There is no doubt the U.S. benefited from Nixon's bold diplomacy, which exposed and exploited political and cultural rifts between China and its communist ally, the Soviet Union. The rapprochement stunned Moscow. A positive Beijing-Washington relationship all but nullified Moscow's ability to strategically exploit the communist victory in Vietnam.
In fact, in 1979 China and Vietnam fought a bloody (and instructive, for the Chinese) border war. To what degree the rapprochement contributed to the Soviet Union's demise is debatable, but it served both China and the U.S. as a political and psychological tool. Political, psychological and economic exhaustion by conflict (i.e., the Cold War) eventually shattered the Soviet Union.
China has benefited. In retrospect, Beijing's pivot toward Washington was its first modernization; if you could change your policy toward the great capitalist enemy, who is prosperous, perhaps you could change impoverished China's miserable condition.
In 1975, at the Chinese Communist Party's National Peoples Congress, Premier Chou Enlai described the new "game plan." In order "to build an independent and relatively comprehensive industrial system" in China, Chou said, China had "to accomplish the comprehensive modernization of agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology before the end of the century so that our national economy will be advancing in the front ranks of the world."
Chou's goals in (1) agriculture, (2) industry, (3) defense and (4) science and technology became known as China's "Four Modernizations."
This opened the door for Deng Xiaoping, who promoted "socialism with Chinese characteristics," which included establishing "freer" markets. China's economy expanded, quickly; that's the staggering story of the last two decades. With a $7.4 trillion gross domestic product, China's economy ranks second to America's $15 trillion behemoth. Now Beijing wrestles with demands for political liberty whetted by its experiment in economic freedom.
The 21st century's two economic giants do have a lot to talk about and a lot to do, besides talk war and make war -- which is a change Richard Nixon hoped might come to pass.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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