After a long period of mutual hostility, the United States and China met to negotiate and move toward a “normalized” relationship. However, when Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong met during the US president’s week-long visit to China, the televised images shown around the world concealed the deep underlying tensions on both sides.
Confusions and Disagreements
On the Chinese side, well hidden from public view, there was considerable confusion and perplexity over Chairman Mao’s sudden change of heart toward the Americans. After more than two decades of uniformly hostile Chinese policies and propaganda toward the evil “US imperialists”, the idea of suddenly turning on a dime to make peace with the Americans raised numerous eyebrows.
On the American side as well, there were serious policy disagreements. Behind the scenes, a bitter turf war had broken out between Henry Kissinger’s National Security Council staff, who had taken the lead in orchestrating the US-China détente, and top officials in the Department of State, including Secretary of State William Rogers, who had been virtually frozen out of the negotiating loop from the outset.
Learn more about Mao’s Socialist vision.
Drafting of the “Shanghai communiqué”
From the outset, the process of drafting the famous “Shanghai communiqué”—cornerstone of the Nixon visit—was beset by deep disagreements within the American delegation.
Kissinger’s National Security Council staffer members, who dominated the drafting process, had decided to avoid antagonizing the Chinese by deleting all the references to existing US diplomatic and military commitments to Taiwan.
When Rogers learned of this, he was furious and objected strenuously. He had also wanted to write into the final communiqué a Chinese guarantee that they would use only peaceful means to reunify Taiwan—an idea that Kissinger’s NSC staff had opposed as being unnecessarily provocative and divisive.
When such language was proposed by Rogers at the eleventh hour, the Chinese side refused categorically. The Sino-American rapprochement was now in deep trouble.
Intervention by Zhou Enlai
With the entire, carefully orchestrated negotiation hanging in the balance, Zhou Enlai personally intervened to try to smooth out the situation.
Paying an impromptu midnight visit to Rogers’s hotel room just hours before the scheduled release of the Shanghai communiqué, Zhou proposed to the startled secretary of state a makeshift solution: Why not simply eliminate from the final draft of the communiqué all references to specific American treaty commitments, thereby drawing attention away from the unique exclusion of Taiwan?
At 1:40 am, Richard Nixon reluctantly agreed to Zhou Enlai’s proposal.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Diplomatic Obfuscation and Ambiguity
As released to the public on February 27, 1972, the Shanghai communiqué was a masterpiece of diplomatic obfuscation and ambiguity. The document began with the two sides presenting separate, parallel statements summarizing their respective foreign policy principles and priorities.
On their part, the Chinese affirmed their opposition to “superpower bullying” and proclaimed that around the world, “nations want liberation and people want revolution”. They reiterated Beijing’s perennial claim that Taiwan is “a province of China which has long been returned to the Motherland”; and that “The liberation of Taiwan is China’s internal affair in which no other country has the right to interfere.” Finally, the Chinese restated their longstanding opposition involving any “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan” solution to the impasse over Taiwan’s status.
For its side, the Americans affirmed its commitment to resisting military aggression and upholding freedom and self-determination for all peoples. Then the Americans stated their position on Taiwan. It was breathtaking both in its simplicity and in its diplomatic sleight of hand: “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese, on either side of the Taiwan Strait, maintain there is but one China, and Taiwan is a part of China. The United States does not challenge that position.”
It went on to state that the U.S. Government “…reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves. With this prospect in mind, it affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan. In the meantime, it will progressively reduce its forces and military installations in Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes.”
Learn more about the tactical conflict over Taiwan.
Interpretation and Impact of the Shanghai communiqué
On the face of it, this may have seemed like a fairly straightforward American concession to the PRC’s bedrock “one China” principle, but rather than accepting China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan, the United States simply acknowledged that both Beijing and Taipei claimed to speak for all Chinese. By not challenging that view, the US merely affirmed, without taking sides, that there were conflicting claims as to which of the two governments legitimately spoke for the Chinese people.
Nixon’s embrace of a watered-down version of the “one China” principle, together with his declaration of intent to work toward an eventual, complete withdrawal of US forces and installations from Taiwan, gave Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai the necessary political capital to move ahead with the process of “normalization”. It also gave them a positive incentive to help bring about a reduction of tensions in East Asia.
In retrospect, the Shanghai communiqué was all things to all people. For Nixon and Kissinger, as well as for Mao and Zhou Enlai, the communiqué represented a major diplomatic step forward. For Lin Biao and Jiang Qing, on the other hand, and for America’s right-wing anti-Communists as well, it was a bitter blow. And finally, for tiny Taiwan, it was a devastating betrayal of trust.
Common Questions about Nixon’s China Visit and the Shanghai Communiqué
The experts were furious over what they regarded as Henry Kissinger’s ego-driven penchant for making indiscreet revelations to the Chinese and for playing fast and loose with American’s treaty commitments to Taiwan.
The Shanghai communiqué was a document that began with the US and China presenting separate, parallel statements summarizing their respective foreign policy principles and priorities.
For Nixon and Kissinger, as well as for Mao and Zhou Enlai, the communiqué represented a major diplomatic step forward. On the other hand, for Lin Biao and Jiang Qing, and for America’s right-wing anti-Communists, it was a bitter blow. And finally, for tiny Taiwan, it was a devastating betrayal of trust.