China and the World

Triangular thinking

Fifty years after Nixon met Mao, are there lessons for today’s leaders?


The handshake that proved a turning point in the Cold War

On February 17, 1972 President Richard Nixon departed Washington for a seminal journey to China in which he met Mao Zedong. As he told journalists prior to his departure: “A trip to China is like going to the Moon”. That pretty much summed up the isolation of Maoist China at the time.

A rich assortment of articles has been looking back at the significance of the 50th anniversary of this landmark event. Indeed, the ‘great power’ triangulation that it triggered – between Beijing, Washington and Moscow – has seen a renewal of sorts today. That said, it was the Chinese and Russian leaders triangulating this time: issuing a joint rebuke over NATO expansionism during Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Beijing Winter Olympics this month.

Last weekend the Financial Times published a lengthy article about the anniversary of the Sino-US breakthrough in 1972, in which it noted: “Fifty years on Nixon’s adventurous diplomacy is as relevant as ever. In what seems reminiscent of the old China-Soviet axis, presidents Putin and Xi [Jinping] are finding common cause as the Ukraine crisis heats up. They met for the 38th time last week.”

Indeed, the power pendulum in this three-way relationship seems to be swinging in a new direction. In 1972 Nixon’s hope was to peel Beijing away from Moscow – and he was successful, making a major contribution to the eventual victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Now the threesome has reoriented into a new two-versus-one alliance: China and Russia have become firmer diplomatic friends 50 years on because of their mutual antipathy towards the US.

As the South China Morning Post points out in its own article on the anniversary: “Nixon saw in diplomatic overtures to Mao an opportunity to gain leverage over the Soviet Union, and with that a chance to break the geopolitical stalemate with Moscow that had frustrated Washington for two decades. But it took time for Nixon, working with his national security adviser Henry Kissinger and others in a tight-knit group of policymakers, to reach that conclusion.”

The newspaper says there were many false starts before Nixon’s landmark rapprochement. “The divide between Beijing and Washington was so wide that initial attempts by American diplomats to inform Chinese counterparts about Nixon’s willingness to open a dialogue had to take place at a Yugoslav fashion show in Warsaw in late 1969 – an awkward exchange that failed because the message recipient had not been briefed on how to respond to an overture.”

For anyone looking for the definitive account of the 1972 summit, WiC wholeheartedly recommends Margaret Macmillan’s book Seize the Hour: When Nixon Met Mao. We first mentioned this brilliantly readable history as far back as WiC12. As Macmillan points out in her intro: “President Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong were well aware that they were making history that day in 1972. Both understood that their meeting, and, indeed, Nixon’s whole visit to China were important above all else for their symbolism. It was, after all, the first ever visit of an American president to China and an end to the long standoff where neither country had recognised the other. It was an earthquake in the Cold War landscape and meant that the Eastern bloc no longer stood firm against the West.”

Or as Nixon himself said in a prophetic toast as he departed Shanghai: “We have been here a week. This was the week that changed the world.”

Macmillan’s book describes meticulously how Nixon’s visit to China had taken three years to arrange. There were some key moments. Mao, for instance, was convinced he’d found the best back channel to American diplomatic circles through a briefing he gave in 1970 to the US journalist Edgar Snow (who had first interviewed Mao in the 1930s). Mao spoke of a potential Nixon visit to Snow, despite tensions around the status of Taiwan (which persist today, of course). “Taiwan was clearly an issue between the two of them, but what did it have to do with Nixon? Ten million people in Taiwan were nothing compared to the billion people of Asia,” Macmillan quotes Mao as telling Snow.

Snow’s article took so long to find a publisher that it had little impact, however. More decisive was the personal decision by Mao on April 6, 1971, to invite the US table tennis team to China. “Nixon and Kissinger were surprised but delighted at the invitation,” Macmillan writes of what has since become known as ‘ping-pong diplomacy’.

The background to the Mao-Nixon meeting was the deep-freeze in relations between the former ‘red’ allies Communist China and the Soviet Union. In 1964 Mao was so concerned about attack from his northern neighbour that he ordered the movement of crucial industries inland to the mountains and high plateaus of western China, as well as digging bunkers in cities.

“By the end of the 1960s, Mao, and indeed what was left of the foreign policy establishment in Beijing were convinced that the chief threat to China, greater even than the United States, was the Soviet Union,” wrote Macmillan, noting that by 1969 the number of Soviet divisions on the Chinese border had grown to 27 from the 17 four years earlier.

The real trouble started over a mud-flat known as Zhenbao/ Damansky Island. In late 1968 belligerent soldiers from both nations faced off with sticks. The mood turned deadlier the following March when the Chinese sent armed troops onto the disputed island. After being challenged they opened fire. The Chinese say 50 Soviets were killed (the Soviets claimed 30 dead) but the upshot was an escalation: two weeks later the two armies fought with heavy artillery and tanks, upping the death toll.

