On this day, American President Richard Nixon arrived in the People’s Republic of China with the main objective of improving the cold and distant relationship the United States had with this communist country. Prior to Nixon’s visit, other U. S. residents’ attempts at reconciliation had either failed or had very minimal impact on trying to influence international policies at the time, most particularly China’s (Goh 2005, p. 475).
The ‘opening of China’ marked a revolution in the United States’ foreign policy. After Nixon’s weeklong visit, rapprochement was achieved and the re-establishment of amiable relations between the United States and China were attained. It signalled a major shift in foreign policies in the two countries and represented a fundamental political change in the balance of power in the world during that time: a change that no one ever anticipated (Warner 2006, pp. 63-764).
Questions are often asked regarding the real motives behind the United States’ attempt to mend relations with China. What would the U. S. gain by improving relations with this communist country? What did Nixon and Kissinger try to achieve by ‘opening China’? In this research essay, I will try to analyse these questions and attempt to answer them. I, in order, however, to effectively come to a conclusion about these answers, should have at least a brief understanding about the events that led up to this major political landmark.
The situation of world politics at that time was very complicated, and inter-related events and happenings are impossible to separate from the questions at hand. Therefore, a brief explanation will be given of the Cold War and the hostile relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Cuban Missile Crisis that led to talks of Detente, the Sino-Soviet split, and consequently how the United States used that riff between China and the Soviet Union to speed up the process of Detente and to help benefit its national interests and further cement its foreign policies.
This will then lead to the main point of this research essay, which is about the aims that President Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, were trying to achieve by ‘opening China’. From February 1945 to August 1991, the intensifying hostile relations between two opposing superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, dominated international relations. This world event was called the Cold War, and it involved political and economic competition, proxy wars, aid deployment to vulnerable states in order to gain alliances, and military tension.
The Cold War came about due to the similar objective of these two superpowers vying for influence and political and economic dominance in the world (Greenstein 1998, p. 1-2). After World War II, the already weak alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union began to dissolve. Since tensions between these two powers were already evident before the 2nd World War and were only set aside for a short amount of time for the more important matter of working together to try and eliminate a mutual enemy, Nazi Germany, these tensions were likely to be brought back up to the surface once that war ended.
The height of these tensions and conflicts can be blamed for the start of the Cold War. One side were the Soviet Union and its communist led nations, and the other side were the United States and the democratic nations it led. There was no direct arms confrontation. However, they did clash on different fronts and by all other means such as propaganda, economic war, and diplomatic haggling. They indirectly fought each other by using client states that fought for their beliefs on their behalf. One example of this is the war in Vietnam.
South Vietnam was anti-communist and was assisted by America during the war while North Vietnam was pro-Communist and fought the south (and the Americans) using weapons from communist Russia and communist China (Llewelyn 2010, p. 305). Another example is Afghanistan. The Americans gave support and supplies to the rebel Afghans after the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 (Bromley 2007, pp. 98-99). However, they never physically involved themselves thus avoiding a clash with the Soviet Union. The conflict between these two superpowers continued to escalate until it eventually reached a climax.
This peak was reached during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It was during this event that the United States and the Soviet Union came closest to waging nuclear war against each other. On October 14, pictures of a Soviet nuclear missiles base under construction in the small town of Santa Cruz de los Pinos were taken by an American U-2 photoreconnaissance plane (Burstrom et al. 2009, p. 296). The American President was notified of this discovery, and different approaches were analysed to figure out what action the United States should ake.
This conflict was very critical for the United States because for the first time ever, the Soviet Union was stationed close enough to the continental U. S. to initiate a missile attack and create destruction as opposed to when they were situated on the other side of the globe. An actual military threat to the United States was realised during this event, and the alleged missile gap already proposed by President Kennedy before this event further fuelled the United State’s paranoia of a Soviet Union assault.
It was around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis that talks of Detente began intensifying. The fact that nuclear war was a genuine concern for both the Soviet Union and the United States made each of these factions consider other alternative and nonviolent ways of dealing with the tension. There were many other reasons why Detente started being pursued by both factions. Foreign policy of Detente for socialist countries such as the Soviet Union was already evident at this time and was then further strengthened when Khrushchev came into power.
