In the mid-1960s, having failed to win either the presidency or the governorship of California, Richard Nixon had ample time to think about international relations, his primary policy interest. Like most China specialists, he concluded that the United States should end its efforts to isolate China. Few analysts doubted the reality of the Sino-Soviet split, and Nixon was among those who recognized that opening diplomatic ties with Beijing might strengthen the U.S. position in the Cold War. If China was no longer an urgent threat requiring containment, the United States would be able to reinforce the lines against the Soviet Union and marshal its power for a single great war. Moscow, meanwhile, would have to worry about China as well as its western front: the Soviets reportedly had 500,000 troops stationed on the Chinese border.

When Nixon was elected president at the end of the decade, the most pressing foreign policy problem of the day was finding a way out of Vietnam. But he and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, understood that managing relations with the Soviet Union and China had to be their principal task. Perhaps Moscow or Beijing, they thought, could help with Hanoi.

Margaret MacMillan, author of the prize-winning "Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World", has marked the U.S.-Chinese rapprochement of 1971-72 as another major turning point in world history. Her new book, "Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World," is a well-researched and analytically sound popular history. MacMillan may not be the equal of James Mann or the late Barbara Tuchman, but she has the ability to turn complex foreign affairs into engaging tales. She takes her readers through the delicate maneuvers between Chinese and U.S. leaders that ultimately led to Kissinger's secret mission to Beijing -- secret in particular from Secretary of State William Rogers -- and provides thoughtful analysis of the two sides' goals during the ensuing negotiations.

Nixon's initial overtures to Chinese leaders won a favorable reception. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was burning out, and Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai were uneasy about what they perceived as the rising Soviet threat. The invitation they issued to their suitors from Washington indicated that a high-level mission to China would be welcomed -- provided the Americans understood that resolution of differences over Taiwan would be the price of rapprochement.

Having read the transcripts of the conversations between Kissinger and Zhou, the Chinese premier, MacMillan does not take Kissinger's memoirs at face value. She notes the discrepancy between his claim to have talked little about Taiwan and the actual centrality of the Taiwan issue in his meetings with Zhou. Kissinger was indifferent to the fate of the Kuomintang regime on the island, and Nixon, who had exhibited considerable sympathy for Chiang Kai-shek in the past, proved willing to sacrifice Taiwan to achieve his purposes in Beijing. Kissinger flew off on his secret mission in July 1971, and Nixon followed in a highly publicized visit in February 1972. At the conclusion of Nixon's visit, a carefully worded communiqué declared that the United States "acknowledged" that "all" Chinese on the mainland and on Taiwan agreed that there was but one China and that Taiwan was a part of it. Of course, as State Department specialists pointed out immediately, that was nonsense: it ignored the many Taiwanese who wanted to be independent. But Kissinger and Nixon were dismissive of such nitpicking, even if Kissinger did make a perfunctory and unsuccessful effort to drop the word "all." Only fear of a political firestorm sparked by Taiwan's supporters back home kept them from openly abandoning Chiang.

MacMillan's chapters on the negotiations between Kissinger and Zhou and the meetings between Nixon and Mao are excellent. She captures Kissinger's obsequiousness in his determination to win Zhou's confidence in 1971, the excitement of the Americans in Beijing, and their awe of the Delphic and demented Mao. She does a magnificent job of focusing on the public-relations aspects of Nixon's trip -- the president's craving to be seen as a great world leader and his staff's manipulation of the media.


Did Nixon's week in China "change the world"? The short answer must be yes. The tacit alliance that emerged between China and the United States over the subsequent decade reshaped the balance of power in the Cold War. It alleviated the enmity that had kept the two countries apart for more than three decades, eased U.S. concerns about communist expansion in East Asia, and made the U.S. defeat in Vietnam more palatable. Beijing and Washington shared intelligence about the Soviet Union and increased the pressures on Moscow, which eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet empire.

But then one day the Cold War was over. Mikhail Gorbachev recognized that the Soviet Union, with its pathetic economy, could not sustain the competition with the United States, and in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down and the European satellites won their freedom with minimal bloodshed, except in Romania. (This truly world-changing series of events would be worthy of MacMillan's next book.) Unfortunately, when the Chinese, led by students and Communist Party intellectuals, demanded an end to arbitrary rule at home, they were crushed brutally by their own government in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere. Peaceful change did not come to China; the contrast with the events in Europe at the time served only to highlight the Chinese Communist Party's determination to hold on to unchecked power at any cost.

The Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989 suddenly called into question the tenuous friendship between China and the United States. There had been tensions in the relationship since the late 1970s, when Congress, rebelling against Jimmy Carter's decision to extend recognition to Beijing as the government of China, committed Washington to granting Taiwan most privileges of a sovereign state and providing it with weapons. Ronald Reagan's openly expressed preference for the regime in Taiwan similarly irritated the Chinese. These offenses did not cause Beijing to break with Washington, but Deng Xiaoping did edge away from the United States and order campaigns -- against "bourgeois liberalization" and "spiritual pollution" -- aimed at diminishing U.S. influence in China.

As MacMillan demonstrates, Nixon and Kissinger had been indifferent to China's internal affairs. Similarly, President George H. W. Bush argued that the strategic relationship between China and the United States was too important to be jeopardized by Beijing's domestic transgressions. He and his foreign policy team, considering themselves "realists" in the mold of Nixon and Kissinger, did all they could to minimize congressional action against China and to assure Deng of their intention to continue working with him. But it was inevitable that Americans would become discomfited by a regime that was so abusive to its own people. After being exhilarated by a vision of democracy in China, many were horrified by the televised scenes of repression in Tiananmen. There was an outcry against the "butchers of Beijing" and calls for sanctions against China.


The end of the Cold War, combined with anger over Tiananmen, inevitably led a number of Western analysts to question the importance of maintaining friendly relations with China. The exigencies of the Cold War may have required the United States to ally itself with numerous despicable regimes, but surely, they argued, that was not necessary for the world's only remaining superpower. China was no longer needed: the United States was secure without it. And it was time, they said, for Washington to stand up for American values, to demand respect for human rights in China and everywhere else in the world.

In 1992, presidential candidate Clinton condemned Bush's coddling of Beijing. Campaigning with him was Winston Lord -- a Kissinger acolyte and Bush's first ambassador to China -- who, contrary to the master's teaching, called for punishing China for Tiananmen and for Deng's subsequent intransigence. Lord's appointment as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 1993 heartened human rights activists and visionaries who still hoped for an American-style democracy in China. But the Democrats' threat to deny China most-favored-nation treatment for its exports proved hollow. Clinton's ultimate concern for revitalizing the U.S. economy forced him to surrender to pressures from businesspeople less interested in human rights in China than in importing the inexpensive products of cheap Chinese labor or in exporting their wares to the billion potential Chinese customers. Deng proved to be correct in calling Washington's bluff.

By the late 1990s, Deng's market-oriented reforms had taken hold, and China began a period of extraordinary economic growth. Chinese leaders perceived no need for political reforms and proudly trumpeted their success in retaining power for the Communist Party as well as raising living standards -- in marked contrast to the negative example of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At the same time, radical changes in Taiwan generated new tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and ultimately between Beijing and Washington as well. The Kuomintang, surprising most analysts, opened the door to democracy, winning support across the political spectrum in the United States. President Lee Teng-hui, a native Taiwanese suspected of favoring independence, was put in power by Chiang Kai-shek's son, setting off alarm bells in Beijing. Lee was granted a U.S. visa, despite the initial reservations of the Clinton administration. It was this violation of the existing understanding with Beijing -- that Taiwan's leaders would not be allowed to visit the United States -- that led to a heightened risk of military conflict between the United States and China amid a series of incidents in the Taiwan Strait.

In July 1995 and again in March 1996, the Chinese army fired missiles in the vicinity of Taiwan, bracketing the island with the second barrage. Clinton reminded Beijing of Washington's insistence on a peaceful resolution of Beijing's differences with Taipei, but he also responded to the first episode by sending the Chinese president his personal assurance that the United States would not support Taiwan's independence or its admission to the United Nations. The Chinese, however, pocketed his assurances, reminded the United States that they now had the capability of reaching U.S. cities with nuclear missiles, and warned that U.S. intervention to defend Taiwan could be very costly. Accommodating Washington was not a high priority for China.

In February 1996, preceding the second episode, China began to mass troops on its side of the Taiwan Strait. Warnings from the Clinton administration that an attack on Taiwan would have "grave consequences" were backed by the dispatch of two carrier battle groups to the region. The Chinese army backed off, and the U.S. ships departed. No shots were fired. In Beijing, the lesson was clear: China had to develop the capability to destroy any naval force the United States sent to defend Taiwan.

