Achieving Diplomatic Breakthroughs in the Past and Future: The “Opening to China” After 50 Years

Posted on February 15, 2022 By

by John Whitehead

China and the United States began a new era in their relationship 50 years ago this month. US President Richard Nixon’s arrival in Beijing, on February 21, 1972, and his subsequent meetings with Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai marked a resumption of relations between the two countries after decades of hostile silence. Since those dramatic meetings, China and the United States have had a sometimes friendly, sometimes very tense relationship.

With the relationship between these two powerful countries turning increasingly tense in recent years, this anniversary seems an appropriate time for reflection. How did the resumption of relations – sometimes called the “opening to China” – happen? How might China and the United States avoid confrontation and the risk of war in the future?

Seeking a Renewed Relationship

The 1949 Chinese revolution, in which the Communists overthrew the Nationalist regime, led to a break in US-China relations. The United States preferred to support the Nationalists, now exiled to Taiwan. The Korean War, which brought Chinese and American troops into direct conflict with each other, only deepened the nation’s enmity. During the 1950s and 1960s, China and the United States had next to no diplomatic relations with each other, no direct trade or travel, and little direct knowledge of one another.

American diplomats suspected of sympathies with Communist China were driven out of government or otherwise sidelined: one leading China specialist ended up as ambassador to Iceland. Meanwhile, China remained relatively isolated, having relations with only about 40 countries. That isolation deepened in the late 1960s during the internal upheaval of China’s Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution led to considerable hostility toward foreigners, including foreign diplomats in China, and a scaling back of China’s diplomatic presence abroad.

Despite their differences, China and the United States shared a common enemy in the Soviet Union. Although the Chinese had initially been allied with their fellow Communists in Moscow, Chinese-Soviet relations gradually deteriorated to a state of near-war. In 1969, Chinese and Soviet troops along the two countries’ shared border began openly fighting with each other. A Soviet nuclear attack on China seemed possible. The Soviets’ long-time Cold War adversary, the United States, took note.

Advisers to Mao, the Communist Party Chairman, and Zhou, the Premier, suggested the time had come for an opening to the United States. Chen Yi, a former foreign minister, wrote that “The last thing the U.S. imperialists are willing to see is a victory by the Soviet revisionists in a Sino-Soviet war” and that China could use “the contradiction between the United States and the Soviet Union in a strategic sense and to pursue a breakthrough” (quoted in Margaret MacMillan, Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, pp. 143-144).

Some powerful Americans were also interested in a breakthrough with China. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on pursuing a new China policy. In the late 1960s, Nixon wrote that “we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations.” Nixon’s rival, the Democratic politician Hubert Humphrey, called for lifting the trade embargo on China and “the building of bridges to the people of mainland China” (quoted in James Mann, About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton, pp. 16, 18) Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield wrote letters to Zhou asking for permission to visit China. In 1968, the State Department tried to revive talks between the American and Chinese ambassadors to Poland.

Relations between China and the United States gradually thawed. The United States reduced its naval activity close to China’s coast, eased and eventually lifted restrictions on travel and trade between the countries, and exchanged messages with China through Pakistan. An unusual olive branch came from the Chinese in April 1971, when the Chinese government invited an American table tennis team to visit China.

The historic invitation came about partly through happenstance. The Americans were participating in a competition in Tokyo along with a Chinese team. The Chinese were impressed by the American players’ friendliness. When American player Glenn Cowan hitched a ride to the tournament hall on the Chinese team’s bus, Chinese player Zhuang Zedong presented Cowan with a gift of a silk scarf. (Cowan later reciprocated with a gift of a red-white-and-blue shirt bearing the peace symbol and the Beatles-inspired slogan “Let It Be.”)

Zhuang Zedong and Glenn Cowan

Back in Beijing, Mao decided to invite the American team to China, commenting “Zhuang Zedong not only plays good Ping-Pong but knows how to conduct diplomacy as well” (MacMillan, Nixon and Mao, p. 178). In China, the regime rolled out the red carpet for the American athletes, who became, to great international media attention, the first American delegation to visit the country since 1949.

An invitation at a more official level came a few weeks later. The Chinese suggested Nixon or an envoy could come to Beijing for talks. The Nixon administration enthusiastically accepted the offer. US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger made two trips in China in 1971 (one secret, one public) to prepare for Nixon’s visit the following year.

