why nixon went to china -- 8/15/16

Today's selection -- from Altered States by Michael Schaller. Japan's economic ascendancy in the 1960s (which happened in large part because it was a supplier to America's Vietnam War effort) made President Richard Nixon interested in establishing ties to China as a counterbalance to Japan. China's border wars with the Soviet Union in 1969 created an opening for the U.S. to make overtures to China. And warmer relations with China would make it easier to exit the Vietnam War. In the greatest of ironies, at the same time China began to fear the repercussions of an American loss in Vietnam. The rapprochement came in a cloud of intrigue:

"[In 1971], Nixon delivered twin shocks -- his July 15 announcement of a planned visit to China followed by his August 15 deci­sion to cut the dollar loose from gold, impose an import surcharge, and force the upward valuation of the yen. He also threatened to impose textile quotas [on Japan] under the terms of the Trading with the Enemy Act. ...

"Nixon's and Kissinger's interest in opening a dialogue with China reflected deeper changes in the cold war. On taking office, both men recog­nized that the Soviet Union had or would soon achieve a rough nuclear parity with the United States. Instead of a costly and probably futile effort to restore superiority, they sought to moderate Soviet behavior through economic and political incentives broadly labeled 'détente.' These included negotiated limits on strategic weapons, increased trade and tech­nology transfer, and recognition that the Soviet Union had legitimate global interests. ...

"In March 1969, the protracted war of words between Moscow and Beijing escalated into a series of border skirmishes. This schism created an opportunity for the United States to play off the Communist rivals against each other, assum­ing Washington had some leverage with the People's Republic of China. Following the border clashes, Nixon and Kissinger concluded that improved ties with China might constrain Soviet behavior and impel both rivals to cooperate with the United States or risk isolation. ...

"The leverage gained through triangular diplomacy with Moscow and Beijing might also hasten an end to the Vietnam War (through Soviet or Chinese pressure on North Viet­nam), provide Washington with greater influence over Japan, and facilitate an orderly reduction of U.S. military power in Asia.

"Just as fear of Chinese expansion initially prompted American inter­vention in Vietnam, a desire to assist Chinese resistance to Soviet pressure increased the administration's determination to speed a settlement in Viet­nam. In effect, Nixon began to apply his 'doctrine' of reduced involve­ment in Asia before, rather than after, 'victory' in Vietnam. As Kissinger elaborated, the 'China initiative ... restored perspective to our national policy.' It reduced 'Indochina to its proper scale -- a small peninsula on a major continent.' The 'drama' of opening ties with China would 'ease for the American people the pain that would inevitably accompany our with­drawal from Southeast Asia.'

"In an odd symmetry, ... Chinese leaders feared an assault by their former ally. Japan's growing wealth and assertiveness -- brought home by Sato's affirmation in 1969 of an interest in the security of South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam -- raised the added specter of a rearmed, expansive Japan. ...

"Because the retreat of Ameri­can power [in the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam] coincided with a growing Soviet threat, Chinese strategists who previously feared a U.S. victory in Vietnam now agonized about the conse­quences of a defeat. America's retreat would leave China caught between the Soviet Union and Japan. As Nixon and Kissinger hoped, Mao's deter­mination to protect China outweighed his disdain for capitalism, solidarity with Hanoi, mistrust of the United States, and drive to regain Taiwan.

"During 1969 and 1970, the administration signaled a desire to improve ties with China. ... On June 2, 1971, after almost two years of secret exchanges, Zhou Enlai invited Kissinger to come to China to arrange a presidential visit. Kissinger described the message as 'the most important communication that has come to an American president since the end of World War II.' ...

"Nixon the politician saw as much advantage in the China initiative as did Nixon the statesman. To make certain he received maximum credit for the breakthrough, the president prodded his staff to keep Kissinger under wraps and away from journalists when he returned from Beijing. Nixon not only kept news of the approach to China secret from the Department of State and America's allies before his public announcement on July 15, but wanted steps taken to ensure that no prominent Americans -- and certainly no Democratic politicians, such as Senator Edward Kennedy -- traveled to China before he did. He spoke of his pending trip as something 'good to hit the Democrats with at primary time.' The NATO allies and Japan would be told of the initiative by telephone, just before the president went public."


Michael Schaller


Altered States: The United States and Japan since the Occupation


Oxford University Press


Copyright 1997 by Oxford University


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