“The week that changed the world”

This was the week that changed the world, as what we have said in that (Shanghai) Communiqué is not nearly as important as what we will do in the years ahead to build a bridge across 16,000 miles and 22 years of hostilities which have divided us in the past. And what we have said today is that we shall build that bridge.

Richard Nixon

The “week that changed the world”, namely the period of time ranging from February 21-28, 1972, marked one of the most significant events in bilateral relations between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. It represented the very first time a U.S. president, Richard Nixon, accompanied by National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and later U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Winston Lord (but, quite surprisingly, not then-Secretary of State William P. Rogers), set foot on Chinese territory while in office.

The foundations of the meeting with the Chinese rulers had been laid by Kissinger several months earlier, on the occasion of a secret trip to Beijing in the context of a visit to Pakistan in July 1971. While some consider it one of the greatest US diplomatic achievements of the last century, its detractors question the effective results produced by the Nixon trip, stressing that the underlying objectives of the state visit were all to end up failing in the months following the meetings with “Great Helmsman” Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai.

Nixon shakes hands with Chou En-lai
President Richard Nixon shakes hands with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai by Byron Schumaker [Public domain]
Ever since the Communists’ victory in the Chinese civil war, in the aftermath of Japanese Empire’s surrender after the World War II and the end of a period of constrained cooperation between the two warring factions, the defeated Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, was forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan (also known as Formosa). Once there, the chief of the nationalist faction, with the support of Washington D.C., declared Taipei as the provisional capital of the newly-formed Republic of China, claiming to be the sole legitimate representative of the entire nation.

Following the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953), in which the US military found themselves fighting Chinese troops, relations between the KMT and the Truman administration became increasingly closer, because of the president’s fear that Marxists achieve a total victory in the Far East. Therefore, any American president used to consider the Kuomintang as the only legitimate counterpart in China, a situation which was to change only in 1979, with the White House establishing full diplomatic relations with the Politburo.

Nixons exit AFO in China 1972
The Nixons disembark from Air Force One upon their arrival in China by Ollie Atkins, White House Photographer
For better or for worse, the importance of Nixon’s Chinese tour is evident up to date not only in the modern, apparently (but only apparently) friendly relationship between the two global giants, but also in the language sphere, since the expression “Nixon going to China” has since become a metaphor for an action, especially on the part of a politician, which is seemingly antithetical to his/her beliefs and previous behavior. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons that had led Nixon to run (and subsequently be elected) for vice president in the cabinet chaired by General Dwight E. Eisenhower in 1952 was his resolute anti-communist rhetoric. Indeed, it was reported that then-candidate GOP governor, during a speech held just before a meeting of teachers in San Diego, California, allowed himself a rhetorical question: “What are our schools for if not for indoctrination against communism?”.

However, it must be said that, paradoxically, Nixon (and Kissinger, ça va sans dire) were among the most attentive to realpolitik, being farther from idealism than most of their predecessors.

As explained by Lord, there were three main objectives behind the Nixon visit to China:

  • “An opening to China would give us more flexibility on the world scene generally. We wouldn’t just be dealing with Moscow. We could deal with Eastern Europe, of course, and we could deal with China, because the former Communist Bloc was no longer a bloc. Kissinger wanted more flexibility, generally”.


  • “By opening relations with China we would catch Russia’s attention and get more leverage on them through playing this obvious, China card. The idea would be to improve relations with Moscow, hoping to stir a little bit of its paranoia by dealing with China, never getting so engaged with China that we would turn Russia into a hostile enemy, but enough to get the attention of the Russians. This effort, in fact, worked dramatically after Kissinger’s secret trip to China”.


  • “Kissinger and Nixon wanted to get help in resolving the Vietnam War. By dealing with Russia and with China we hoped to put pressure on Hanoi to negotiate seriously. At a maximum, we tried to get Russia and China to slow down the provision of aid to North Vietnam somewhat. More realistically and at a minimum, we sought to persuade Russia and China to encourage Hanoi to make a deal with the United States and give Hanoi a sense of isolation because their two, big patrons were dealing with us. Indeed, by their willingness to engage in summit meetings with us, with Nixon going to China in February, 1972, and to Moscow in May, 1972, the Russians and Chinese were beginning to place a higher priority on their bilateral relations with us than on their dealings with their friends in Hanoi”.