The presidential trip to China lasted a week. It included visits to Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai and talks among officials on various topics, including the Soviet Union. Nixon and Mao also had one conversation, which was limited to generalities but symbolically significant: the top leaders of two powerful and previously hostile nations were sitting down together to talk.

The trip ultimately produced a joint China-US statement, known as the Shanghai Communique. While expressing numerous disagreements between the two nations, the Communique also included the important statements that international conflicts should be resolved “without resorting to the use or threat of force” and that both nations “wish to reduce the danger of international military conflict.” A few years later, China and the United States established formal diplomatic relations.

Seeking Coexistence Today

Fifty years after Nixon’s trip to China, much has changed in the American-Chinese relationship. With the Soviet Union’s collapse and the Cold War’s end, the two countries stopped being de facto allies in that struggle. Economic ties between the two countries have grown dramatically, with the value of US-China trade rising from roughly $4 billion in 1979 to more than $600 billion by 2017. China is today the United States’ third largest trade partner. China’s economy has undergone an extraordinary transformation, from having in 1980 a GDP, as measured by the amount of goods and services a consumer can buy within their own country, that was equivalent to 10 percent of the United States’, to having in 2014 a GDP equivalent to 101 percent of the United States’.

Perhaps the most significant change is the increased hostility of recent years between China and the United States. President Biden has called China the United States’ “most serious competitor.” Possible Chinese efforts to build more or more advanced nuclear weapons may increase tensions with the United States. Will US-China relations become only more hostile, with war becoming a possibility? Or can relations be improved, as they were 50 years ago?

The United States and China might be able to maintain a peaceful coexistence but, like the diplomatic opening of the early 1970s, realizing this goal will require considerable effort. As political scientist Graham Allison aptly put it, American-Chinese coexistence is “a chronic condition that will have to be managed over a generation … Managing this relationship without war will demand sustained attention, week by week, at the highest level in both countries.”

Beyond requiring effort, managing the US-China relationship can’t and shouldn’t rely on a common enemy, as in the 1970s. Today the United States is more likely to be the target of a common alliance between China and Russia than an ally of either one against the other. In any case, such an adversarial approach hardly promotes peace. That was the earlier approach’s great flaw.

Both countries must avoid falling into an arms race or a pattern of escalating aggressive actions. The United States should resist the temptation to further expand its own nuclear build-up in response to expansions in China’s nuclear arsenal. The recent declaration by several nuclear powers, including the United States and China, that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought is encouraging. The United States should consider following up on the declaration by pledging never to use nuclear weapons first – a pledge that would align US policy with China’s. To echo the Committee for a SANE US-China Policy, both countries should also carefully coordinate and reduce their military activities in high-tension areas such as the South China Sea, to avoid potential clashes.

Outside government circles, continued travel, cultural exchanges, and other contact between Chinese and Americans can promote understanding between the nations. We should remember the example of “ping-pong diplomacy.”

Maintaining peaceful US-China coexistence will not be easy. The two nations made a diplomatic breakthrough in the past, though, and might yet do so again.

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For other similar posts by John Whitehead, see: 

A Cold War Comes Home? Anti-Asian Racism in Light of US-China Hostility

“Remember Pearl Harbor—Keep ‘Em Dying”: War and Racism in the Pacific

No Combat Experience, No Opinion: Parallels in Pro-bombing and Pro-choice Rhetoric

Climate Change and the Consistent Life Ethic: An Opportunity to Connect Issues

The Wages of War, Part 1: How Abortion Came to Japan

Hard Questions about the Response to Terrorism: Looking Back on September 11th

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  1. Ms. Boomer-ang says:

    Is not one reason powerful people have liked China its culture of conformity, making it relatively easy and efficient to impose societal and economic changes from the top?

    Is not another reason its “successful” forced abortions and population control, made easier to enact by the culture of conformity.

    And look how other countries, like Vietnam, have followed China’s population control. Look at the countries that are proud of their discrimination against, in some places Jim Crow laws against, people who bear more than two children.

    Meanwhile, a “can do” spirit in some governments when they set out to get 100% of their people to do something is inspired by China’s “successful” one child campaign.

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