Nixon's 1972 Trip to China: China's First Modernization

Posted: Jan 18, 2012 12:01 AM

February 2012 will mark the 40th anniversary of former President Richard Nixon's historic Cold War visit to China. Nixon's trip produced the Shanghai Communique, a diplomatic statement in which both the U.S. and a still very red Communist China agreed to establish a political relationship based on something more than ideological antagonism and frozen or unfinished wars (North Korea and Taiwan) that could reignite.

Nixon believed that even more dramatic actions would follow the diplomatic agreement. "This was the week that changed the world," he opined, "as what we have said in that Communique is not nearly as important as what we will do in the years ahead ..."

Four decades of Nixon's years ahead have passed. This week, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, at the time Nixon's national security adviser and partner in that canny strategic pirouette, met with senior Chinese officials in Beijing to discuss current bilateral political and economic issues, and reminiscence a bit about 1972.

Kissinger is 89, but he remains a shrewd diplomat. He told state-controlled Chinese Radio International (CRI is the Cold War's Radio Beijing) that though the U.S.-Chinese relationship is complex and cultural differences exacerbate suspicions, he thinks the overall relationship benefits both nations immensely.

Just two weeks ago, however, the Obama administration issued a strategic defense guidance paper that argued the U.S. should "re-balance" its military forces toward the Asia-Pacific region. China's military capabilities are growing, rapidly. The document said, "The growth of China's military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions," and, "States such as China and Iran will continue to pursue asymmetric means to counter our power projection capabilities."

Despite the immense changes over the last four decades, particularly in China, North Korea and Taiwan remain unresolved. To defense officials in Beijing, the new guidance sounds a lot like "prepare for war with China."

Kissinger tried to quell that fear by providing greater clarity on U.S. intentions and strategic vision. "A conflict between China and the United States would weaken both societies," he said. If a war occurred, "how would (we) know which side has won, and what would the so-called victor ask the other? You realize we can only exhaust ourselves by conflict, and that is the guiding principle of foreign policy."

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.

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