Nixon Mao 1972-02-29
President Nixon meets with China’s Communist Party Leader, Mao Tse-Tung by White House Photo Office [Public domain]
In sum, Nixon and his closest associates aimed at forming a Sino-American coalition as a way to jointly oppose Moscow, thus exploiting the ambiguous relationship between the URSS and the PRC and the equivocal behavior the Soviets had been assuming toward Mao since even before the Long March (contrary to the image of a compact Communist bloc, as understood by many in the West). The more the ‘second world’ divided and the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence reduced, the better for Washington D.C. and its allies.


Besides the issue concerning Taiwan’s role, which the two countries roughly decided to put a lid on, the other key point was that concerning the Vietnam War. Nixon, pressed by an internal peace movement which was contrary to anything but a total withdrawal and the surrender to the guerrilla fighters led by the political heirs of Ho Chi Minh, had been left a heavy burden by Lyndon Johnson, a situation in which the US found itself at a crossroads: it was either keeping providing South Vietnam with military assistance to protect what was left of America’s ‘international prestige’ and ‘exceptionalism’, or giving in to the anti-war demands of a large part of the US public. Nixon’s Vietnamization (ie the gradual withdrawal of the US military, something similar to what has happened/is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan) eventually led to the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, in which both Washington D.C. and Hanoi undertook to respect bilaterally some shared points. They included the respect of fundamental rights of the Vietnamese people, the self-determination of the South Vietnamese population, the cessation of military activity and the withdrawal of all US military forces, the peaceful reunification of Vietnam, America’s commitment to the reconstruction of North Vietnam, and the release of war prisoners.


President Nixon looks on at Chinese troops upon his arrival to Peking, China - NARA - 194756
President Nixon looks on at Chinese troops upon his arrival to Peking by Oliver F. Atkins
At this point, some have underlined Nixon’s failure, given that all his objectives apparently failed in the medium term. In fact: the relationship between Taiwan and the PRC was not to change, as Taipei continued to be under constant military threat from Beijing; Hanoi, in spite of the peace accords, conquered Saigon shortly thereafter without any particular resistance; last but not least, Moscow imploded primarily because of its own internal structure rather than because of the White House’s diplomatic moves.

However, the greatest achievement was undoubtedly the consequences of the Shanghai Communiqué (which also implied that no world power could “seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region”), establishing communication between the two world’s leading countries and, at the same time, uncovering contemporary China to the US public for the first time in over two decades.


43 years later, here’s what the part relating to China in the latest U.S. National Security Strategy reads:

The United States welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China. We seek to develop a constructive relationship with China that delivers benefits for our two peoples and promotes security and prosperity in Asia and around the world. We seek cooperation on shared regional and global challenges such as climate change, public health, economic growth, and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. While there will be competition, we reject the inevitability of confrontation. At the same time, we will manage competition from a position of strength while insisting that China uphold international rules and norms on issues ranging from maritime security to trade and human rights. We will closely monitor China’s military modernization and expanding presence in Asia, while seeking ways to reduce the risk of misunderstanding or miscalculation. On cyber security, we will take necessary actions to protect our businesses and defend our networks against cyber-theft of trade secrets for commercial gain whether by private actors or the Chinese government.

To date, the bilateral deep economic ties are evidenced by the fact that, after Japan, China is the world’s major holder of US government bonds. Furthermore, the United States is the main export destination of China (19%, equivalent to just under $ 400 billion), while China is the third largest importer of US products (9.3%, around $ 115 billion).

As an emerging world power, China has promoted the establishment of new global financial bodies instead of those conceived in the Bretton Woods system. The most noteworthy of them are the the New Development Bank, operated by the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which brings together the world’s major economies except for the USA, Japan, and Canada (as well as North Korea and Taiwan).

Xi jinping Brazil 2013
Chinese President Xi Jinping by Michel Temer [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
On the contrary, the most important factors of friction include multiple cyber attacks ascribed to Beijing, as well as the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands. As for the latter, President Barack Obama has recently confirmed that “US commitment to Japan’s security is absolute and article five (concerning the mutual cooperation and security) covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku islands”, which “should not be subject to change unilaterally “. Therefore, the US is apparently prepared to “mourir pour les Senkakus”.

Strategically speaking, none would come out advantaged from fighting each other, but history shows that political action can sometimes prove unpredictable. The Thucydides’s Trap has it that the rising power is bound to clash with the ruling one. However, it is sincerely to be hoped that the Greek historian was not fully right, after all.


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