History Is the Best Teacher: Lessons for Today’s US-China Relations on the 50th Anniversary of Nixon’s Visit to China

Fifty years ago, the week of Feb. 21-28 was one that shook the world. At the invitation of Premier Zhou Enlai, President Richard Nixon made a groundbreaking visit to China, paving the way for the normalization of China-U.S. relations. It was an event significant enough to go down in world history in the second half of the 20th century, and a major milestone in the history of relations between the world’s great powers and the history of world peace.

On Jan. 1, 1979, nearly seven years after Nixon’s visit, China and the United States formally established diplomatic relations. The dismantlement of the Iron Curtain and the normalization of relations between the superpower of the West and the great powers of the East brought fundamental guarantees of cooperation and economic development between China and the United States, and made a major contribution toward world peace. At around the same time as the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States, the Third Plenary Session of the 10th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China established the policy of “reform and opening up,” marking the rise of China’s economy and its integration into the world economy. 2001 saw China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, further facilitating the Chinese economy’s globalization process, with relatively smooth relations between the two countries after diplomatic relations were established, and investment, technology and markets from the United States played a significant role. China’s rapid industrialization, huge and relatively inexpensive labor resources, and enormous markets have also provided a major impetus to the United States’ economic development. Both China and the United States have benefited greatly as a result.

The Tremendous Practical Significance of Nixon’s China Visit

Although half a century has passed since Nixon’s visit to China, the event provides a rich and profound historical experience that still holds great relevance today.

Great Powers with Different Ideologies, Social Systems, Entirely Capable of Mutually Profitable Cooperation

First, it proves that great powers with very different social systems and completely opposing ideologies can indeed establish normal national relations that are mutually beneficial. The United States is the No. 1 capitalist power; China is a major Eastern power led by the Chinese Communist Party, guided by Marxist-Leninist and Maoist thought, and operating a socialist system — but the leaders of China and the United States respect each other. Respect for one’s rivals and for each other’s completely different values precludes ideological interference in international relations.

Second, it shows that the fundamental way to establish and uphold cordial national relations between great powers with totally opposing social systems and ideologies is to bring about peaceful coexistence under the principles of the U.N. Charter: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, nonaggression, noninterference in one another’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit. After repeated negotiations, the United States recognizes that the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government representing China, and that Taiwan is part of Chinese territory. The United States has also refrained from conspicuous interference in China’s domestic affairs.

Third, it proves that, as long as the two fundamental principles mentioned above are followed, great powers with diametrically opposed social systems and ideologies can fully engage in full cooperation with respect to trade, investment, science, technology, education, culture and tourism, and can achieve a scale and level of cooperation that exceeds that between countries with the same social systems and ideologies. In the 42 years from 1979 to 2021, once China and the United States had established diplomatic relations, bilateral trade between the two nations grew from $2.48 billion to $755.645 billion, a 306-fold increase and the fastest-growing, largest-scale bilateral trade development in recent world history. The Trump and Biden administrations’ intensified anti-China policies of recent years have been hugely detrimental to bilateral cooperation, but have failed to halt its development.

Good Bilateral Relations Stem from Political Vision, Perseverance of Leaders on Both Sides

The success of Nixon’s visit to China and the thaw in relations between China and the United States had much to do with Nixon’s vision and courage, and with Henry Kissinger’s wisdom. Of course, the United States’ primary motivation was to unite with China against the Soviet Union. The political foresight, wisdom and perseverance of Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou were even more decisive factors.

When New China* was first established, diplomatic policy, as defined by Mao and Zhou, made it clear that in addition to actively developing relations with the Eastern Bloc and with Asian, African and Latin American countries, great importance should simultaneously be attached to establishing and developing diplomatic relations with Western countries. After the Geneva Summit of 1955, Zhou decided to initiate ambassadorial level talks between China and the United States. Between August 1955 and December 1970, 136 talks were held; the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and France in 1964 was an important marker and impetus for relations with the West. In March 1971, Mao, quickly seizing the opportunity for some Ping-Pong diplomacy, pushed for a thawing of relations between China and the United States. The same year, Kissinger paid a secret visit to China for 13 hours of intensive talks with Zhou, coming away impressed by his political vision, firmness and extraordinary insight.

Has US Policy of China Engagement Failed?

China Integrating into Multilateral System and Rules, Not US System and Rules

The American scholar John Mearsheimer argued that the main failure of U.S. policy on China was to allow China to integrate into the liberal capitalist system before fulfilling specific conditions, but this claim was factually unsubstantiated. Politically and economically, China has been integrating into multilateral systems centered on the U.N. and the WTO, respectively, not the liberal capitalist system that Americans consider themselves to be. China’s restoration to its rightful seat in the U.N. was conditional on a majority vote of the General Assembly, not on any other “specific conditions.” From the 1960s onward, there was growing support in the U.N. for China to reclaim its seat; in 1970, the General Assembly vote was already more than half in China’s favor, and was delayed for a year due only to the imposition by the United States of a two-thirds majority rule. In October 1971, just prior to Nixon’s visit to China, the proposal was approved by a two-thirds majority in the U.N. General Assembly. From that date forward, China was reinstated as a member of the United Nations and as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

