China Should Remember Lessons of Nixon Visit
China Should Remember Lessons of Nixon Visit
China’s leaders could be forgiven for gloating a little next week, the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing. Their nation was arguably the biggest winner from Sino-American rapprochement. But it’s in danger of forgetting what made that victory possible.
In February 1972, the country on which Nixon bet the equivalent of a geopolitical house was impoverished, isolated and engulfed in chaos. Its total GDP was only $113 billion, with a per capita income of $130. Its total foreign trade in 1970 was a paltry $4.5 billion. No one dreamed that such an economic basketcase would grow into a global superpower that now boasts the world’s second-largest economy and has replaced the Soviet Union as America’s most formidable adversary.
Indeed, as the US and China descend into a new cold war today, some might wish that Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger had not made the fateful decision to engage Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Others may even claim that Nixon’s gamble was a monumental mistake.
Such revisionist thinking ignores the substantial benefits the visit produced for the US and its friends. For starters, Nixon’s engagement policy instantly reset the Soviet-American balance of power and changed the U.S.S.R.’s strategic calculus. China’s direct contribution to the security gains the US reaped in the aftermath of the Nixon visit is hard to determine. Still, no one can say that the China factor played no role in the Soviet Union’s signing of the SALT I arms control treaty with the US in May 1972 and the ending of the Vietnam War in January 1973.
East Asia also benefited greatly from the Nixon visit. The region’s security landscape then bore little resemblance to today’s. China was actively supporting leftist insurgencies in Southeast Asia. It had no diplomatic relations with Japan or South Korea. However bad tensions between mainland China and Taiwan are today, they were much worse in the early 1970s. The People’s Liberation Army was lobbing artillery shells at Taiwan-controlled offshore islands to underscore China’s determination to “liberate” Taiwan.
While East Asia is now known primarily for its economic miracle, what made this miracle possible is peace in the region, for which Nixon deserves at least some credit.
At the same time, China has unquestionably turned out to be an even bigger beneficiary. It, too, gained greater security against the Soviet threat. Even more importantly, the Nixon visit pried open China’s long-closed door, allowing its people a glimpse of the outside world and making them realize just how far behind their country had fallen under Maoist rule. Rapprochement also made it much easier for Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s reformist successor, to normalize relations with the US in 1979 and leverage those ties to launch his modernization drive in the 1980s.
Unwisely, however, China appears to have forgotten what made engagement with the US possible — not just the geopolitical vision of Nixon and Mao but their shared fear of Soviet aggression.
China is repeating the same strategic mistake the Soviet Union made half a century ago when it pushed its two rivals together. Aggressive Chinese behavior in Asia — including building militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea, bloody border conflict with India and economic bullying of Australia — is helping forge a powerful anti-China coalition between the US, traditional allies in Europe and Asia, and new partners. US President Joe Biden hasn’t needed to be anywhere near as daring as Nixon to strengthen the US strategic position against China.
Skeptics may argue that the opposite is true. They see Biden’s tough approach to Russia driving Vladimir Putin into the arms of China, forging a powerful anti-American coalition. While the military threat posed by the new China-Russia entente should concern the US, however, Washington and its allies still possess substantial, if not overwhelming, superiority in terms of economic and technological heft. While the total economic output of China and Russia — slightly less than $20 trillion — does equal to that of the US, it represents less than half of the total GDP of the US and its closest allies.
Additionally, the US and those allies enjoy an insurmountable technological edge in critical sectors such as semiconductors, advanced manufacturing, biotech and artificial intelligence that will determine the future of the global economy.
Unlike in 1972, when the Nixon visit instantly put a weak Soviet Union at an even worse strategic disadvantage, the closer China-Russia strategic alignment today does not radically shift the global balance of power. Containing both simultaneously won’t be easy or cheap. But the US and its allies have adequate resources for the task. In East Asia, the US and its Quad partners Japan, Australia and India are fully capable of constraining Chinese power, while NATO can confidently counter a revanchist Russia in Europe.
If anything, the balance of power in the long-term will likely shift in favor of the US and its allies. China is losing its economic momentum due to rapid demographic ageing, the reversal of pro-market reforms and technological decoupling from the West. The economic prospects of Russia are limited by its poor demographics and overreliance on hydrocarbons.
Chinese leaders probably shouldn’t toast their embrace of Russia as a strategic masterstroke on par with Nixon’s gambit. They’d be better off reflecting how their actions have contributed to the end of America’s engagement policy and imperiled China’s dream of a peaceful rise.