Then on August 13 hardliners in Moscow ordered a limited military attack on the border with Xinjiang. A fortnight later the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party issued new orders to the people to brace for armed conflict. Zhou Enlai told a military conference on September 22: “The international situation is extremely tense. We should be prepared to fight a war.”

In the light of these events, Beijing began to look at the US differently, as a counterbalance to Moscow’s militarism.

However, when Nixon first told his top diplomat Henry Kissinger in February 1969 that he wanted to open up relations with China, his national security advisor was dumbfounded, according to General Alexander Haig (who was then Kissinger’s assistant). “Our leader has taken leave of reality. He has just ordered me to make this flight of fantasy come true,” Kissinger warned.

Three years later the rapprochement with the Chinese was reality.

Nixon’s journey to China was planned so that the president would arrive as well rested as possible. He stayed in Hawaii for two days and then had another overnight stop in Guam. His arrival time in Beijing at 11.30am on Monday February 21, 1972 was chosen carefully to make television news in all time zones back in the United States, Macmillan writes.

Nixon emerged from Air Force One in a blue suit and grey overcoat. His wife, Pat, followed in a red coat. “She had ignored the warnings of American China specialists that only prostitutes wore red in China,” Macmillan observes.

The choice of coat was not taken lightly, as this was a major media event. The Chinese side were amazed by the activities of the advance team sent by Washington to ensure “that the president would get maximum press coverage”. The runway in Beijing was even marked up with paint to make sure the plane stopped at the right distance and correct angle so as to maximise the drama of Nixon’s groundbreaking steps onto Chinese soil.

As Macmillan’s account points out, one item that the American advance party had brought with them caused a particular stir – a Xerox copier, that produced amazement among the Chinese officials. (When the Americans realised that the Chinese were copying all their own documents out by hand, they arranged to leave their copier behind as a gesture of goodwill.)

The White House wanted pictures of Nixon in China to be seen on televisions across America. To make that happen the Americans had to bring in satellite transmission equipment, which Beijing asked to rent.

This led to an unusual negotiation, at least by hard-nosed Chinese standards. Macmillan wryly observes that the Chinese became convinced that the Americans were undercharging them (causing a loss of face) so they insisted, to the great confusion of US officials, on paying more than the asking price.

The vast banquet at the Great Hall of the People, hosted by Premier Zhou Enlai in Nixon’s honour, was covered by all the American networks and televised for four hours. It turned into a massive media circus: the Chinese had suggested that 10 journalists accompany Nixon to China, though the US negotiated that number up to 90. There were 2,000 applications for accreditation, including one from a young Barbara Walters, one of only three female journalists who made it to Beijing.

Alongside the Moon landings, this was one of the great TV events of the era. The televised Chinese feast saw mass toasting between attendees with China’s national liquor Moutai – described by broadcaster Dan Rather as “liquid razor blades”. In one of the diplomatic high points of the evening, Zhou gifted Nixon two pandas (in return Nixon bestowed a pair of musk oxen and two giant redwood trees from California).

With the cameras rolling the American president quoted Mao’s poetry in a toast to Zhou: “So many deeds cry out to be done, and always urgently. The world rolls on. Time passes. Ten thousand years are too long. Seize the day, seize the hour.”

The far more significant event had happened earlier in the afternoon, away from the television cameras. Nixon and Kissinger went for a private meeting at Mao’s home. The gathering was supposed to last 15 minutes – Mao was very ill – but it went on for an hour, and at one point Mao clasped Nixon’s hand for almost a minute. “The most moving moment,” Nixon later confided to his diary. This time it was a Chinese photographer on hand to capture the dramatic Mao-Nixon handshake, which was then relayed around the world.

Mao, at pains to point out that China “was never an aggressor”, preferred to keep debate with Nixon at higher level, telling the US leader: “I discuss philosophical questions.”

Nevertheless Nixon told White House staff on his return that Mao was a man who saw strategic concepts with great vision. In his subsequent conversations with Zhou he made the telling observation, “We have broken out of the old pattern” – Nixon’s reference to the new triangulation that had occurred.

Veteran journalist Jane Perlez pointed out in a recent article in the Financial Times that Nixon didn’t necessarily think his ‘opening’ of China in 1972 would be an unalloyed advantage for the US over the long term. “He had few illusions that China would become democratic: that goal was for sentimentalists. And he intuited that his achievement in prying China away from the Soviets could eventually end up to America’s disadvantage. He could see that China would catch up with the US militarily and economically. His biographer, Richard Reeves, recalled that Nixon believed there would eventually be conflict between the US and China, and in that situation, the outlook for the US was grim.”

In fact, Reeves told an audience at the John F Kennedy Library in Boston in 2006 that it was Nixon’s view that American and Chinese interests “were fundamentally different over the longer term. And eventually they would clash. It might be a shooting war. It might be an economic war.”

“The east would win that confrontation,” was Nixon’s final assessment.

Fifty years after his memorable meeting with Mao, this view is of interest to the realpolitik of today.

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