In 2000, when the people of Taiwan elected Chen Shui-bian, candidate of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, as their new president, Beijing barked but did not bite. Clinton warned Chen against provocative action. Neither the Americans nor the Chinese were eager for another confrontation over Taiwan.

There were, however, other sources of tension. In May 1999, a U.S. plane engaged in NATO operations against Serbia accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The Chinese public was enraged, and the government allowed large-scale anti-American demonstrations. But after a major internal debate in 1999, President Jiang Zemin and his colleagues in the Chinese leadership made a calculated decision to avoid confrontation with the United States. They saw a good working relationship with Washington as essential to China's economic development and continued rise to power. Similarly, the Clinton administration, despite stumbles such as the president's mishandling of China's accession to the World Trade Organization, had concluded that the United States had nothing to gain by exacerbating Chinese suspicions of U.S. intentions. China was a "strategic partner."

George W. Bush, much as Clinton had, called for a harder line against Beijing in his presidential campaign. He entered the White House contending that China was a "strategic competitor" and suggesting that Clinton had overestimated Beijing's willingness to cooperate with Washington. In 2001, when a U.S. plane monitoring signals off the coast of China collided with a Chinese interceptor and made a forced landing on China's Hainan Island, Bush demanded the return of the plane and the crew. But his attempt to bully the Chinese failed, and he quickly adopted a more conciliatory -- and more successful -- approach to dealing with Beijing. Chinese leaders, for their part, resisted popular anger and accepted the president's "regrets" rather than the apology they had initially demanded.

The crisis passed, and both countries were ready for a new degree of cooperation following the September 11 attacks. As the Bush administration focused its attention on terrorism, the Chinese were eager to help, especially after the U.S. government labeled the Uighur resistance in China's far west a "terrorist movement." China's grand strategy led it to pose as a responsible power in the international community, in order to minimize anxiety in Washington and elsewhere about its growing economic and military power. The Chinese also chose to play a major role in efforts to defuse the crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons.

Now, with the United States bogged down in Iraq, China's influence in East Asia has grown at the United States' expense. South Korea arguably has moved into China's orbit. China's influence also has grown enormously in the Middle East, as it joins Russia in checking U.S. efforts to force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions, and in much of Africa, where its lust for that continent's natural resources has led it to protect some of the world's most reprehensible regimes, such as those of Sudan and Zimbabwe. There can be no doubt that China has played, and will continue to play, a more assertive role in the United Nations as well.


As MacMillan demonstrates, one of Nixon's underlying assumptions when he went to China was that Taiwan would surrender to the mainland soon after the United States normalized relations with China. That assumption, of course, proved false. Although the Taiwan Strait has been relatively quiet of late, before 9/11 it was considered the place where a great-power confrontation was most likely. The Chinese-Taiwanese relationship remains too volatile for comfort, even if most U.S. political leaders find the idea of the United States riding to the rescue if Taiwan is attacked incomprehensible. For as long as Taiwan maintains its de facto independence, it will remain a threat to fragile U.S.-Chinese ties.

Nixon's opening to China was surely the right move at that time, despite the appalling nature of Mao's rule. It very likely could have been accomplished without the ruthless betrayal of Taiwan or the efforts by Nixon and Kissinger to deceive the American people about the nature of the deal they had struck. But Taiwan has survived and prospered. Should it collapse in the near future, it will be a result of the ineptness of its political elite rather than the failings of Nixon and Kissinger.

In any case, an arrangement negotiated in the midst of the Cold War, at a time when Soviet power seemed on the rise and the United States was mired in Vietnam, could not be expected to be of value forever. There are no permanent solutions to problems of international relations. Nixon and Kissinger could not anticipate the rapidity of China's ascension to the top rank of world powers. Nor could Mao or Zhou.

The U.S.-Chinese relationship requires adjustments to China's new status. At the moment, it appears that Washington is better attuned to that need than Beijing is. U.S. leaders understand that China has become a great power with worldwide interests and, however unhappily, are adapting to that reality. Chinese leaders spend less time these days posing as historic victims, but they remain loath to accept the obligations that come with great power. The world still waits -- and will likely wait for some time -- for China to behave as, in the words of former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, a "responsible stakeholder."

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  • Warren I. Cohen is Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a Senior Scholar in the Asia Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the author of "America's Response to China".
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