38 years ago this week, President Nixon stunned the world when he announced that he would visit Communist China.
Today, President Obama was supposed to meet President Hu Jintao in Italy, but that meeting was canceled at the last moment – but no one is worried about the consequences of a missed summit on Sino-US relations. The announcement on July 15, 1971 that put the US and China on the road to normalized relations has achieved just that – normalcy and familiarity. We have come so far in the US-China relationship that regular interaction at the highest levels has become commonplace. Only a few months into the new administration, Presidents Obama and Hu have met in person, spoken on the phone several times and are already planning visits to each other’s capitols later this fall. President Nixon’s legacy is deeply embedded in this vitally important bilateral relationship which has moved far beyond a strategic gambit to hedge against the Soviet Union. The US now calls on China to play a conscientious role in global affairs, seeking collaboration on the most challenging issues of today, including climate change, global economic development and terrorism.
However, some things seem to have changed little 38 years. Privately, President Nixon hoped that his meeting with China would convince Beijing to pressure North Vietnam to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the conflict that was then raging in Indochina. Shortly after the announcement, the North Vietnamese declared that they viewed Nixon’s visit to China as a divisive attempt by the United States to undermine Hanoi’s relationship with Beijing. Fast forward to today and undoubtedly, one of the talking points at the planned Obama-Hu meeting was North Korea. An amusing juxtaposition to the nuclear armed Kim Jong-il of today was Henry Kissinger’s negotiating strategy with North Vietnam, claiming that Nixon was a madman, a ferocious anti-communist liable to lose his temper and “push the button” in a bout of anger.
The July 26, 1971 edition of Time Magazine featuring a cartoon Nixon and Kissinger on a boat to China hangs on the wall of my office. The caption reads, “To Peking for Peace.”