Sino-US ties forged on tolerance, realpolitik


The normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China is usually, and rightfully, regarded as one of the most significant events in contemporary history. However, it was not achieved overnight. It was a process that took 10 years to complete, from the first informal gestures and overtures in 1969 up to the joint communique signed by both sides in 1979, which announced the formal establishment of their diplomatic relations, and the US recognition of “the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China”.

At the beginning of the negotiations, both parties were concurrently constrained by difficult geopolitical situations. The US was mired in the Vietnam War. Nearly 50,000 US soldiers had been killed by the end of 1969 with the result that by that time virtually nobody in the US wanted to pursue the fight.

Moreover, domestic turmoil was on the rise, with anti-war protests also articulating a series of profound domestic problems ranging from racial discrimination and class and gender biases to ideological, generational, and cultural issues. So, in the words of one of the most salient US negotiators with China, national security advisor and later secretary of state Henry Kissinger, the Nixon administration aimed at “a strategic withdrawal from Indochina”. As for China, in March 1969, the split in the Sino-Soviet Union relationship came to open conflict.

In this context, Richard Nixon visited China for the first time, in February, 1972. The result of this visit and of the three previous years of negotiations was the Shanghai Joint Communique, a truly outstanding piece of diplomacy prudently reflecting the views of both the US and China.

The document committed the US to the one-China policy.

In order to achieve the normalization of ties, far-sighted leadership was required. And realpolitik and geopolitical considerations prevailed over high-sounding words. This required tolerance and mutual recognition of the other side’s national interests. As the 1972 Shanghai Communique stated, “the two sides agreed that countries, regardless of their social systems, should conduct their relations on the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, non-aggression against other states, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence”.

The above-quoted statement is worth recalling in the contemporary context, when US rhetoric aimed at imposing a particular political system on China, interference in its internal affairs and intervention in its sovereignty claims, and hegemony-seeking in the Pacific is on the rise.

In this current scenario, two trends are possible. The first one is that economic interdependence prevails over bloc formations, thereby allowing other national states to develop their foreign policies in an open environment and to pursue their own national interests, which means not only a peaceful world order might arise, but also the foundations for some kind of international community might be laid. This is the intention of the Chinese leadership, but also that of some US scholars and politicians working outside current US policymaking.

If, on the contrary, the belligerent tone and deeds of US diplomacy lead to economic decoupling and the consolidation of competing blocs, smaller countries will have to choose, and enter into some kind of dependency. All of this was already foreseen by the US negotiators during the 1970s, and they sought to avoid it. Let us hope that the current Western political leaders can learn some historical lessons from their predecessors.

If they do, cooperation with China will be resumed by the US — not just economic cooperation, but also cooperation to improve the functioning of the governance system. Reform of existing multilateral organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank will have to be put on the agenda, allowing for a participation structure more coherent with the current shape of the international economy.

Finally, there are also common challenges that face humanity as a whole, which urgently need to be addressed: in the short run, cooperation on the global level is necessary to bring an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. And climate change is an existential challenge for all mankind. Progress or stalemate in these areas will be crucial to decide which of the above-presented trends will prevail.

The author is a professor in modern Asian history and Chinese history at the National University of Cordoba, Argentina. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.