Features, Online — September 25, 2015 at 4:03 pm

The Historic Opening to China: What Hath Nixon Wrought?

Joseph Bosco[*]

When President Obama hosts Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the White House this week, he will do so as the eighth US president, starting with Richard Nixon, to engage with China based on a failed strategy.  In a Foreign Affairs article in October 1967, “Asia After Vietnam,” Nixon burnished his foreign policy credentials in anticipation of the 1968 presidential election.  Softening his notorious anti-Communism, he proposed a dramatic new approach toward the People’s Republic of China which had fought against the United States in the Korean War and was doing so at that time in Vietnam.

The article merits revisiting both for its historical interest and for what it teaches about China-United States relations today—and remarkably, almost a half-century later, for what it still predicts about the future relationship.  Nixon used the piece to survey the changing regional dynamic he observed and the future he foresaw; yet his analysis abounds with instructive parallels to contemporary events.

As Nixon put it in the parlance of the day: “Red China [has become] Asia’s most immediate threat.”  What he said of Mao Zedong’s “wars of national liberation” in the late 1960’s applies as well to Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the East and South China Seas today:

The common danger from Communist China is now in the process of shifting the Asian governments’ center of concern. .   its threat is clear, present and repeatedly and insistently expressed. The message has not been lost on Asia’s leaders. They recognize that the West, and particularly the United States, now represents not an oppressor but a protector. And they recognize their need for protection.

After welcoming the regional prosperity offered by burgeoning trade and investment, countries around the region now feel the need to hedge their economic bets on China. They welcome a strong American security presence to counter Beijing’s massive military buildup, expanding territorial claims, and escalating naval incursions.  Nixon’s astute observation still resonates: “All around the rim of China nations are becoming Western without ceasing to be Asian.” He attributed the attitudinal change to native indigenous pragmatism.

By and large the non-communist Asian governments are looking for solutions that work, rather than solutions that fit a preconceived set of doctrines and dogmas. Most of them also recognize a common danger, and see its source as Peking . . . [A]ll are acutely conscious of the Chinese threat.

Nixon reaffirmed that “[t]he United States is a Pacific power . . . but other nations must recognize that the role of the United States as world policeman is likely to be limited in the future.” This sounds a lot like America’s present rhetorical “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia tempered by both severe budget constraints and public weariness with overseas commitments.

What then, did Nixon foresee as the proper approach to the China challenge and America’s role in it? He began by rejecting several proposed strategies. “Conceding to China a `sphere of influence’ embracing much of the Asian mainland and extending even to the island nations beyond . . . would not be acceptable to the United States or to its Asian allies.”  So too, today, Washington has made clear that the U.S. intends to remain a powerful presence in Asia and will play its traditional post-World War II role safeguarding freedom of navigation and overflight and maintaining regional stability.  It has no intention of accepting a new Chinese hegemony in the region.

Equally undesirable and highly imprudent, Nixon concluded, would be an effort to “eliminate the threat by preemptive war.”  He cautioned that “Asia    . . . will pose the greatest danger of a confrontation which could escalate into World War III.”  Given China’s periodic threats of nuclear retaliation against American cities, no contemporary Western official or serious observer advocates initiating war with China.  On the other hand, Nixon did not favor over-eager accommodation with China. “[A]s many would simplistically have it, rushing to grant recognition to Peking, to admit it to the United Nations and to ply it with offers of trade–all of which would serve to confirm its rulers in their present course.” (Emphasis added.)

Given his realist bent, Nixon’s vision wove a blend of approaches, and it needed to include both immediate and long-term components. “Any American policy toward Asia must come urgently to grips with the reality of China . . . recognizing the present and potential danger from Communist China, and taking measures designed to meet that danger.” 

The first task, Nixon argued, required a combination of deterrence and dissuasion. “For the short run . . . this means a policy of firm restraint, of no reward, of a creative counterpressure designed to persuade Peking that its interests can be served only by accepting the basic rules of international civility.” (Emphasis added.)  Once that minimal understanding were to be achieved, he urged a more creative approach to encourage Chinese moderation.

`Containment without isolation’ is a good phrase and a sound concept, as far as it goes. But it covers only half the problem. Along with it, we need a positive policy of pressure and persuasion, of dynamic detoxification, a marshaling of Asian forces both to keep the peace and to help draw off the poison from the Thoughts of Mao.

Nixon believed the international community would have to move progressively beyond an essentially defensive policy of discouraging China from disturbing thestatus quo.  Instead, nations would need to be more proactive in welcoming it fully and inclusively into their membership—in the self-interest of both China and the rest of the world.

Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation. But we could go disastrously wrong if, in pursuing this long- range goal, we failed in the short range to read the lessons of history. (Emphasis added.)

Nixon sought to address not simply the symptoms of the Asia problem but its essential source–the policies, indeed the very nature, of the Chinese Communist system.

The world cannot be safe until China changes. Thus our aim, to the extent that we can influence events, should be to induce change. The way to do this is to persuade China that it must change: that it cannot satisfy its imperial ambitions, and that its own national interest requires a turning away from foreign adventuring and a turning inward toward the solution of its own domestic problems.

For the long run, it means pulling China back into the world community–but as a great and progressing nation, not as the epicenter of world revolution. (Emphasis added.)

Accomplishing this transition, however, required some delicate diplomacy and skillful strategic communications. While Nixon wanted a common effort to welcome a peaceful and cooperative China into international relations, he was concerned that too assertive a united front against its transgressions would foster Chinese paranoia.

If our long-range aim is to pull China back into the family of nations, we must avoid the impression that the great powers or the European powers are “ganging up;” the response should clearly be one of active defense rather than potential offense, and must be untainted with any suspicion of racism.

Today, Asian countries no longer face Beijing-inspired insurgencies. Instead, the new threat from China involves the use of conventional military instruments—ships and planes—acting overtly and aggressively in international and territorial waters and airspace. “A military grouping” of its neighbors is not under consideration given their economic dependence on China.  The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which operates on consensus, cannot even agree on an enforceable Code of Conduct to establish a regional norm against China’s provocative behavior in the South China Sea.  The China threat Nixon saw has reemerged in a new form but the region’s inability to cope with it remains intact.

More than four decades after the article appeared, it is fair to ask two fundamental questions about its message: (1) Did President Nixon carry out the principles that Nixon-the-candidate and foreign policy thinker had laid down for addressing the China challenge? (2) Did the China policy he put in place achieve the purposes it sought?

When Chinese concerns about the threatening Soviet Union provided the opportunity in early 1969, Nixon was already predisposed to exploit it.  Through his secretary and undersecretary of state, he conveyed publicly to Moscow, and Beijing, that Washington would not stand idly by in the event of Soviet aggression against China—an unprecedented American commitment of a security guarantee to an erstwhile enemy, for which Washington requested and received nothing from Beijing. His national security adviser Henry Kissinger later wrote: “It marked America’s return to the world of Realpolitik.”[i]

Nixon’s young administration made a series of additional moves to signal American interest in rapprochement with China, consistent with the vision he had set forth in Foreign Affairs. At first, Nixon heeded his own caveat that the Americans not appear too eager for a deal, lest China sense weakness and take advantage of it. He cautioned Kissinger, who would be his surrogate in preliminary negotiations: “We cannot be too forthcoming in terms of what America will do. We’ll withdraw [from Taiwan], and we’ll do this, and that, and the other thing.”[ii] Yet, in the end the two consummate realists did just that.

The status of Taiwan was the central sticking-point in U.S.-China relations and had been since the Nationalist government lost the Chinese civil war to the Communists and fled to the island in 1949. “China would discuss no other subject until the United States agreed to withdraw from Taiwan and the United States would not talk about withdrawing from Taiwan until China renounced the use of force to solve the Taiwan question.”[iii] Nixon and Kissinger decided the issue would not be allowed to stand in the way of a positive new relationship with The People’s Republic of China. Nixon and Kissinger cut through the Gordian knot by simply acceding to Beijing’s demands, first by removing the Seventh Fleet from the Taiwan Strait, then beginning the first phase of a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Taiwan—all this even before Nixon made his visit to China. The preemptive concessions violated not only Nixon’s self-imposed restraint but also Kissinger’s teachings as a scholar of international relations:

We [Americans] have a tendency to apply our standards to others in negotiations. We like to pay in advance to show our good will, but in foreign policy you never get paid for services already rendered.[iv]

To be fair, Nixon and Kissinger had convinced themselves to expect sufficient compensation in return for deterring a Soviet attack on China and giving China a long-term green light to take Taiwan. The payoff was to be an honorable, or at least face-saving, way out of Vietnam.  But in the end, the graceful exit never came. China continued its flow of arms, material, (and some Chinese soldiers) in support of North Vietnam’s final conquest of South Vietnam and America’s humiliating retreat.

