Nixon’s China visit: 50 years later, questions arise for the US-China future

Nixon’s arrival – the first time an American president has set foot on Chinese soil since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 – comes after more than 20 years of hostility and almost no contact between the two countries. country.

The eight-day visit will usher in the formation of diplomatic relations between the world’s richest and most populous nation. It will also reshape the world order as it is known: the power dynamics of the Cold War and play a role in China’s transition from poverty isolation to a new role as a global power broker and growing economic partner for the United States.

But 50 years later, that milestone could be marked with a little fanfare from Beijing or Washington.

Instead, the anniversary of Nixon’s historic visit comes at a low point in US-China relations. Many in Washington now see China as a growing economic and military threat, while an increasingly assertive and nationalist China under leader Xi Jinping has pushed back against they see as American interference in their affairs and regions. Stray relations have shortened the length of cooperation – with the US even keeping its diplomats at home from the Olympics in Beijing earlier this month in protest at China’s human rights record .

The self-governing island of Taiwan also remains a potential area of ​​conflict, with Beijing’s ambassador to Washington describing the island earlier this year as “biggest box” between two parties.
President Richard Nixon with Premier Zhou Enlai (left) and Shanghai Communist Party leader Zhang Chunqiao during a farewell party during Nixon's 1972 visit to China.

As the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s visit approaches, Beijing and Washington have given no indication that major celebrations have been held and that any official activities will be far from the 30th anniversary. year when then-President George W. Bush marked the occasion during his visit to Beijing. .

Today’s submission efforts contrast with the diplomatic fanfare surrounding the meeting 50 years ago, when Zhou, a deft statesman of China’s aging leader Mao Zedong, proclaimed “the gateway to friendly touch” was opened, as he congratulated the President of the United States, the first lady. and their entourage at an elaborate banquet in the Great Hall of the People.

Scott Kennedy, senior adviser on Chinese business and economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

Kennedy said that a “could even envision a meeting of minds that would change international politics” was remarkable, pointing to ideological differences between the nations – China, with as a Communist country in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, and the United States was once forced to contain the spread of Communism.

According to Suisheng Zhao, director of the Center for China-US Cooperation at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, the diplomatic relationship with the US – formalized in 1979 – will also have major impacts on with China.

“The US holds the key to China’s modernization, so China benefits a lot from this… Without the US, I don’t think you would see China as a great power,” he said. nowadays”.

Road to Shanghai

At the time, the visit was phenomenal. The beaming images back to the US show the US President visiting the Great Wall with first lady Pat Nixon and reporters visiting the “communes” in Beijing among the first Americans to see see Communist China.

American reporter Dan Rather, who was on the press team accompanying the presidential delegation, later say in a documentary by the US-China Institute of the University of Southern California that traveling to China is like “leaving Earth and diving into the universe of some distant planet.”

For the Chinese, the welcome of the US President – who appeared on the front page of the People’s Daily’s meeting with Mao – shattered years of anti-American propaganda.

“Mao and Nixon are complete opposites (ideologically.) It’s ironic that they came to the same conclusion at the same time to create a historic breakthrough in relations,” said Xu Guoqi, a history professor. history at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), said.

President Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon visit the Great Wall of China.

The risk is high for both leaders. In China, the United States was a recent enemy in the Korean War and a frequent propaganda target. The United States is navigating a complex series of post-World War II relationships in Asia and will face questions from its allies.

Since 1949, the United States has also recognized another Chinese government: the government led by General Chiang Kai-shek, who fled with his nationalist forces to the island of Taiwan after Hong Mao’s army gained the upper hand in the Chinese Civil War.

The distance between Beijing and Washington is so great that even finding a channel of communication to introduce the meeting is an exercise in trial and error – only after help from a close Pakistani President. China’s mediation, goodwill towards an American ping-pong team, and the 1971 secret trip to China of Nixon’s advisor Henry Kissinger.

But the anti-Communist Nixon and Communist revolutionary Mao “were both very practical leaders. They had specific cards to play”, Xu said.

