Progression of Nixon and Kissinger Opening the Door to China (1970-1973)

Richard Nixon served as United States President from January 1969 through August 1974. The diplomatic work of Nixon and close counterpart Henry Kissinger on Sino-American affairs during this period caused a dramatic shift in relations between the two nations, altered the landscape of the Cold War theatre, and cemented the rise of the fledgling Chinese state. This map, displaying ten pivotal moments in Sino-American relations between 1970 and 1973, attempts to document this rapidly changing relationship.

Following the close of World War II and the emergence of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party culminating in 1950 at the close of the Chinese Communist Revolution, the United States cut ties with the mainland, refusing to recognize the sovereignty of the new political order. The United States had feared the ascension of communism within China for decades, standing by Kuomintang Party (Chinese Nationalist Party) leader Chiang Kai-shek even after Chiang was forced to flee to the island of Taiwan. Throughout the 1950’s, the United States introduction to the new communist government hit major roadblocks as the two nations fought on opposing sides of both the Korean (1950-1953) and the Vietnam Wars (1955-1975).

Despite the atmosphere of the early post-WWII era generally pitting the two states against one an other, a moment of opportunity presented itself in the late 1960’s as tensions rose between China and the Soviet Union. Tensions boiled over into hot military conflict in March of 1969 along the Ussuri River as both countries vied for control over islands. In one CIA weekly review, the agency noted that “neither Moscow nor Peking appears ready to back down on the issue of the disputed island in the Ussuri River. An engagement on 15 March may have involved more men than the initial clash but was not as bloody.”(1) President Nixon hoped to use this conflict to create diplomatic ties between the U.S. and China, at the cost of the Soviet Union.

One of the first attempts to establish negotiations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) occurred on January 20th, 1970. American Ambassador to Poland Walter Stoessel commenced talks with Chinese Charge d’Affaires Lei Yang at the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw. According to Herring, “the two sides began to outline positions on such difficult issues as Taiwan and Vietnam.” (2) In Walter Stoessel’s words outlining the American perspective, the ambassador said “it is my Government’s hope that today will mark a new beginning in our relationship. It is our hope that together we can take a fresh and constructive look at the whole range of possibilities for the improvement of relations between our two countries.”(3) Although this initial dialogue appeared to be successful, tensions heightened by the Vietnam War stalled the talks indefinitely as the United States invaded Cambodia in April of 1970.

In an attempt to re-open negotiations with the Chinese, President Nixon sent a secret message to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai through close political friend and President of Pakistan, Yahya Khan, on October 25th, 1970. (4) Similarly to the Warsaw dialogue, Nixon achieved moderate initial success, construing his interest in sending officials to Beijing to engage in talks and stressing anti-Soviet sentiments, however the correspondence broke down as the United States began a bombing campaign in Laos in early 1971.

The Nixon administration needed a breakthrough in the Sino-American dialogue. This came in a form no politician could have expected. In a series of surprising events, the United States national ping pong team traveled to Beijing on April 10th, 1971 to conduct a binational tournament. Prior to the trip, the team had been competing in a global ping pong tournament in Japan. At the tournament, the team was invited by members of the Chinese national team to play a tournament in Beijing. According to Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai, the U.S. team had “opened the door to friendly contacts.” (5)

In the wake of this easing of tensions between the two nations, on June 10th, 1971, Nixon engaged in economic diplomacy ending the United States trade embargo on China.(6) One month later in July, Henry Kissinger became the first official American diplomat to meet the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. As the two nations had not yet established official ties nor had the U.S. officially recognized the Chinese government, Kissinger secretly flew to Beijing from Islamabad, Pakistan.(7) After meeting with Zhou, Kissinger concluded that the “Conversations were most intense, important, and far reaching of my white house experience.” (8)

Later that year in October, the United Nations General Assembly voted to replace the Republic of China (Taiwan) with the People’s Republic of China (China) as an active member of United Nations and within the Security Council’s Permanent Five. This signified a monumental change in the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and realized the country’s goal of gaining recognition from nations around the globe. (9) Several months later in February of 1972, President Nixon realized a dream of his own in traveling to China with with his wife Pat. The Chinese toured Nixon around famous cultural sites including the Great Wall at Badaling. Nixon also engaged in talks with Zhou En-lai crafting the Shanghai Communique. In the document Nixon concedes that Taiwan is indeed a part of China, despite having signed a mutual defense treaty with the island in 1955.(10)

Despite the rapid de-escalation of tensions, the Vietnam War raged on south of the Middle Kingdom continuously throwing curve balls at negotiation attempts. This issue came to a symbolic end in January, 1973 as the United States signed the Paris Peace Accords ending the war and vowing to pull troops out of the country. (11) Although the ceasefire eventually failed, the event signified the beginning of the end for American intervention in Vietnam. Finally, in early May, 1973, the two nations opened opened Liaison offices in Beijing and Washington D.C. allowing for a direct path to future formal relations.(12) Although relations were not officially established until 1979, the heavy diplomatic lifting throughout these four years was essential in the Sino-American relationship both nations enjoy today.

(1) United States. Central Intelligence Agency. Weekly Review. Top Secret Umbra. May 16, 1969. Accessed April 23, 2016. http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB49/sino.sov.2.pdf.

(2) Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pg. 776

(3) United States. Department of State. AmEmbassy Warsaw. Stoessel-Lei Talks: Report of 135th Meeting , January 20, 197. By Walter Stoessel. January 20, 1970. http://2001-2009.state.gov/documents/organization/72575.pdf.

(4) United States. National Security Council. By Harold H. Saunders. August 28, 1969. Accessed April 20, 2016. http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB145/02.pdf.

(5) Herring, Pg. 777

(6) GRZYBOWSKI, KAZIMIERZ. “CONTROL OF U.S. TRADE WITH CHINA: AN OVERVIEW.” Duke Law Scholarship Repository, 1973. Accessed April 22, 2016. http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3402&context=lcp.

(7) United States. National Security Association. Memcon, “Meeting Between the President and Pakistan President Yahya,” 25 October 1970, Top Secret/Sensitive. June 22, 1971. Accessed April 15, 2016. http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB66/ch-31.pdf.

(8) United States. National Security Council. Kissinger on Zhou Talks.By Henry Kissinger. July 11, 1971. Accessed April 20, 2016. http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB66/ch-39.pdf.

(9) Tieh, Susan. “China in the UN: United with Other Nations?” Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs 4, no. 1 (Winter 2004): 19. Accessed April 20, 2016. http://web.stanford.edu/group/sjeaa/journal41/china1.pdf.

(10) United States. Department of State. FOREIGN RELATIONS OF THE UNITED STATES 1969–1976 VOLUME XVII, CHINA, 1969–1972, DOCUMENT 203. February 27, 1972. Accessed April 19, 2016. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76v17/d203.

(11) “Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam (Paris, 27 January 1973).” March 07, 2015. http://www.cvce.eu/obj/agreement_on_ending_the_war_and_restoring_peace_in_vietnam_paris_27_january_1973-en- 656ccc0d-31ef-42a6-a3e9-ce5ee7d4fc80.html.

(12) United States. Department of State. Office of the Historian. A GUIDE TO THE UNITED STATES’ HISTORY OF RECOGNITION, DIPLOMATIC, AND CONSULAR RELATIONS, BY COUNTRY, SINCE 1776: CHINA. Accessed April 20, 2016. https://history.state.gov/countries/china.


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