WASHINGTON: For half a century, Richard Nixon’s opening to communist China has been viewed by many Americans as a diplomatic masterstroke, with successive presidents of both parties following his course.
US hawks have now revived an alternative view – that normalisation was a mistake that, in the view of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, set the stage for an aggressive China and soaring tensions between Washington and Beijing.
It all began in 1971 with secret trips to Beijing by Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security advisor.
Nixon stunned the world when he announced his own 1972 visit to China to see supremo Mao Zedong. This time the trip was anything but quiet, with the pageantry broadcast back home to US television viewers in an election year.
Nixon had built his career as a staunch hardliner on communism, leading to what became a US political axiom that only Nixon could establish relations with communist China.
ENDING ‘OLD PARADIGM’
Pompeo last week delivered a rebuke – all the more stinging as he spoke at the Nixon library and museum in southern California where the Republican president is buried.
“President Nixon once said he feared he had created a Frankenstein by opening the world to the CCP, and here we are,” Pompeo said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
“The old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done,” Pompeo said.
Calling for a “new alliance of democracies,” Pompeo said that Chinese President Xi Jinping “is not destined to tyrannise inside and outside of China forever, unless we allow it.”
Stapleton Roy, who took part in the secret negotiations in the 1970s before becoming US ambassador to China two decades later, said that Pompeo’s “old paradigm” was never the basis for US policymakers.
“It is historically inaccurate to say that the US policy of engagement with China was based on a naive expectation that China was bound to liberalise politically,” said Roy, who later headed the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.
According to Roy, Nixon and Kissinger were “totally pragmatic” in their objectives with China.
“The original purpose of the Nixon/Kissinger breakthrough to China in 1971/72 was to strengthen our position in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and secondarily to get China’s assistance in winding up the Vietnam War,” he said.
“The main purpose was decisively achieved. The second was not.”
Even with Nixon’s anti-communist bona fides, many US conservatives as well as some liberals were livid at the prospect of abandoning ally Taiwan, where the mainland’s nationalists had fled upon defeat in 1949.
It was not until 1979 that Jimmy Carter switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, with Congress requiring that the United States still provide for the defence of Taiwan, which has since transformed into a vibrant democracy.
ECONOMIC INTERESTS PREVAIL, THEN FRIGHTEN
Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, called Pompeo’s account a “very crude representation” of how normalisation took place.
“Diplomats never believed that China was going to become Jeffersonian democracy,” she said.
“While there was optimism for progress, there was not hope that the simple fact of American engagement was going to radically change the nature of the Chinese party’s state,” she said.
Any hopes that rose with Deng Xiaoping’s opening of the Chinese economy were shattered in 1989 with troops’ repression of massive protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 after vowing to get tough on what his campaign called the “butchers of Beijing” – but he eventually ended the link between China’s trading privileges and human rights.
“Economic interest did ultimately prevail,” Rapp-Hooper said.
“There was a sense of China sort of inexorably rising in a way that had positive benefits for the United States.”
With China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, the billion-plus nation witnessed soaring growth and its manufacturing-driven economy became intertwined with the world.
In the words of Pompeo, Western policies “resurrected China’s failing economy, only to see Beijing bite the international hands that were feeding it.”
A turning point came with the 2008 financial crisis when Chinese leaders came to believe “that the US democratic liberal model was faltering, and that China increasingly had an opportunity to assert itself on the global stage as a great power,” Rapp-Hooper said.
Xi has amassed power since becoming president in 2013, suppressing dissent and clamping down both on the Uighur minority and in semi-autonomous Hong Kong.
Relations keep deteriorating with the United States, with President Donald Trump’s administration, flexing muscle ahead of elections, slapping sanctions on Chinese officials, arresting Chinese nationals on espionage charges and closing down Beijing’s consulate in Houston.
“China has taken on the characteristics of other rising powers by becoming more arrogant and demanding in advancing its interests,” Roy said. “That is a problem that good diplomacy can deal with, without threats and bluster.”