U.S. China Flags

Several overtures made by the United States and the Chinese in 1971 culminated in President Nixon’s journey to China in 1972.

Having already given several subtle indications that the United States demonstrated genuine interest in establishing more normal relations with the People’s Republic of China, President Nixon on June 10 1971 opened yet another door for the Chinese. On this day 43 years ago,  the White House unveiled an order permitting trade with the Communist power, effectively lifting a 21-year-old embargo.

The order came after a year’s worth of Nixon administration efforts to reestablish negotiating channels with Mainland China. By June 10, Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai had given preliminary confirmation that China, on behalf of Chairman Mao, would welcome a visit by Henry Kissinger and subsequently the President of the United States. President Nixon sent a reply with his proposed dates for Kissinger’s initial visit, but by June 10, had yet to receive a final confirmation from Chou. The trade order was perhaps a public play by the White House to urge a positive Chinese response.

The relaxation of trade restrictions allowed for U.S. exporters the freedom to sell to China agricultural, industrial and office equipment, most farm, fish and forestry products, fertilizers, coals, and select chemicals. Locomotives and large scale transportation equipment remained prohibited.

For the future, items listed as non-strategic–that is, items void of aiding military development–would constitute legal trade with China.

When President Nixon sat down with the American Society of Newspaper Editors two months prior in April of the same year, he conveyed America’s willingness to accept China into the family of nations. He stated the long-term goal of his administration:

The long-range goal of this Administration and of the next one, whatever it may be, must be two things: one, a normalization of the relations between the Government of the United States and the Government of the People’s Republic of China, and two, the ending of the isolation of Mainland China from the world community.
Those are long-range goals.

To achieve these goals required a step-by-step process of overtures. Taking down trade restrictions was one of these. Now, the question of trade with the Chinese would be, as President Nixon claimed, “up to them.”

“If they want to have trade in these many areas that we have opened up, we are ready. If they want to have Chinese come to the United States, we are ready. We are also ready for Americans to go there, Americans in all walks of life.”

President Nixon was placing the ball in China’s court not only with back-channel proposals, but strategically timed public displays of interest. It would only be a matter of time before the Chinese returned the favor.