To enshrine officially the tacit deal the Chinese and Americans had already reached on Taiwan, Nixon’s visit to China was built around the Shanghai Communiqué, which may fairly be deemed the original sin of modern U.S.-China relations.  Negotiated by Kissinger and Chinese premier Zhou En-lai, Nixon proclaimed the deal “brilliant” because of its masterful formulation finessing the Taiwan question for public consumption. China restated what it proclaimed—and still does—as its sacred “one China principle’ declaring that Taiwan is “an inalienable part of China.” For its part, the U.S. side simply “acknowledge[d] that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China. The United States does not challenge that position.” The clever wordsmithing became known as America’s “one China policy.” The U.S. also “reaffirmed its interest in a peaceful settlement.” The Chinese half of what might be called the Gang of Four Realists went along with the Americans’ desire to state their wish for a peaceful outcome. But Mao made it emphatically clear in the discussions “that Beijing would not foreclose its option to use force over Taiwan—and indeed expected to have to use force someday [even in] a hundred years.”[v] Kissinger marveled that Beijing might wait that long. (Mao’s successors have shared Kissinger’s expectation of a shorter time frame for the takeover.)

Both sides proved true to their word.  President Carter executed the plan Nixon had expected to carry out in his second term, completing the withdrawal from Taiwan, abrogating the 1954 defense treaty, and cutting off diplomatic relations while opening them with China.  (Congress rushed to reverse part of the damage to the U.S.-Taiwan relationship and restore some measure of deterrence against China when it enacted the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 over Carter’s objections.)

Beijing, on the other hand, reaffirmed its commitment to use force against Taiwan. China fired missiles toward the island in 1995 and 1996 to protest Taiwan’s growing separateness and democratization.  It might have moved even more aggressively on those occasions had Washington not urgently dispatched carrier battle groups to the region. Since then, China has stationed more than 1600 ballistic missiles on its coast facing Taiwan. It has also deployed a fleet of attack submarines and an arsenal of anti-ship ballistic missiles to prevent the U.S. from ever repeating its blatant defense of Taiwan. In 2005, Beijing “legalized” its force threat against Taiwan by enacting an “Anti-Secession Law.” The legislation proclaims China’s putative right to attack Taiwan not only if it formally declares its independence from China, or does other undefined things tantamount to “secession”—but even if Taiwan simply does nothing and fails to agree to timely “peaceful” unification.

Over the ensuing decades, Kissinger has adhered religiously to the subtly ambiguous one-China concept while edging closer to China’s unsubtle, unambiguous one-China principle that Taiwan belongs to China, period. In a talk before the Asia Society in 2007 he warned Taipei to get on with its political accommodation with Beijing because “China will not wait forever.”  While Kissinger has clung to the hope for consummation of the deal he, Nixon, Mao, and Zhou struck on China’s eventual absorption of Taiwan, Nixon’s own thinking significantly evolved. By 1994 he had concluded thathistory had passed unification by and Taiwan’s democratic course made it an incompatible marriage partner for Beijing. “The situation has changed dramatically … The separation is permanentpolitically, but they are in bed together economically.”[vi] (Whether Nixon cared that Beijing might consider this a personal reneging on his part is unknown but he certainly knew that China never delivered  the Vietnam quid for the Taiwan quo anyway.)

Unfortunately for regional stability, China’s leaders are not as impressed as Nixon was with Taipei’s democratic development and clear distaste for authoritarian rule. Xi Jinping said in October 2013 that the question of Taiwan’s status “cannot be passed down from generation to generation.” The table is set for conflict between China and Taiwan. Given Washington’s declared strategic interest in Taiwan’s security as set forth in the Taiwan Relations Act, Sino-U.S. conflict is a virtual certainty.  Unfortunately, while committing the U.S. to provide Taiwan with necessary “articles for its self-defense,” the TRA does not unequivocally obligate the U.S. to assist Taiwan if it comes under Chinese attack.  Nor has any administration been willing to state a clear defense commitment to Taiwan, preferring a policy of “strategic ambiguity.” (George W. Bush briefly toyed with strategic clarity in 2001 but abandoned it after al Qaeda’s September 11 attack supposedly made China a counter-terrorism partner.) It is from such unclear statements of intent that major strategic miscalculations ensue.  As Kissinger notes regarding the mixed signals and diplomatic blunders that produced the Korean War, “the United States did not expect the invasion, China did not expect the reaction.”[vii]

Even as he launched the opening to China, Nixon knew it was a “strategic gamble” according to Richard Solomon, a former aide who was involved in the project.  When he looked back on his strategic initiative thirteen years later, Nixon still felt it had been a risk worth taking: “China does not threaten us.”[viii]

In October 1989, Nixon made an unpublicized trip to China, where he told Deng Xiaoping, then the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and Li Peng, then the Premier of the PRC—four months after the Tiananmen Square massacre and during Congressional consideration of sanctions against China: “I am more confident about the future of Sino-American relations than I was in 1972.”  But, in a “Personal & Confidential” memorandum to six Congressional leaders just days after the trip, Nixon said “Sino-American relations are in the worst condition they have been in since before I went to China seventeen years ago.” He said the gap in perceptions over Tiananmen “is totally unbridgeable.”