Similarly, China’s 1986 application to resume its status as a contracting party of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and its accession to the World Trade Organization after the WTO was established in 1995 were negotiated according to the relevant provisions of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and later the WTO rules, and were not conducted pursuant to the United States’ own “specific conditions.” Although agreements were negotiated and reached on a case-by-case basis with all WTO members at the time, including with the United States, the GATT and WTO rules and regulations could not be subverted by the United States’ terms of negotiation, so no separate and illegitimate “specific conditions” could be imposed here, either. The commitments ultimately agreed on in China’s WTO accession protocol were also multilateral commitments, made strictly in keeping with the requirements of WTO regulations, and were not bilateral commitments made to the United States. Whether China’s accession to the multilateral mechanism has “failed” is measured by its compliance with the U.N. Charter and WTO regulations and is for the United Nations and the WTO’s General Council to determine. The United States is only one among the 194 U.N. member states and 164 WTO members, so its judgment is naturally not valid.

Multilateral Regimes Do Not Change the Sovereignty and Social Systems of Their Members

The sovereignty of its member states and noninterference in their internal affairs is the cornerstone of the U.N. Charter. In the 77 years since the U.N. was founded, no member state has changed its sociopolitical system as a consequence of membership. Similarly, the WTO is an organization that governs the rules of trade; it does not get involved in the sociopolitical systems of its members. In the postwar period, many countries have changed their sociopolitical systems due to color revolutions fomented by Western countries such as the United States, but not one has changed as a result of joining the United Nations or the WTO. Former President Bill Clinton tried to persuade Congress to approve a WTO agreement with China, on the grounds it would lead to the China’s gradual democratization, but this was merely rhetoric. There is clearly no rational basis today for turning back the clock.

China’s Power Is Not ‘Made in the USA’

Over the past 50 years, especially in the past 43 years of reform and opening up, China has continued to grow rapidly, both economically and in terms of Comprehensive National Power.** In 2021, nominal gross domestic product increased 312.76 times compared to 1978 (prior to reform and opening up), the equivalent of $17.7 trillion and reaching 77% of United States surpassing that of the combined 27 member nations of the EU and making China the second-largest economic power in the world. China’s CNP and international influence have also increased as never before, but none of this has been due primarily to the United States; rather, it has been the fruit of China’s own efforts, under the central government’s policy of reform and opening up. This policy and the marked acceleration in China’s economic growth began in the early 1980s with agricultural and rural reforms that greatly liberated agricultural productivity, with the United States playing little part in it.

Nor did the rise of China’s economy and import/export trade begin after it joined the WTO. The 1990s witnessed the fastest economic growth, the main driver of which has been domestic over the last 40 years or so. In 1980, 98.2% of China’s GDP growth came from domestic consumption and investment, with net exports contributing only 1.8%. The net export contribution rose to 10.1% in 2005 and to 20.9% in 2021, but domestic consumption and investment still account for around 80%.

Goods, investments, technology and services from the United States, as well as the market that the United States provides, have played their part in China’s economic take-off, and this should be acknowledged — but they have not been the main driver. Over the past decade, direct investment from the United States has accounted for about 2% of China’s total utilized foreign investment, far less than Japan, Korea and the EU. The United States’ share of China’s technology imports is around one-third, with Europe and Japan also being important sources.

US Also Benefits from China-US Economic and Trade Cooperation

The remarkable development of China-U.S. economic and trade cooperation over the past 40 years is one of history’s marvels. From the 1979 establishment of diplomatic relations and resumption of trade between China and the United States up to 2021, bilateral trade increased from $2.5 billion to $755 billion, a 307-fold cumulative increase in 42 years. Even the trade war and massive tech crackdown launched by the U.S. government against China since 2018 have not derailed the sheer scale and duration in growth, unparalleled in recent human history. What makes this staggering growth sustainable is that both China and the United States are reaping the benefits, and those benefits are relatively balanced.

From 2001 to 2021, 20 years after China’s accession to the WTO, U.S. exports worldwide grew from $731 billion to $1.75 trillion, a cumulative increase of 139.8%. U.S. exports to China increased from $19.4 billion to $151 billion over the same period, an increase of 678.9%. Not only is this equivalent to more than four times the growth rate of its global exports, but it is also much higher than the growth rate of U.S. imports from China (393.7%) over the same period. A related U.S. study reports that exports to China have supported 1.1 million employment opportunities in the United States. More than 70,000 U.S. companies invested in China have annual sales there of over $600 billion.

Investments in China by Silicon Valley tech giants General Electric, General Motors and Tesla have indeed played a non-negligible role in the development of China’s new generation of information technology, new energy vehicles, network aircraft and other industries. But the Chinese market has simultaneously played an irreplaceable role in their survival and development. Among the top 10 U.S. semiconductor companies, such as Intel, Qualcomm, Micron and Texas Instruments, 23% to 80% of their sales are realized in the Chinese market, without which their sales would not be large enough to support huge and sustained investments in research and development.

