By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles
Beginning in 1969, there was a remarkable thaw in Sino-American relations. Both Nixon and Mao were reconsidering the possibility of a dialogue by opening long-blocked channels of communication and changing the strategic equation between the two countries. However, direct contact was not easy to initiate, as both Nixon and Mao met with strong political resistance.
Message from President Nixon
In October of 1970, President Nixon delivered a private message to the visiting foreign secretary of Pakistan, Sultan Muhammed Khan. Pakistan enjoyed close diplomatic relations with both the United States and the PRC. The message said: “It is essential we open negotiations with China. We will send a high-level emissary to Beijing.”
As an indication of his good faith, Nixon promised that the United States would refrain from entering into any anti-Chinese alliances with the Soviet Union. After waiting for several months for a response from the Chinese side, the breakthrough came unexpectedly the following spring.
In April 1971, Zhou Enlai sent a message to an American table tennis team, which was then participating in the World Championships in Nagoya, Japan. The American team was invited to stop over in Beijing for “friendly competition” with the Chinese national team at the conclusion of the tournament in Japan. The message had been personally approved by Mao Zedong.
An important connection was established as the American and Chinese players fraternized cordially both during and after their matches. At the closing banquet for the two ping-pong teams, Zhou Enlai personally greeted the visiting Americans. And that same night, President Nixon lifted sanctions on non-strategic trade between the United States and China.
This was followed shortly by an affirmative Chinese response to Nixon’s offer to send a “high-level emissary” to Beijing.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Kissinger’s Secret Visit to Beijing
In early July of 1971, Henry Kissinger was on a routine tour of Asia. Midway through the trip, while in Pakistan, he was reported to be suffering from heat exhaustion.
When he was taken to an isolated mountain resort, ostensibly for a few days of rest and relaxation, an elaborate ruse was set in motion. A look-alike took Kissinger’s place at the mountain resort, while the real Kissinger was whisked off under cover of darkness, in total secrecy, to a nearby airfield, where a Pakistani jetliner was parked on the tarmac.
Kissinger and a team of his hand-picked aides touched down in Beijing six hours later.
Kissinger’s Meetings with Zhou Enlai
In Kissinger’s meetings with Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier insisted that the Taiwan question must be the centerpiece of any U.S.-China negotiations. China would not, Zhou said, accept any American policy that recognized “two Chinas” or “one China and one Taiwan.” And the US must agree to withdraw its armed forces from Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait.
Surprisingly, Kissinger met the Chinese premier more than half-way. Stating that the US government was not wedded to long-term support of an independent regime on Taiwan, Kissinger offered to draw down US military forces in the Taiwan Strait.
In their subsequent conversations, Kissinger sought to play on Chinese fears of the Soviet Union, and he promised the Chinese premier that President Nixon would never collude with Moscow against Beijing. Going further still, he agreed to report to the Chinese any future Soviet efforts to draw Washington into agreements that might affect China’s security interests.
Kissinger further intimated that the US government was prepared to see the PRC occupy China’s seat in the United Nations, even if it meant Taiwan’s expulsion. Even more surprising, Kissinger revealed to Zhou Enlai that President Nixon privately intended to have US military forces leave Vietnam at the earliest possible opportunity.
Learn more about the complex and contradictory figure of Mao.
Outcome of Preliminary Negotiations
Most outside observers credit Zhou Enlai with gaining the upper hand in these preliminary negotiations. The Chinese premier conceded very little while he gained a great deal in return.
When Kissinger’s secret mission ended on July 11, the two sides released a joint statement informing the world that Zhou Enlai had invited Nixon to visit China, that Nixon had accepted, and that the leaders of the two countries would “seek a normalization of relations” and an exchange of views “on questions of concern to the two sides”.
True to Kissinger’s word, when the annual resolution to seat the PRC in the United Nations was introduced in October 1971, the United States did not pressure its allies into opposing the motion as it had done annually for the previous 20 years.
Sensing now that the political winds had changed dramatically, the Taiwanese delegation withdrew from the General Assembly before a vote could even be taken on a motion to expel them. With the Taiwanese departure, Beijing now became the sole Chinese representative in the United Nations and its member agencies gaining veto power as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Learn more about the Nixon presidency.
President Nixon’s Visit to China
Despite attempted disruptions, President Nixon’s week-long visit to China in last week of February 1972 went off smoothly without a hitch. Early in the president’s trip, Nixon and Kissinger were granted an audience with a visibly frail and infirm Mao Zedong.
In the course of their conversation, Nixon approvingly quoted Mao’s poetry, while Mao affirmed that it was necessary for the Chinese to speak to “rightists” like Nixon to solve major international problems.
But the smoothness of the televised images shown around the world concealed deep underlying tensions on both sides.
Common Questions about How Kissinger’s Secret Trip to China Paved Way for Sino-US Relations
Zhou Enlai insisted that the Taiwan question must be the centerpiece of any US-China negotiations. China would not, Zhou said, accept any American policy that recognized “two Chinas” or “one China and one Taiwan”. He also said that the US must agree to withdraw its armed forces from Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait.
When the annual resolution to seat the PRC in the United Nations was introduced in October 1971, the United States did not pressure its allies into opposing the motion as it had done annually for the previous 20 years.
President Nixon made a week-long visit to China in last week of February 1972.