Politics & Int'l Affairs

Three Views Of Nixon’s Trip To China On The 40th Anniversary

Many fine pieces have been written this week about the importance of Nixon’s trip to China 40 years ago.

Of the many I read, three stand out. And, each takes a very different–and very interesting interesting–angle.

Before you read them, watch the video footage of Nixon’s visit that accompanied John Burn’s article.

More on these three articles here–and why Jerry Cohen’s is my favorite.

First, Ken Lieberthal‘s ‘Lessons of the 40 years since Nixon went to China.’ Dr. Lieberthal is director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution and one of the most respected authorities. The focus of his article is on the development U.S.-China relationship since the visit, especially the causes for distrust:

‘This history highlights a core reality: the U.S.-China relationship has never sustained one rationale or focus for very long. It has periodically adapted to major developments in the international environment and in domestic politics. None of those changes has come easily. Each sowed apprehension, distrust and deep doubts about the future.’

Second, John Burns‘ ‘Recalling Nixon in China, 40 Years Later.’ Mr. Burns recalls his memories of the visit as the correspondent for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, the only western correspondent based in Beijing at the time.

For me the highlight was his theft of Nixon’s chopsticks and his return of same:

In my frustration, I waited until the banquet ended, then raced through the madding crowd of guests to the top table. There, I made a close inspection of the gold-embossed menu cards, along with the similarly gilded place cards (“Richard Milhous Nixon, President of the United States”) and ivory chopsticks where the two principals had been sitting.

A felonious thought occurred: How about simply taking all of it, and hiding it in my pocket, as a matchless souvenir? The stern-faced Chinese security official, statue-straight in his Mao suit, seemed to counsel against it, but just then one of those improbable things happened, proving again that a reporter pushing the boundaries can make his own luck. The security man turned his head for a moment, and winked. And off I went with my guilty booty.

.                      .                    .

Some years later, as I was preparing to leave Peking for a new job as a reporter on The Times metro desk in New York, George H. W. Bush, then head of the American Liaison Office in China, a quasi-embassy that grew from the Nixon visit, and also my doubles tennis partner, offered over our last game together to send them in the diplomatic bag to Nixon. He was then disgraced, after his resignation, and living in San Clemente, Calif. When last I heard, they still resided there in the Nixon presidential library, along with the letter I wrote to the former president wishing him well. But that’s another story.

Third, Jerry Cohen‘s ‘The Shanghai Communique Forty Years Later: A Job Well Done.’ Mr. Cohen has, for decades, been the dean of Chinese law legal studies in the U.S. His article focuses on the artful way that Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai sides-stepped the Taiwan issue in the Shanghai Communique.

Last month, I wrote posts about Taiwan’s ambiguous status under international law:

Conclusion in brief: Taiwan is still under U.S. jurisdiction.

My suggestion: Consider John Huntsman as our Taiwan Pro-Counsel now that he has some time on his hands–Speak Mandarin? Don’t Run For President. Of The U.S., That Is.

Mr. Cohen reinforces the points I made in those earlier posts (except the John Huntsman part):

U.S. Position 1 (before the Korean War):

During the war, in the 1943 Cairo Declaration, the U.S., the United Kingdom and China had promised that Japan, which had forced China to cede Taiwan to it in 1895, would have to return the island to China at war’s end. Thus, in October 1945, the victorious Allies authorized Chiang Kai-shek, then president of the Republic of China, to accept Japan’s surrender on the island.

.                   .                   .

…the premise that Taiwan had again become part of China, despite the fact that its new status had not yet been formally confirmed by any peace treaty. As Secretary Acheson, an able attorney, put it: nobody “raised any lawyer’s doubts” when Chiang’s forces were placed in charge of Taiwan at war’s end. That, he said, had been done in accordance with the Cairo Declaration and subsequent wartime commitments.

U.S. Position 2 (after the start of the Korean War):

…to justify their momentous decision  [intervention in the Taiwan Straits after the start of the Korean War], Truman and Acheson changed the American legal position. The President proclaimed that the legal status of the island was as yet undetermined and would have to await restoration of security in the Pacific, a formal peace treaty with Japan or consideration by the United Nations.

U.S.-China Clashing Positions (when Nixon lands):

When Nixon and Kissinger landed in Beijing on February 21, 1972, that was still the U.S. view, anathema to their hosts, who had always maintained not only that the People’s Republic is the only legitimate government of China but also that Taiwan had “long been returned to the motherland”.

How could the conflicting positions of Washington and Beijing on the key issue obstructing Sino-American rapprochement be reconciled? Would the U.S. again change its position, this time sacrificing the security of the people on Taiwan? Would Beijing show flexibility?

The Resolution:

In the artfully-designed, if hastily drafted, Shanghai Communiqué of February 28, 1972, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and Kissinger managed to foster rapprochement without actually disposing of the Taiwan problem or damaging Taiwan’s security. One paragraph, from that part of the document in which the U.S. unilaterally stated its views, was crucial.

Its first sentence declared: “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.” This sentence ambiguously implied either that all people on the island side of the Taiwan Strait regarded themselves as Chinese or, more likely, that others there were not Chinese. Yet it could have been relatively innocuous in itself, since it merely purported to take note of an asserted position.

But the next sentence stated: “The United States does not challenge that position.” Moreover, the paragraph went on to reaffirm the American interest “in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.”

Very slick. As a lawyer and a former U.S. Delegate to the UN who represented the U.S. at the Sixth [international law] Committee, I especially appreciate the slickness:

Finally, here’s is Mr. Cohen’s assessment of the why this was resolved:

While the meaning of the Shanghai Communique is still debated, one thing is certain. Its most famous paragraph cleared the path for progress that has plainly changed the world.

Couldn’t agree more.

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