Richard Nixon’s 1953 Far East Trip holds pivotal, if little known, importance in the history of US-China relations. It was on this trip that Nixon realized the true importance of China in the fight against communism, and began to take it seriously as a significant threat. His insight was not the common belief at the time. He later writes in his memoirs: “At a time when wishful thinkers in Washington and other Western capitals were saying that Communist China would not be a threat in Asia because it was so backward and underdeveloped, I was able to report firsthand that its influence was already spreading throughout the area.”
His travels gave him first-hand insight into the communist situation, which left him “convinced that … we could no longer ignore the powerful Communist propaganda.” And playing a key role in the propaganda effort was China. He discounts the Soviets, because “they, like us, were still interlopers in an Oriental world.” On the other hand, “the Chinese Communists had established student exchange programs, and large number of students were being sent to Red China for free college training.”
Richard Nixon understood the significant impact this form of propaganda would have. He also recognized that the sheer size and weight of China as a nation could significantly impact world order. “It was a giant looming beyond every Asian horizon – 475 million people ruled by ruthless, disciplined ideologues.” Put all together, China was too important to be ignored.
“The major new and unfathomable factor in Asia and the Pacific was Communist China.” (Memoirs, p. 136)
By the time he wrote “Asia After Viet Nam” in 1967 for Foreign Affairs, Richard Nixon recognized the primary communist threat in Asia. He warned against the tunnel vision that developed in the US with respect to Vietnam, and established that China should be the primary concern moving forward. Indeed, this sentiment was already shared within Asia as “most of them also recognize a common danger, and see its source as Peking.” Part of his evaluation of China lay once again by the fact of its sheer size, “there is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.”
This is a significant quote, re-used by President Nixon in his inaugural address, and as a clue of his intentions with China. Through his extensive travel and evolving stance on China policy, Richard Nixon took an active stance upon assuming the presidency, formulating a strategy for direct engagement with China.
“Any American policy toward Asia must come urgently to grips with the reality of China…recognizing the present and potential danger from Communist China, and taking measures designed to meet that danger…The world cannot be safe until China changes.” (Foreign Affairs)