Nevertheless, Nixon asserted in that same memo, Washington and Beijing should follow the example he and Mao set in 1972 and simply put aside “irreconcilable differences” for the sake of a common front against the Soviet Union, nuclear proliferation, global warming, and even a resurgent Japan.  He argued against closing China off from the world using some of the same words he had used in his 1967 article: “To leave the present and future leaders of China isolated, nurturing their resentments and even hatred of the United States because of what they consider to be unjustified actions against China is senseless and counterproductive.”

After the turn of the Millennium, however, Nixon confessed to real fears about China’s direction.  In an interview with his former speechwriter, he was asked whether economic engagement and “our strengthening of [the Chinese] regime [had] brought political freedom.” Nixon’s response was a chilling acknowledgement that his visit to China, which he had proclaimed in his Beijing toast as “the week that changed the world,” may have changed it for the worst. “That old realist,” as William Safire described Nixon in an essay in the New York Times, “who had played the China card to exploit the split in the Communist world, replied with some sadness that he was not as hopeful as he had once been: `We may have created a Frankenstein[‘s monster].’”

A decade-and-a-half later, the evidence has mounted that the older Nixon’s pessimism and regret were justified—and it was precisely because Nixon’s expectations of what change would accomplish in China were badly frustrated by Beijing’s skillful management of that change.  China’s Communist leaders certainly followed Nixon’s advice in Foreign Affairs to focus on domestic development.  But they used that progress (a) to build loyalty to the government that otherwise lacked political legitimacy, and (b) to finance a massive military buildup that stirred Chinese nationalism and now intimidates all China’s neighbors.

While economic progress had created a vibrant middle class in other formerly-authoritarian Asian societies—South Korea and Taiwan—which then led to demands for political change, Nixon and Kissinger knew that Communist dictators are a different breed from other more transitory authoritarians. With ideological and institutional traditions going back to 1917, they have a staying power lacking in tyrannies built only on an individual’s or family’s hold on power.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who would know about such things, once told Nixon that “Chinese policies would not change, even after Mao’s death; he was certain that the entire Chinese leadership was instinctively aggressive.”[ix] Deng, China’s great reformer, demonstrated the point. While he energetically followed Nixon’s advice to open China’s economy, he never forgot Mao’s teaching that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”—in both the domestic and international realms. He “taught a lesson” to Vietnam in 1978 and to Chinese students in 1989.

In the end, China’s realists had decisively beaten America’s realists in the China-U.S. relationship.  We now live with the consequences of Nixon’s “week that changed the world.”  President Obama has a unique opportunity to break the historic mold.  He can do so by telling Xi that constantly hearing China rehearse its grievances against the historic injustices of the West is getting a bit, well, old.  Worse, it cannot be allowed to serve any longer as a cover for China’s assaults on the international system.  Despite Kissinger’s argument that China feels no obligation to an order it had no part in creating, that order has benefitted modern China enormously—indeed it has facilitated the creation of modern China, most notably by Deng after the insanity of the Mao era.

Yet, it was Deng who presided over the Tiananmen massacre of young Chinese who wanted political as well as economic reform.  And it was Deng who cautioned China’s leaders to “bide your time, hide your capabilities” lest the world find out too soon what China had in store for it.  Xi Jinping has removed the mask and revealed his vision of a China Dream that could become everyone else’s nightmare.  Obama, who takes pride in accomplishing things his predecessors couldn’t do, needs to out-Nixon Nixon by giving Xi and his colleagues a fresh new message of firmness on trade cheating, cyber warfare, Taiwan’s security, South and East China Sea aggressions, and human rights depredations.  Obama could have his own week that “changes the world.”

[*] Joseph Bosco is a non-resident senior associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies; a member of US-China Task Force, Center for the National Interest; Former China Country Desk Officer at the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (2005-2006); Adjunct Professor in Asian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University (1998-2002).



[i] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1994), 724.

[ii] Henry Kissinger, On China, (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011), 447.

[iii] Ibid., 159.

[iv] The Diane Rehm Show, Interview with Henry Kissinger, WAMU-FM, April 7, 1994. (Emphasis added.)

[v] Kissinger, On China, 280.

[vi] Richard Nixon, Beyond Peace (New York: Random House, 1994), 133. (Emphasis added.)

[vii] Kissinger, On China, 132.

[viii] Richard Nixon, Real Peace, (Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1984) 68.

[ix] Richard Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1978), 882.

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