On a chilly winter day in February 1972, 34-year-old American diplomat Winston Lord arrives in Beijing with his boss, Henry Kissinger, and President Richard Nixon. Barely an hour after arriving at their guesthouse, a message arrived: “Chairman Mao wants to see Chairman Nixon.
Mao’s urgency resonated with the excitement of the American delegation. The establishment of bilateral relations offered great opportunities for both sides in the face of a common enemy: the Soviet Union. For more than two decades since the Chinese Communists took control of the mainland, Beijing and Washington had had no official contact on this scale.
To his surprise, Lord was invited to join the meeting with Mao as a note taker. Secretary of State William Rogers was not invited to attend, and in order not to upset Rogers, Nixon ordered Lord to be cropped in the official photograph released to the press.
“The meeting took place in Mao’s residence, in a medium-sized room filled with books and manuscripts, like a library,” Lord recalled in an interview with the Guardian. “The atmosphere was modest compared to the enormity of the event.
“Mao [also] joked that he and Chiang Kai-shek were enemies”, but Mao saw it mainly as a “family quarrel”, regaled Lord, referring to the leader of the nationalists who fled to Taiwan after the defeat in the civil war Chinese in 1949.
He continued: “[Mao] said: “We don’t have to solve difficult problems – he didn’t specifically say Taiwan, but that’s what he was referring to – immediately. So basically he was saying we can defer the Taiwan question while we deal with areas that we agree on, like balancing the Soviet Union.
The week-long visit concluded with the signing of the Shanghai Communiqué. On February 27, 1972, the United States “recognized” that “all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China”. The United States also reaffirmed “its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves”.
The trip was hailed as much as a diplomatic breakthrough as a TV spectacle. When he landed at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington after a week in China, Nixon was greeted as a hero by his vice president, Spiro Agnew. Life Magazine’s Hugh Sidey recalled a fellow reporter whispering next to him at the airport: “My God, it’s like the arrival of the king.” Years later, the visit inspired an opera.
Half a century later, this event has lost its luster in both capitals. In Washington, critics now question the wisdom of Nixon’s 1972 trip; many see China as an economic threat and – like Russia – as a geopolitical enemy. In Beijing, there is a growing view that the United States is in its terminal decline and that the Chinese system is ultimately superior. On February 4, the Chinese and Russian leaders declared, “there are no ‘no-go’ areas of cooperation,” in a clear message to the United States.
This month, as the two countries mark the anniversary, Washington has been embroiled in a game of wits with Moscow over whether Vladimir Putin should launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Beijing, at the same time, made a point of reminding Washington of what it considers to be the greatest achievement of Nixon’s trip: the Shanghai communiqué and the status of the island of Taiwan.
Speaking at a press conference on February 10, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian emphasized to his audience the phrase “one China” – which in Beijing is called one. “principle” but in Washington a “policy” – and said the document was “the political foundation for the normalization of China-US relations and the establishment of diplomatic relations”.
In January, China’s ambassador to Washington, Qin Gang, warned that the Taiwan issue was “the biggest powder keg” between the two countries. He made it clear that the United States and China could face a military conflict.[i]f the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, continue to advance on the road to independence”.
Officially, the US position on Taiwan remains one that reflects “strategic ambiguity.” He does not endorse Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over Taipei, nor does he consider the island an independent country. Washington has, however, undertaken by law to give Taiwan the means to defend itself. Yet as relations soured, some — like Republican Senator Ted Cruz — have suggested the United States should make its commitment to Taiwan more explicit.
Taipei’s advocacy is also becoming more proactive. As the world watches the fate of Ukraine, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu has warned that Beijing “may be thinking of a military attack on Taiwan” after the Winter Olympics. “We are not asking for war…but we will not bend to China,” he vowed.
Some see the current situation as inevitable and reflecting a structural problem between an incumbent power and a rising power. But Washington’s overhaul of its China strategy began more than two decades ago when George Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld presented it with a proposal to shift global strategic priorities from the United States to the Asia – and mainly China.
“Many thought that once [Donald] Trump left the White House, tensions between the United States and China would have diminished,” said Zeno Leoni of King’s College London and author of American Grand Strategy from Obama to Trump. “However, the fallout from the Anchorage summit in Alaska, the persistence of trade sanctions and a boycott of the Olympics unprecedented since the Cold War confirm that the problems are structural.”
Leoni saw a pattern in US grand strategy that encourages other countries, including potential former rivals – Germany, Japan, China – to act as “engines” of a global economy that favors American interests. “However, this strategy has led to several ‘backtracks’ over the past decades, including the rise of China,” he said.
Lord insists that Nixon’s approach to China half a century ago was “a brilliant strategic move.” “What was the alternative?” ” He asked. “If we hadn’t opened up to China, we certainly wouldn’t have had… the arms control agreement that we concluded in a few months with the Soviet Union. We wouldn’t have had so much help from China or the Soviets to end the Vietnam War. We would not have restored American credibility at home and abroad.
“The fact that China would never have emerged without our help is nonsense,” Lord continued. “Given the size of the Chinese population and the talents of the Chinese people, it was clear that it was growing sooner or later. When they started to emerge, what was the alternative? Trying to contain China? In addition to being dangerous, it was impossible, because other countries would not join us. It would be ineffective. »
But Leoni said whether or not Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 was wrong depends on whether we want to take a long-term view of history. “This meeting led to great global economic growth and the end of the Cold War. Yet it was also a selfish decision that benefited the United States, and the long-term implications of the rapprochement were not sufficiently thought through at the time.
The stakes are high and the mismanagement of US-China relations is “arguably the greatest short-term threat to peace”, said Robert Daly of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. For more than 30 years, Daly has observed the development of bilateral relations from the two capitals.
Daly said observers tend to view Nixon’s visit only as a grand game of geopolitical chess, but more importantly, that February week, 50 years ago, opened the ‘valve’ for people-to-people exchanges. . “It gave people from both countries permission to interact.”
“Before 1972, the two countries saw each other only through the prism of security. After Nixon’s visit, they started seeing each other in their full humanity,” Daly said. “Unfortunately, we are now reverting to seeing ourselves only through a safety lens.”
Lord, now 84, said he disagrees with the prevailing view in Washington these days that America’s engagement with China has failed. He said the two countries were in the midst of a long strategic competition. “But we’re not going to be close friends – and I hope we won’t be absolute enemies for many decades to come.”