Common enemy

For Nixon, these were relationships reconfigured to help him remove the U.S. Army from the costly and unpopular Vietnam War. For Mao, there was an interest in gaining global recognition of his government against Chiang’s objections from Taiwan.

But there was also a common interest that helped spur both leaders to join their meeting in 1972.

“The United States and China can overcome their aversion to achieving this fraught relationship because of their common enemy – the Soviet Union,” said Kennedy of CSIS. “A little less, this wouldn’t have happened.”

HKU’s Xu points to border conflicts that have emerged between Communist neighbors: “(Mao) concluded that … he needed someone to help China deal with the Soviet Union,” he said.

Chairman Mao Zedong meets President Richard Nixon in Beijing, 1972.

During meetings that took place between visiting the Great Wall, Ming Dynasty mausoleum, and Hangzhou’s peaceful West Lake, the two sides discussed the final details of an agreement known as the Shanghai Communiqué. Sea.

In it, the US “acknowledges” in cautious language “that all the Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait remain there, except for one China.” Both sides agreed to work towards normalizing relations and reducing the risk of international conflict. This will be the first of three major releases in a decade to build the framework of the relationship.

After diplomacy finished, Nixon toasted one last time at the party at Jinjiang Hotel, Shanghai.

“If we can find common ground on which we can stand, where we can build bridges between ourselves and build a new world, generations in the years to come will look back.” and thank us for the meeting we held this past week,” he said.

Détente more?

Five decades later, the US-China relationship has changed imperceptibly, becoming deeply intertwined in areas ranging from the economy to education.

But in recent years, mutual suspicion has grown, growing in the US under former president Donald Trump, whose administration labeled China a “strategic competitor” in 2016. 2017 and about an increasingly assertive China under leader Xi Jinping.

“The combination of China being much more powerful and its identity being more conservative and nationalist has left us in an uncomfortable position, despite having more similarities,” Kennedy said. among our societies compared to 50 years ago”.

The US has not only protested against what it calls unfair economic practices, but also criticized Beijing suppression of freedom in Hong Kong, Labeling It treats the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the country’s remote western Xinjiang region as genocide, and increase Its informal relationship with Taiwan is now democratically administered amid Beijing’s growing aggression.

China, meanwhile, denied human rights violations, denied what it called US interference in its internal affairs and said the US was “playing with fire on the Taiwan issue.”

In one video meeting Between US President Joe Biden and Mr. Xi in November, seen by many as an opportunity to re-establish relations, Mr. Biden stressed the need for “railing to make sure competition doesn’t turn into conflict.” ” The two sides agreed to stay in close touch on global issues, but getting tough on China has become a rare bipartisan issue in a politically divided America.

In a faxed response to a request for comment on the 50th anniversary activities, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry on Friday told CNN that countries “should follow the spirit and consensus ” of that video meeting, to “strengthen communication, manage differences, move forward cooperation, and put China-U.S. relations back on the track of steady development.”

The precious historical experience demonstrated during President Nixon’s visit to China and the issuance of the Shanghai Joint Communiqué is of great practical significance for the development of China-China relations, the spokesman said. America today”. a series of celebratory activities in the near future “with details to be released” in the course. ”

Denver’s Zhao University says foreign policy today can be attributed to the clever maneuvering of both sides in the Nixon era. “Today we don’t have such diplomats, only warriors… both sides are trying to win. Of course you can win, but you have to give and take, that’s diplomacy. .”

“For two great powers like China and the US, you have no choice but to work together,” he said.

Kennedy points to another complication – the growing relationship between Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who earlier this month commit there is no “no” zone in their cooperation.

“In a way, (Xi and Putin’s) announcement in Beijing is a boon to the Shanghai Joint Communiqué issued 50 years ago … we’ve reached the end of that strategy and phase that’s because of the fact that Russia and China are much closer now, Kennedy said.

That could be one reason why any celebrations taking place in both capitals would be “muted,” he said. “For some, it will simply be about nostalgia.”

CNN’s Beijing office contributed reporting.

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