Hello again, Global Impact readers:
This week, we are looking back 50 years. Bloody Sunday had just rocked the UK, which was struggling amid a coal miners’ strike, and Watergate was still a few months away when US president Richard Nixon flew to China to meet Chairman Mao.
In recognition of the historical importance of the trip, the South China Morning Post is running a multimedia series that explores some of the most interesting points of the past 50 years in US-China relations.
Our series will also focus on some more tangential – but no less interesting – matters such as the fate of the pandas delivered to the US and the oxen sent by Washington to Beijing, the ownership switch of the Twin Oaks Estate in Washington and the “Nixon in China” opera by John Adams. And, of course, ping pong!
This week, Robert Delaney, our US bureau chief at the SCMP, looks back at that historic eight-day trip and at what it means today, with several parts of our series still to come.
Production Editor, Political Economy
How low has the China-US geopolitical bar fallen 50 years after Richard Nixon’s historic visit?
In February 1972, US president Richard Nixon surprised the world with his abrupt decision to engage with Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China and switch official diplomatic recognition to Beijing from the Republic of China on Taiwan.
The geostrategic move, which arguably carried more consequence for the global balance of great powers than any other development in modern history, turned largely on two factors: Russia and Taiwan.
China wanted to undercut Taiwan’s international legitimacy. In fact, our correspondent in what was then called Peking put this fact right up front, reporting on February 22, 1972, that experts postulated that the Taiwan question, US military presence in the region and continued economic sanctions would be high on the agenda – and ultimately the “journey of peace” was declared a clear step on the “long march” to better relations.
For the US, the goal of friendship with Beijing was to weaken the Soviet Union’s influence. The bilateral relationship that Mao and Nixon managed to establish eventually turned China from an impoverished backwater to economic powerhouse, something the Chinese government could have never accomplished through ties with Moscow.
But Sino-Russian ties are stronger now than ever, underscored by Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping meeting on the sidelines of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing last month, with both sides using the meeting to signal coordinated efforts to counter the United States.
Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed how “Putin played the China card on us”, said Evan Medeiros, a former US National Security Council official and Asia studies chairman at Georgetown University, recently, underscoring how the script of February 1972 has been flipped.
This reality was further punctuated by indications that Beijing passed Washington’s information about Russia’s impending plan to invade Ukraine along to Moscow with assurances that it would not try to stop any action. It has also since emerged that Russia told China of its plan to conduct a military operation in Ukraine, and that Beijing asked Moscow to wait until after the Olympic Games.
On Taiwan - the other issue that Nixon and Mao managed to deal with through the breakthrough Shanghai Communique - the two sides are further apart than at anytime since the establishment of formal diplomatic relations.
A group of former top American military and security officials arrived in Taiwan on a US government plane earlier this week for a whirlwind 30-hour visit, following a series of similar visits by Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
Tensions between the US and China have brought the relationship to lows that few would have seen coming, but perhaps there are enough people who realise that a complete break would be impossible.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman and noted “wolf warrior” Zhao Lijian said during a regular press conference last month that both China and the US would host events that looked back to history and ahead to the future to mark the occasion of Nixon’s visit, with details to be released “in due time”.
Even the Biden administration acknowledges that it cannot build a wall that would block US-China trade, and instead is aiming for a relationship defined more by competition - much of that through legislation that would direct government funds to semiconductor manufacturing as well as a reliance on domestic post-pandemic recovery and stronger ties with allies.
In a wide-ranging interview to mark the anniversary, a former US ambassador to Beijing, Winston Lord, reflected on his role in the “geopolitical earthquake” of Nixon’s 1972 visit, addressed criticism that Nixon’s engagement effort emboldened an increasingly assertive Chinese government and warned that the Trumpian turn of the Republican Party – his former political home – is endangering Washington’s ability to counter Beijing.
Joe Biden has his hand on the tiller at the moment, but with the situation in Ukraine adding a new element to the relationship, stay tuned for the next turn, which presumably will also have a twist or two.