Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China 50 years ago draws lessons for Biden

The fiftieth anniversary is often reason enough to throw a party. But this week, little champagne will be poured out to mark an event that changed the world – Former President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972.

Nixon became the first, but certainly not the last, US president to visit the mainland while in office. His diplomatic gamble, preceded by decades of little contact, finally set the stage for the resumption of diplomatic relations between the US and China.

However, hindsight suggests that Nixon’s optimism about China was foolish, if not naive. Some observers have suggested that Nixon was imprisoned by Mao Zedong. No doubt, Nixon’s China legacy remains mixed, as many other China experts have been misjudging Beijing’s intentions. That may explain why this important anniversary is unlikely to attract much attention.

However, there are important lessons to be learned from Nixon’s trip to what was once called Beijing. One is that the Chinese almost always pay first and live about the issues they care most about, Taiwan among them. Even when the Chinese were silent on some issues, their message and often their intentions were clear, at least to those willing to listen. This is also true today.

Unfortunately, President Biden’s China policy remains largely a mystery to the American people and to Beijing. For things to work out, Biden needs to learn from Nixon’s mistakes and behave more, not less, like China. In other words, Washington ultimately needs to get straight with Beijing.

Nixon’s decision about whether and how to engage with China closely mirrors Biden’s current calculus. Nixon’s trip occurred months before the election so and before his meeting with Mao, only a third of Americans approved about Nixon’s dealings with China. Less than half approved about their job performance. Nixon needed a victory, but charming Mao took a risk, like everyone else poll revealed that the most common terms Americans use to describe the Chinese are “ignorant,” “sly,” and “traitor.”

Before Nixon’s fateful trip, foreign policy realists had little reason to worry. Write in Foreign Affair 1967, Nixon alert that “urgently recognizing Beijing, admitting it to the United Nations and applying it to commercial offers” would only “aim to assert its rulers in their current course.” Nixon observed that, “a firm policy of restraint, with no rewards” could “convince Beijing that its interests can only be served by accepting the basic rules of national civilization economic.”

Then Nixon turned around and did the opposite.


President Richard Nixon holds his chopsticks at the ready as Premier Chou En-lai (left) and Shanghai Communist Party leader Chang Chun-chiao move in front of him to check out a few tidbits at the start of the meal. farewell party here.

Bettmann / Getty Images

In their only face-to-face meeting in China, Nixon and Mao avoided controversial topics, choosing instead to talk around the major issues that existed between the two nations. The really heavy work is left to Henry Kissinger, who himself admission know very little about China or its history. Not surprisingly, mistranslations and misinterpretations contributed greatly to Kissinger’s misguided strategy when he introduced notorious Shanghai Communique.

For example, at a key juncture in the negotiations, Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai introduce came to America as ” father. ” Kissinger was told the phrase meant “America is the leader,” when in reality the term father, which day back to China’s “Warring States” period, more literally translated as “tyrant”. Apart from this and other misinformation, China never wavered from its demands. On Taiwan, Nixon and Kissinger repositive “their concern for a peaceful settlement” of the longstanding problem. Not to say that before going to Beijing, Nixon, as a gesture of goodwill, had command the withdrawal of some US forces from Taiwan.

However, Kissinger later commented in his book, On Chinathat Mao insisted when he stated that “Beijing will not prevent the option of using force against Taiwan,” and actually “expected the use of force one day, [even in] one hundred years.”

The reason Nixon violated his self-imposed restraint had more to do with his re-election than realpolitik. The Nixon administration believed that concessions to Taiwan would convince Mao “slowed the delivery of aid” to China’s allies in North Vietnam, as well as persuading China to “encourage Hanoi to make a deal with the United States” to end the war, which was weighing heavily Nixon’s assessment. However, at no time did Mao support to the North Vietnamese wobble, even as he recognized the connection Nixon had made between that issue and Taiwan.

Kissinger so have learned that “in foreign policy, you never get paid for services rendered,” and that Nixon’s graceful departure from Vietnam never happened.

The influence of Nixon’s trip remains to this day. Sure, liberal internationalists and realists argumentative Such involvement has yielded positive benefits, including pulling China out of the Soviet sphere of influence. To many observers, Nixon’s trip and the subsequent breakdown of US-China relations were seen as either one of the colossal missed opportunities or the logical culmination of an unscrupulous international system. government.

The reality is somewhere in between. America’s complicated history with China is not simply a story of broken promises or mass misjudgments. Instead, it reflects the failure of American presidents to listen to what China’s leaders have been saying for decades—namely, that they have little interest in modeling themselves in this direction. West – while realizing that Beijing intends to live up to its word.

The similarities to the Nixon era don’t end there, even if China’s ambitions remain the same as those of the early ’70s.

On the release of the Indo-Pacific strategy this month, the White House categorically denied that it was “China policy”. Instead, officials argue that the strategy simply recognizes the Indo-Pacific as an “area of ​​particularly fierce competition,” though without reference to its actual competitor, China. Country. White House officials have also sought Jet term “severe competition” when describing US-China relations, focusing instead on establish “Railing” in a relationship. That is though there is little evidence that Beijing is also looking for railings to tie up competitors. This Nixonian Redux, in which the Biden administration won’t say what it means or means what it says, explains why the Biden administration has made so little progress in its dealings with Beijing.

In the end, the American public rewarded Nixon for his China gamble, and his polls improve. He then won a resounding victory in the 1972 election, in part because his outreach to Mao was seen as a decisive act to split the Communist bloc. Sure, Biden could benefit from a similar poll, like a recent CBS one poll revealed that six out of ten Americans disapprove of his approach to China. In formulating a clear China policy, one that does not tiptoe around sensitive issues, and that recognizes competition as the means rather than the end, Biden is likely to align with Nixon’s boldness without repeating many of his mistakes.

Before his death, Nixon privately admitted that he had misjudged China and its leaders, and in a particularly blunt remark, stated that his policies “may have created a Frankenstein monster.” For their part, Americans have been told for decades that engagement with Beijing will bring positive benefits, such as economic liberalization and improved human rights. Both did not happen.

To be fair, America’s hopes for China may have been and most likely remain unrealistic. As we mark the week that changed the world, however, President Biden would be wise to absorb the lessons of Nixon’s China legacy. Offering an open, honest, and forthright China policy with both China and the American people would also be a good start. Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China 50 years ago draws lessons for Biden

Russell Falcon

Russell Falcon is a Interreviewed U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Russell Falcon joined Interreviewed in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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