China Atomic Energy Authority Chairman Xu Dazhe talks with U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz while visiting an exhibition of developments in nuclear protection in Washington, D.C. on March 31, 2016 (XINHUA)
Forty-five years ago, U.S. President Richard Nixon arrived in Beijing for what he would later call "the week that changed the world." The beginning of a lasting, mature, and crucial relationship between the world's two most important powers was established on February 27, 1972 with the issuance of the Shanghai Communiqué, a document that set the stage for the normalization of relations that had been strained for over two decades. The joint statement, signed by Premier Zhou Enlai and President Nixon during the last day of Nixon's visit to China changed the global strategic landscape, established a more open and stable relationship between China and the United States, and has served as the foundation for China-U.S. relations since that time. The 45th anniversary of the Shanghai Communiqué presents an opportunity to reflect upon developments in the China-U.S. relationship over the past four decades. China, the world, and China's international relations have changed dramatically since Nixon visited China in 1972.
While most summit communiqués tend to be forgotten quickly, the Shanghai Communiqué is still invoked as a central guide to China-U.S. relations. The communiqué highlighted principles such as the acknowledgment of the one-China policy and peaceful coexistence—lasting principles that have been repeatedly conveyed as a reminder to the new U.S. President Donald Trump during the opening month of his presidency. Nixon's visit in 1972 set a precedent of cooperative diplomatic relations between the two nations, which have continued to this day. The Shanghai Communiqué—together with a joint communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic relations in December 1978 and another communiqué signed on August 17, 1982—form the political foundation for contemporary China-U.S. relations.
From 1949 to early 1972, the United States and China were bitter rivals. For over 20 years, the United States refused to acknowledge that the People's Republic represented China's interests. While the normalization of talks—and, eventually, diplomatic relations—between China and the United States occurred due to a combination of factors, it would have been impossible without the efforts of four people: Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou on the Chinese side and President Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger on the U.S. side.
The success of the Nixon visit, as well as the Shanghai Communiqué, occurred in large part because of Mao. Without Mao's formal approval, there would have been no "Ping Pong Diplomacy," no secret negotiations through Kissinger, and no visit to China by Nixon. While Zhou and Kissinger may have been the foreign policy heavyweights that engaged in the necessary diplomatic negotiations to find the precise language of the communiqué, the opening act of modern China-U.S. relations could not have happened without Mao's unambiguous approval. This is evident in how the two nations candidly and clearly acknowledged their differences in the communiqué. The Shanghai Communiqué was more than just a symbolic statement about what was to become a historic shift in global geopolitical relations and the reopening of ties between the two nations. It was a testament to the political skills, acumen, and will of Mao, Nixon, Zhou, and Kissinger.
Those skills are evidenced in the language used in the communiqué: "The Chinese side declared," and "the U.S. side stated," is found across a range of subjects. Neither China nor the United States mentioned much about the common interests of the two nations—that would happen later and would be spelled out, filled in, and enriched by Mao and Nixon's successors over the next 45 years.
Mao and Zhou were pivotal to the success of the Nixon visit. Mao could have said no. Zhou could have ignored Kissinger's overtures. After all, the United States and China had been adversaries during the Korean conflict, the Americans supported the Kuomintang's regime in Taiwan, and the U.S. Government believed that "Red China" was a major threat to American interests. There was scant public evidence that Mao was willing to deal with one of China's long-term adversaries. And yet he did, primarily out of a concern for China's future security and development.
Like Mao, Nixon was probably one of the few American politicians capable of reaching out to China. His long-term and fervent opposition to communism and his publicly held position of opposition to recognizing the People's Republic of China as the legitimate government of China enhanced his credentials among his fellow conservatives, making his overtures to China just that much more remarkable. Nixon was concerned about his reelection and was looking for a game-changing success in order to extricate the United States from the deeply unpopular Viet Nam War and to find new ways to contain the Soviet Union.
The result of these decisive leaders' desire to change the world was a happy convergence of interests between China and the United States. Nixon's words to Mao during their meeting are a testament to how the visit altered the political balance of the Cold War, reshaped the geopolitical map, and created the foundation for China's opening to the world: "I know that you are one who sees when an opportunity comes, and then knows that you must seize the hour and seize the day."
By putting aside the issues of ideology that had kept China and the United States apart since the founding of New China in 1949, the two sides were able to focus on their common interests. While it has been tested in a variety of ways over the years, this ability to focus on common interests is at the heart of China-U.S. relations today, irrespective of values, politics, ideology, domestic changes, or world events.
In the spirit of the Shanghai Communiqué, China and the United States are able to avoid confrontation when they stick to the principles enshrined in the joint communiqués. Upholding these principles enshrined in the communiqués governing China-U.S. relations is of paramount concern in order to avoid confrontation and enhance bilateral cooperation. Those fundamental principles not only include the United States' upholding the one-China policy, but also respecting each other's national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and strengthening China-U.S. economic, cultural, and educational ties.
Chinese and U.S. servicemen participate in a humanitarian rescue exercise in Kunming, southwest China's Yunnan Province, on November 18, 2016 (XINHUA)
China-U.S. relations have seen much change—and continuity—during the past 45 years. While there have been and will continue to be differences, the fundamental principles first expressed in the Shanghai Communiqué and through successive joint communiqués since 1972 have served to enhance China-U.S.relations by making them stronger and more resilient during nine U.S. presidencies and successive administrations in China.
The inauguration of a new U.S. president has presented both nations with an opportunity to take new and definitive steps forward. For nearly 40 years, China-U.S. relations have been normalized. There have been substantial and far-reaching achievements in trade, country-to-country dialogues, people-to-people exchanges, and deepening cooperation. The Shanghai Communiqué set in motion the creation of what is arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the world, one marked by win-win cooperation—and where common interests greatly outweigh the two nations' differences.
Managing this relationship effectively is critical to the welfare of both countries and to the world. By committing to the spirit of the principles first expressed in the Shanghai Communiqué and furthered through additional communiqués, memoranda, and summits during the past 45 years, China-U.S. relations will continue to manage any ups or downs that could serve as potential points of conflict and confrontation. Enhancing mutual understanding, effective collaboration, reciprocal respect, peaceful coexistence, and noninterference in each other's internal affairs is obviously preferable to confrontation.
It is particularly important for both the countries to bear in mind the key principles of the Shanghai Communiqué, and for the two leaderships to seek a cooperative relationship instead of a confrontational one. Simply put, Trump must continue to walk the path of cooperation paved by his predecessors. Maintaining good China-U.S. relations is of paramount importance not only to the United States and China, but also to the world.
The author is a professor of political science at the University of St. Thomas in Houston
Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan
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