relations of the USA, 122 (1975)
(1)“China” here is used to refer to the PRC. The Republic of China is called by either “ROC” or “Taiwan.”
(2)“Guo Min Dang” is the Pinyin transcription of the more familiar “Kuo Min Tang,” whose acronym has been retained for ease of recognition. Pinyin is used as default throughout the paper unless noted otherwise.
(3) Even realpolitik can be in favor of peaceful cooperation.
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1“China” here is used to refer to the PRC. The Republic of China is called by either “ROC” or “Taiwan.”
2“Guo Min Dang” is the Pinyin transcription of the more familiar “Kuo Min Tang,” whose acronym has been retained for ease of recognition. Pinyin is used as default throughout the paper unless noted otherwise.