One of the fundamental reasons why the United States’ productivity growth has been ahead of Europe and Japan over the past decade is the continued and substantial investment in next-generation information and communication technologies. The Chinese market has therefore helped U.S. tech giants to grow and maintain their leadership position. In 2020, sales through Apple’s App Store reached $643 billion, of which the Chinese market accounted for approximately $300 billion, or 46.7%, far exceeding the turnover of the U.S. market ($175 billion). In 2021, Tesla reached global sales of 920,000 alternative fuel vehicles, half of which came from the company’s Shanghai megafactory. In 2009, General Motors declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, with only GM China turning over a profit to help stave off liquidation.

Cooperation between the United States and China is therefore a mutually beneficial, two-way street, with each country aiding the other’s economic development.

A curious argument likens the United States to a farmer, and China to a snake.*** It claims that the United States has nurtured China into being a powerhouse, and that China, in turn, has challenged the United States. This could not be further from the truth. The United States has never been a farmer, nor has China ever been a snake.

China Does Not Challenge Global Order or Pose a Threat to US

The United States cannot define global order according to its own hegemonic needs; that can only happen by way of the U.N. Charter, which China has abided by and upheld for the past 50 years, playing a constructive role within the United Nations system, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the WTO, the Group of 20 and the APEC mechanism. The United States considers China’s growth a challenge to its own status and security, but this position is devoid of both logic and fact.

China needs to continue to develop its economy together with all countries, and in order to guarantee a good life for its population of 1.4 billion. China’s population is four times that of the United States; if China’s GDP per capita were to reach just one-third that of the U.S., its total capacity would exceed that of the United States. But this poses no threat. In 2021, the United States already had a GDP per capita of $69,000, one-third of which is $23,000 — still not at the level of developed countries. Every country in the world has the right to build itself up to developed nation status through its own efforts. Why shouldn’t China be able to, and why should China be considered a threat to the United States? It defies all logic.

Draw on History, Promote Return to Path of Cooperation in China-US Relations on Basis of Peaceful Coexistence

From the Trump administration to the Biden administration, the United States has always regarded China as its No. 1 adversary, suppressing it on all fronts and engineering the current difficult situation in U.S.-China relations. The root cause of this is that the United States cannot tolerate being outpaced economically and technologically by China, whose ideology, value, and social system differ completely from its own. It cannot tolerate China’s international influence posing a threat to its hegemony. As a result, one of the United States’ basic strategies is to ignore Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity and crudely interfere in its domestic affairs. The U.S. has constantly crossed China’s red lines on a range of issues relating to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet, all of which runs precisely contrary to the founding spirit of the Shanghai Communiqué issued by China and the United States during Nixon’s visit to China 50 years ago. It amounts to heading into a blind alley.

It’s worth revisiting the following excerpt from the Shanghai Communiqué:

“There are essential differences between China and the United States in their social systems and foreign policies. However, the two sides agreed that countries, regardless of their social systems, should conduct their relations on the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, non-aggression against other states, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. International disputes should be settled on this basis, without resorting to the use or threat of force. The United States and the People’s Republic of China are prepared to apply these principles to their mutual relations.”

If China-U.S. relations have deteriorated to such an extent today, is it not precisely because the United States has departed from these principles? Conversely, were we to return to the spirit of the Shanghai Communiqué, not only would relations between China and the United States be easy to manage, but the two could make a significant contribution to world peace and be of great benefit to the peoples of both countries, as the facts of the past 50 years have repeatedly proved.

History is our best teacher. The hope is that the Chinese and U.S. governments and peoples will work together to encapsulate the history of China-U.S. relations over the past 50 years in a way that is objective and fair; and that they will continue to safeguard the basic norms, as set forth in the Shanghai Communiqué, for handling relations between the two countries, so as to get back on the track of cooperation based on peaceful coexistence, for the benefit of the world and for the benefit of both peoples.

The author is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for China and Globalization think tank, and a former Economic and Commercial Counselor at China’s Consulates General in San Francisco and New York.

*Translator’s note: “New China” is a term for the People’s Republic of China, established in 1949.

**Editor’s note: Comprehensive National Power is a measure of the general power of a nation-state and important to the contemporary political thinking in the People’s Republic of China.

***Translator’s note: This is a reference to Aesop’s fable, “The Farmer & the Snake,” warning readers “not to take pity on a scoundrel.”

About this publication

About Matthew McKay 103 Articles
A British citizen and raised in Switzerland, Matthew received his honors degree in Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford and, after 15 years in the private sector, went on to earn an MA in Chinese Languages, Literature and Civilization from the University of Geneva. Matthew is an associate of the Chartered Institute of Linguists and of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting in the UK, and of the Association of Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters in Switzerland. Apart from Switzerland, he has lived in the UK, Taiwan and Germany, and his translation specialties include arts & culture, international cooperation, and neurodivergence.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply