Fifty years ago this week, U.S. President Richard Nixon made his historic trip to China. The visit was a geopolitical master stroke — a bold move to reshape international relations by transforming the trilateral relationship among the United States, China and the Soviet Union.
For many, the hopes and visions that fueled that trip have been trampled, the product of naivete, miscalculation or, perhaps most alarming, their own success.
Nixon saw himself as a master strategist. He reached out to Beijing, which had been locked in an implacably hostile relationship with the United States since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, to re-balance a geopolitical triangle to the United States’ advantage. Nixon understood that relations between Beijing and Moscow were fraught and that finding common cause with China would ally the world’s largest economy with the world’s largest population and benefit the United States in the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union.
To do so, however, the United States had to swallow its pride over “the loss of China.” Few Americans had the political armor to deflect the domestic repercussions from that outreach. Richard Nixon, who had built his political career on being a staunch anti-communist, was one of them. He created an enduring metaphor for such bold strokes: “a Nixon-to-China move.”
Nixon’s outreach was reciprocated — and ratified — by China’s then supreme leader, Mao Zedong. Their meeting of the minds served both men well: Nixon advanced his geopolitical aims and Mao sought to counter growing hostility between his country and its once-fraternal neighbor. Mao delighted in wrong-footing his domestic opposition as well.
Engaging with the United States led to an opening to the West, which proved instrumental in transforming China into the global power that it is today. Xi Jinping now leads the world’s second largest economy, one that is anticipated to overtake the United States in overall size within a decade.
Yet there have been few celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of that visit. China is no longer seen as a partner, but rather as a competitor, if not a threat. In Washington and allied capitals, Beijing is deemed a revisionist state, eager to tear up rules and norms to satisfy long-standing grievances, including the redrawing of borders.
China daily encroaches on the territory of Japan and Taiwan; it engages in mass human rights violations in Xinjiang and ignores international treaty obligations in Hong Kong; it tilts the domestic business landscape to favor Chinese companies over foreign competitors; and, when challenged, Beijing is quick to resort to economic coercion.
In Beijing, the United States is said to actively seek to contain China, undermine its growth and thwart the realization of the “China Dream.” Perhaps most alarming for China, the United States appears to be encouraging Taiwan to turn its back on the mainland and reject the unification that is central to China fulfilling its destiny.
There is no more troubling indication of the depths to which the U.S.-China relationship has fallen than Beijing’s readiness to back President Vladimir Putin as Russian forces invade Ukraine. Rather than respect and affirm the international order that it helped birth, China now encourages lawlessness and the indulgence in fiction and folly to justify the forcible redrawing of the borders of Europe. China’s leaders apparently believe that they have more in common with an aggrieved megalomaniac than governments that seek to preserve a rules-based order and maintain international peace.
A Beijing-Moscow alignment has been evident for some time, but it has consolidated in recent weeks. The joint declaration issued by Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the beginning of February has been heralded as “a new manifesto” for global order. In 50 years, then, Beijing’s orientation has shifted and the pendulum has swung.
This drift makes plain the simple calculus behind Chinese decisionmaking. Chinese leaders have long talked about principles, democracy and a desire to advance a new type of international relations, but the reality is simpler and cruder: They believe in power.
The choice was evident during the United Nations Security Council debate last week when Kenya’s representative Martin Kimani made an impassioned plea to reject dreams of empire and instead support a world marked by the equality of nations and ruled by law — words and concepts that Chinese representatives have often used. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made the same point, stripped of the eloquence, on Thursday: “The Russian invasion trampled on the international order’s core principle of not allowing the status quo to be altered by force.”
China had a different response. It waffled. Its U.N. representative described the situation in Ukraine as “a result of many complex factors” and he called on all parties to exercise restraint, rather than condemning the person who manufactured an excuse to invade.
Richard Nixon may have anticipated this turn. He believed in realpolitik and had little appreciation for the abstractions, like values, that provide an alternative basis for international relations. That led him to neglect to inform the Japanese government of his breakthrough until minutes before the news broke. (This was a habit with him: There were two “Nixon shocks,” the first of which was the surprise end to the convertibility of foreign holdings of the U.S. dollar into gold, a few months before the China trip.) Japan, a nonmilitary power, didn’t possess the currency that he valued. That failure to appreciate the nonmaterial elements of power — or relations in general — haunted Nixon’s career.
In a farewell toast at the end of his visit 50 years ago, Nixon urged the two countries to “find common ground on which we can both stand, where we can build the bridge between us and build a new world.”
A half century later, that task remains undone, a failure that has contributed to the dangers we face today.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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Source: The Japan Times