President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger with Premier Chou En-lai meeting on the Shanghai Communiqué.

The Joint Communiqué of the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China, more commonly referred to as the Shanghai Communiqué, is one of the most important diplomatic achievements of the 20th century, but its creation did not come quickly or smoothly. Drafting this groundbreaking document was just as delicate a process as securing the Presidential invitation to China, and became the critical component on which the journey would be judged. If the two parties failed to come together, as Chairman Mao pointed out to President Nixon, people would ask, “Why are we not able to succeed the first time? The only reason would be that we have taken the wrong road.”

This simple question, and its inevitable conclusion, had the potential to derail the dialogue of hope for a better and more open world, which had been a foundational reason to normalize relations with China.

Early drafts of the Communiqué were rejected by both sides. While on Polo II—the first officially announced trip of American officials to China by the Nixon administration—Henry Kissinger presented the Chinese with a draft version of the Joint Communiqué that had been approved by President Nixon but the administration’s early attempt to focus on areas of common interest was quickly refused by the Chinese. Premier Chou said that “unless [the Joint Communiqué] expressed our fundamental differences, the wording would have an ‘untruthful appearance.’ He dismissed [the] proposed draft as the sort of banal document the Soviets would sign without meaning it and without planning to observe it.”

The draft proposed by the Chinese, however, was highly problematic for the US. As President Nixon recalled in his memoirs, “If ours had smoothed over differences, theirs underscored them.”

Henry Kissinger was forced to politely reject the Chinese draft, telling Chou,

“We cannot have an American President sign a document which says that revolution has become the irresistible trend of history, or that ‘the people’s revolutionary struggles are just’!”

Fortunately, tensions began to ease after this initial negotiation as both sides made compromises to their position and language. The final version of the Communiqué was the result of continued refinement, not only by Henry Kissinger and Premier Chou En-lai, but also by President Nixon himself. The emphasis and language of the final Joint Communiqué was not on the areas where the United States and China differed—as the Chinese had initially proposed—although those differences were clearly noted. It was the areas of agreement where real progress toward peace and stability between the two countries could be found:

“With these principles of international relations in mind the two sides stated that:

  • progress toward the normalization of relations between China and the United States is in the interests of all countries
  • both wish to reduce the danger of international military conflict
  • neither should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and each is opposed to efforts by any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony
  • neither is prepared to negotiate on behalf of any third party or to enter into agreements or understandings with the other directed at other states.”

The Communiqué continued:

“The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.”

These two sentences on Taiwan, the primary point of conflict between Washington and Beijing, exemplify the diplomatic ingenuity of President Nixon. The wording simultaneously recognized Chinese sovereignty, while being ambiguous enough not to redirect American foreign policy away from support for Taiwan. In an article written for the Council on Foreign Relations forty years after the first Joint Communiqué was released, Jerome A Cohen, NYU law professor and co-director of its US-Asia Law Institute, stated that it was this section of the Communiqué that had truly “cleared the path for progress that has plainly changed the world.”