US president Richard Nixon raises a toast with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in February 1972 in Beijing during Nixon's official visit to China. Photo: AFP

Between the Olympics and the Ukraine-Russia crisis, the 50th anniversary of US president Richard Nixon’s visit to China has not received the attention it deserves. That event not only helped transform China and US-China relations, but it played a major role in “winning” the Cold War and ushering in a new, multipolar, globalized system. 

Yet as the “New Cold War” with China solidifies, there has never been a more important time to reflect on Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing.

It was perhaps the boldest leap for American diplomacy in the 20th century. The visit featured one of the most right-wing, anti-communist figures in American politics sitting down to chat amiably with the world’s most preeminent exponent of Communist revolution.

This diplomatic maneuver amounted to such a radical turnabout in US foreign policy that Nixon’s national security adviser Henry Kissinger was at pains to keep the State Department completely in the dark. Kissinger deserves ample credit for successfully paving the way for the trip with his secret visit to the Chinese capital in July 1971 that made the subsequent Nixon visit possible.

Also read: Fifty years on, lessons from Sino-US rapprochement

It is easily forgotten that America in 1972 was a nation in deep crisis – one that was arguably deeper than its national predicament today. The horrors, humiliation, and national trauma of the Vietnam War were much more intense than today’s endless wars. Moreover, racial tensions, poverty, a stagnating economy, and rising crime contributed to the sense of entrenched American malaise.

Yet the surprise visit to Beijing helped give America its “mojo” back, appearing as it did to demonstrate Americans’ willingness to rethink old assumptions and strive for making peace with old enemies, even in East Asia. True, American leaders were to be later disappointed that China was unable to “deliver” a negotiated end to the Vietnam War.

Even if the visit could not solve the burning Vietnam question, however, Nixon’s trip still had immense and positive geopolitical consequences. 

Strategically, the Kremlin faced the prospect of adversaries on two fronts. By demonstrating the willingness to work directly with Beijing, Washington’s message to Moscow was not subtle: Either moderate Soviet global ambitions or the US would help energize China’s deepening struggle against the USSR.

Such signals helped to restrain the Cold War, inaugurating a period of détente between the superpowers. Even when the Cold War heated up again in the 1980s, the US was able to reap the benefits of the USSR expending enormous resources to fortify its long border with China.

This proved to be skillful chess, for sure, but today the decisions made relating to the thorny Taiwan question may turn out to be even more consequential and, therefore, deserve careful scrutiny.  

During the initial meeting between Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon on February 21, there is an interesting exchange about Taiwan, when Mao observes that “our common old friend … Chiang Kai Shek … calls us communist bandits.” Nixon seems to make an artful dodge by replying, “What does the Chairman call Chiang Kai Shek?”

After a short response by Zhou Enlai, China’s premier, Mao ends the exchange by asserting: “Actually, the history of our friendship with him is much longer than the history of your friendship with him.”

This not particularly subtle jab by Mao was certainly intended to remind Nixon that the Taiwan issue must be viewed as part of the Chinese Civil War and not as an international dispute.

The Shanghai Communiqué, signed on the very last day of Nixon’s visit, states quite clearly: “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.”

In the same document, the US also acceded to the “ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all US forces and military installations from Taiwan.” That was not an easy concession, moreover, since the US had used Taiwan as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” since at least 1950, and even had stationed nuclear weapons on Taiwan to ensure its defense from mainland China during the 1960s. 

Consistent with these agreements, formal relations were inaugurated between China and the US six years later in 1979, when all the US forces had been withdrawn and the defense treaty linking Washington and Taipei had been abrogated.

During Nixon’s meeting with Mao on February 21, the US president emphasized that neither country posed any threat to the other. He then observed: “We can find common ground, despite our differences, to build a world structure in which both [countries] can be safe to develop in our own way on our own roads.”

Nixon’s visit to China represents the acme of skillful strategy and should be studied closely at diplomatic academies around the world. By helping to steer China in a constructive direction, and creating the basis for stable US-China relations and better functioning world political system generally, the achievement stands up extraordinarily well after 50 years. 

To preserve that peace, however, a new generation of Washington strategists must understand the importance of America’s original extrication in 1972 from the Chinese Civil War. The fashionable tendency in Washington to offer more and more support to Taiwan against China is not only the undoing of Nixon’s fine diplomatic legacy, but it also courts a disastrous war with China.

Lyle Goldstein

Lyle Goldstein is the director of Asia engagement at Defense Priorities and a visiting professor at the Watson Institute of Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @lylegoldstein.