Remembering the Nixon visit: Breaking the chains of illusion


Editor's note: William Jones is the Washington bureau chief for the Executive Intelligence Review and a non-resident fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the visit of U.S. President Nixon to China, a visit which effectively ended the U.S. attempt to contain the People's Republic of China (PRC), a country which then had over 800,000,000 people. President Nixon deserves credit for this ground-breaking visit. He, more than any of his advisers, was most adamant that such a visit be accomplished. While there were obviously geopolitical goals that such a visit might accomplish, regarding the Soviet Union and Vietnam, where the U.S. was still involved in a no-win war, there was also a certain curiosity that this Republican president had for the country which also influenced his decision.

By 1972, such a visit was an idea whose time had come, indeed the time was overripe. Already in 1963, President Kennedy, who had initiated his detente policy with the Soviet Union at a speech at American University in June, was also considering establishing relations with the PRC. He confided to his friend, John Kenneth Galbraith, then the U.S. ambassador to India, that he was considering doing just that, but not before his second administration, as he felt it would cause a firestorm among the anti-China firebrands, and may well endanger his reelection chances. But with his death and the growing U.S. entanglement in Vietnam, such a reengagement with China was put off for several years.

Nixon, who was a Republican president, had less to fear from his right-wing critics and was more capable in overcoming any opposition within the Republican Party.

The visit was a game-changer, opening up the era of engagement with China. And it benefited both nations – and the world – greatly. Many other countries followed suit in recognizing the PRC and China gained greater entry into the world community, regaining its seat in the United Nations.

A view of Lianyungang Port in Lianyungang City, east China's Jiangsu Province, January 14, 2021. /Xinhua

Since then, China has also provided the U.S. population with many of the items in their basic consumption, from clothes to machinery to electronic equipment. The "Made in China" label has gradually changed from a designation of cheap goods to a designation of high quality. U.S. industry also gained a growing market for its products, whether it be soybeans, cars, airplanes or intricate machine tools. China also benefited with hundreds of thousands of Chinese students attending U.S. universities throughout these years.

The engagement with China set up the model for the later detente with the Soviet Union, showing that countries can work together in spite of differences in their systems of governance, their culture or their ideological beliefs.

Now some U.S. politicians are saying that the age of engagement is at an end. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his last year in office, went to the Nixon Library, to announce that the era of engagement with China was at an end, and that the era of rivalry with China had begun. This misbegotten idea has unfortunately been transmitted to the Biden administration. While they realize that "decoupling" from China is not an option with the enormous role that China now plays in the world economy, they are doing everything to "slow the pace" of China's development by restricting access to high-tech products and trying to prevent other nations from buying China's. From what we can see now, this is a policy that is hurting the U.S. economy equally, or even more, than it is affecting the Chinese economy.

The short-sighted and small-minded nature of the "protective" measures taken by the United States is also having an adverse effect on the reputation of the United States among those many nations who don't see China as a rival, but rather as a friend, indeed, in many cases, a partner. This is the case with most developing countries, which don't have a strong interest in maintaining the preeminent role of the U.S. in global policy decisions. And even some U.S. "allies," in Europe as well as in Asia, don't believe that hampering Chinese economic development is a wise move.

What President Nixon obviously saw, and what our myopic politicians of today do not see, is that in the world of tomorrow, China will be playing a major role, economically, politically and culturally. And from everything we can see from their present policies, like the Belt and Road Initiative, that role will benefit the world.

If we take off the rose-colored glasses of ideology and look at the practical reality, we might well find that engagement with China will benefit the American people even more today than it did in 1972, when what China could offer to the world was so much less than it can today.