After more than two decades of mutual hostility, marked by near-constant recriminations and periodic military confrontations, the United States and China were agreeing to move toward a “normalized” relationship. Both Nixon and Mao were looking to change the strategic equation between the two countries, and the delicate dance of détente was about to begin.
Nixon’s Views on China
More than a year before Richard Nixon was elected president, he had written an important article in the October 1967 issue of Foreign Affairs. He noted:
The threat from China is clear and present. The world cannot be safe until China changes. [China must be persuaded] that its own national interest requires a turning away from foreign adventuring and a turning inward toward solution of its own domestic problems. Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hatreds, and threaten its neighbors.
For a veteran Red-baiting anti-Communist like Nixon, this was a remarkable statement. More importantly, it provided a preview of a changing American approach toward China.
Mao’s Changing Approach
At the same time, China was still deeply involved in the Cultural Revolution, and Mao was not about to respond to Nixon’s overture.
However, as remarkable as Nixon’s shift in attitude was, no less remarkable was Mao’s own subsequent decision, made in the wake of the Sino-Soviet border clashes of March 1969, to reconsider the possibility of a dialogue with the United States by opening long-blocked channels of communication with Washington.
Learn more about the hostility between Beijing and Moscow.
The First Move and the Initial Contact
Nixon and Henry Kissinger made the first move. Their chosen venue was Warsaw. But the approach had to be made very discreetly, so as not to arouse Soviet suspicions.
As it turned out, however, the initial contact was anything but discreet.
In early December of 1969, the US ambassador to Poland, Walter Stoessel, had a chance encounter with his Chinese counterpart at an international fashion show in Warsaw. Stoessel was under standing instructions to deliver a verbal message to the Chinese envoy at the earliest possible opportunity. However, Chinese diplomats throughout the Soviet block were under their own standing orders to avoid the Americans at all costs. The result was a comedic encounter.
After spotting the Chinese diplomat exiting from the fashion show, Ambassador Stoessel pursued the Chinese envoy down the frozen steps of Warsaw’s Palace of Culture, trying to pass on the message from Washington. But the nervous Chinese diplomat took evasive maneuvers, hastening to get away. Finally, Stoessel caught up with him and delivered his message, somewhat breathlessly: “President Nixon…would like to have serious, concrete talks with the Chinese.”
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Response from China
A week or so later, Stoessel got a note from his Chinese counterpart notifying him that two American citizens who had been arrested when their boat strayed into Chinese territorial waters earlier in the year were now being released.
This was followed shortly by an invitation for Ambassador Stoessel to visit the Chinese embassy in Warsaw.
It was mid-December 1969, and a new Sino-American dialogue was about to begin.
A Foreign Policy Review
The decision to respond to the American initiative was taken at the highest levels by Mao and Zhou Enlai.
A comprehensive foreign policy review had been undertaken in China. The final report was authored by four senior PLA marshals. The officers argued that the Soviet Union was planning to launch a war of aggression against China, and that the US imperialists “do not want to see the Soviets achieve victory” in such a war, since that would leave the Russians with military and geopolitical dominance over the entire Eurasian land mass.
They further noted that Nixon seemed to be quite serious about improving relations with China, and they concluded that China’s strategic advantage lay in “making use of tensions between the Americans and the Soviets…to strengthen our position.”
Learn more about Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Opposition to Mao and Nixon
Direct contact was, however, not easy to initiate. Neither Nixon nor Mao had a clear, free path to détente.
In China, both Lin Biao and Jiang Qing were strongly opposed to any reconciliation with the United States. In their view, the Americans and the Russians were equally imperialistic and equally dangerous. Moreover, they believed that the two superpowers were actively colluding to keep China “in its place”.
On the American side, there was strong resistance to rapprochement as well. Conservative members of the pro-Chiang K’ai-shek “China Lobby” intensely supported the government of “Free China” on Taiwan.
Because of intense political resistance on both sides, resumption of the Warsaw talks was not easily accomplished. Twice, American and Chinese diplomats quietly agreed to resume the talks, and twice Chinese hard-liners interevened to prevent them from reaching fruition.
On the first occasion, early in 1970, hard-liners in Central Cultural Revolution Group used the defection of a Chinese diplomat in far-off Holland as a pretext for launching a vicious propaganda attack accusing the United States of tampering with its diplomats abroad.
A few months later, in May of 1970, Chinese radicals used a similar pretext to once again torpedo resumption of the Warsaw talks. This time they accused the Americans of conspiring with a group of right-wing Cambodian generals to overthrow the neutralist government of Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Despite Washington’s adamant denial, this particular charge turned out to contain a significant grain of truth.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, Kissinger was growing visibly frustrated with the disruptive tactics of China’s leftists. But Nixon remained optimistic, continuing to express hope for a breakthrough.
Common Questions about Beginning of the Change in Equations between the US and China
Mao reconsidered the possibility of a dialogue with the United States in the wake of the Sino-Soviet border clashes of March 1969.
The report’s authors argued that the Soviet Union was planning to launch a war of aggression against China, and that the US imperialists did not want to see the Soviets achieve victory. They further noted that Nixon seemed to be quite serious about improving relations with China.
Lin Biao and Jiang Qing opposed reconciliation with the United States, as they thought that the Americans and the Russians were equally imperialistic and equally dangerous.