The visit of U.S. president Richard Nixon to China in February 1972 marked a turning point in U.S.-China relations. It gave maneuvering space to the United States in the strategic contest with the USSR.
Their confrontation in the Korean War began two decades of confrontation at a number of strategic points, especially in the Taiwan Straits and in Vietnam, where the United States was embroiled in a ground war supporting South Vietnam and while China provided backing to its then-ally North Vietnam.
The turn in U.S.-China ties from confrontation to rapproachment was a result of a host of factors, but mainly because both nations were concerned about the dangers posed by the Soviet Union. The U.S. Senate began a review of U.S.-China policy. China too was moving from Maoist ideological puritanism toward greater pragmatism, spurred on by the Sino-Soviet border dispute. The Soviet Union’s intervention in Czechoslovakia in August 1968 led to its pronouncement of the Brezhnev Doctrine that as the leading country of the Marxist bloc, the USSR had the right to determine the correct interpretation of Marxism and to intervene in socialist countries that deviated from the correct line. Since China under Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) had developed its own version of Marxism, it feared that it could become a Soviet target for its deviations. Hence came China’s quest to end its diplomatic isolation with a rapprochement with the United States.
The Nixon administration saw an opening with China as a graceful way out of the Vietnam War. It therefore needed China’s leverage to facilitate a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. The opening came when U.S. and Chinese table tennis teams met in an international table tennis tournament, with the result that the U.S. team was invited to China. President Nixon took steps to expedite visas for visitors from China to the United States, relaxed currency controls, and lifted restrictions on U.S. oil companies to provide fuel to ships and aircraft traveling to and from China.
Since Washington and Beijing had no diplomatic ties, Pakistan acted as intermediary. In July 1971 National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger secretly visited China via Pakistan “to seek normalization of relations” and an exchange of views of common interest.
The announcement heralded an atmosphere of warmth and cordiality in U.S.-China relations, which had been frozen for two decades. Meanwhile the United States had also departed from its hard-line stand that blocked the People’s Republic of China from seating its legitimate representation in the United Nations. In August 1971 the United States dropped its opposition, paving the way for the seating of China in the United Nations.
In his report to the U.S. Congress on February 9, 1971, Nixon stressed the importance of his forthcoming visit to China as the starting point for changing “the post-war landscape.” While a quick resolution of outstanding issues were not possible, it signaled the end of “a sterile and barren interlude” in ties.
Nixon arrived in Beijing on February 21, 1972, accompanied by Secretary of State William P. Rogers and Henry Kissinger. The visit generated global interest as a watershed in redefining the balance of power of the world. Transcending previous differences, Nixon emphasized “common interests” in a new era. The two countries signed the Shanghai Communiqué, wherein China stated its stand on Cambodia, Korea, and Vietnam. The United States envisaged “the ultimate withdrawal” of all forces from Indochina; significantly, both countries declared opposition to hegemony in the Asia-Pacific area, implying that both had an interest in limiting Soviet power in the region. The Taiwan issue evaded a solution, but U.S.-China ties had moved from deep hostility to détente, facilitating major changes in the global balance of power.