This had a major influence on the western countries. Thus, a major shift from an aggressive stance to peaceful co-existence and tolerance were starting to be realised by both the Soviet Union and the United States. The change in the balance of power between the East and the West was also another reason that favoured the policy of Detente. Before the 2nd World War, the United States was exceptionally strong in regards to its economic growth and military power. However, that started deteriorating. The Soviet Union started bridging this gap by the start of the Cold War.
Also, as mentioned above, the Cuban Crisis became the peak of the Cold War and one of the deciding factors for pursuing detente. The Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a nuclear stalemate, and the only options would either be to cause extensive damages to each other if nuclear war occurred or begin peaceful talks with each other in order to avoid that event (Patsusiak 1977, p. 186-189). During the negotiations for Detente, the United States was looking for ways to accelerate the process and to hasten the Soviet Union’s response.
This is where the People’s Republic of China entered the world stage. China during this time was a rising power, and its continual growth gave it reason to start wanting to be considered another superpower in the world, particularly among the newly independent countries of the Third World. However, its isolation made it difficult to enforce its full capacity of influence in the world. Furthermore, because of China’s goal of becoming another superpower, its relationship with the Soviet Union worsened.
As their ideologies started diverging and their foreign policy objectives began conflicting one other, the Sino-Soviet split eventually occurred (Keith 2010, p. 619). This event was marked by the withdrawal of Soviet specialists from China in 1960, which was when the relations between China and the Soviet Union reached its lowest point (Klochko 1972, p. 556). President Nixon and Henry Kissinger saw these turn of events as an opportunity to re-establish cordial relations with China.
They attempted to use these two factions against each other, albeit in an underlying manner, in order to achieve the United States’ own foreign policy goals. The ‘opening of China’ began when Henry Kissinger made a secret trip to China on July 1971 as a result of Chairman Mao Zedong’s and Zhou’s desire to receive a visit from President Nixon. This paved the way for the United States and China to discuss previous issues that have divided these two factions over the years. The main aim of the United States’ opening of China was to hasten the Soviet Union’s responsiveness to the Detente process with the U. S.
The Soviet Union saw the United States’ relations with China as a threat to their superpower status, and therefore began to speed up talks of bettering their relations with the United States. As seen from Moscow, the inevitable alliance between the United States and China will endanger the Soviet Union. It didn’t want an anti-Soviet alliance to form between the United States and China. The fact that Third World countries previously supported by the Soviet Union began to gain independence meant that its influence started to weaken, and China’s influence on these countries started to strengthen due to its growing superpower state.
Although its strength matched the United States, the USSR wouldn’t be able to cope with both the United States and China if an assault ever occurred. Although the main aim of the United States’ negotiations with China was for the Detente process with the Soviet Union, we can also identify some other motives for this. Another objective that President Nixon and Kissinger had was trying to reduce the support of the USSR and China for North Vietnam in the Vietnam War. Less support will most likely force North Vietnam to negotiate an end to the war (Hendrickson 1998, p. 12).
This would then reduce the commitments of the United States in Asia. Another objective that was evident was to further split the communist camp. As mentioned above, one of the main factors for the Sino-Soviet split was the diverging ideology of the Soviet Union and China. If the United States managed to ally with China, tensions will continue to rise between the two communist camps and in turn slow down or even halt the spread of communism in the world. President Nixon and Kissinger were very strategic in their plans to open China to the world.
This one factor had the potential to influence a number of other different factors that would thoroughly benefit the United States. President Nixon applied triangular politics pitting the Soviet Union and China against each other to benefit the United States’ own national interests. In his talks with Chairman Mao, President Nixon played the ‘Soviet card’, which involved using the Soviet Union as a threat to the Chinese in order for Mao to consider negotiations with the United States (Goh 2005, p. 485).
In conclusion, the opening of China was the best political approach the United States employed in order to fulfil its foreign policy objectives. President Nixon, with the help of Henry Kissinger, was very strategic in utilizing the isolation of China and its hostile relations with the Soviet Union in order to maximize the benefits it would have for the United States. The bottom line is that President Nixon and Kissinger tried to achieve a global restructuring of power within the world at the time by means of tactically using the other two powers’ weaknesses and paranoia against each other.
The opening of China will forever go down in history as one of the most risky yet thoroughly beneficial political achievement ever conducted by a U. S. president.