“Mao-Nixon” 2.0

BEIJING – The “Sunnylands summit,” which brings together Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama at a California estate this weekend, may prove to be a watershed in relations between the world’s largest and second-largest economies. Indeed, what Xi wants from the meeting – namely, “a new type of relationship between major powers” – has its conceptual origins in the historic meetings between Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon in 1972.

In 1969, the newly elected Nixon’s gravest challenges were ending the Vietnam War and coping with an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union. China was pivotal to Nixon’s grand scheme to resolve these seemingly intractable problems.

Indeed, China played a special role in assisting North Vietnam against the Americans, and its relations with the Soviet Union were souring to the point of violent skirmishes along their shared Amur River border. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, sensed that it was time to restore relations with China, which also feared the Soviets’ hegemonic ambitions. Nixon and Kissinger circumvented the US State Department and Congress and established contacts with China via clandestine channels in Pakistan and Romania.

Over the next three years, the two countries managed to overcome their ideological differences to reach a working compromise on the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and even Japan, while ensuring that the “Taiwan question” did not become a source of harm to both countries’ real interests as they moved to improve relations. With these agreements outlined, Nixon visited China in February 1972, a trip that ended with the signing of one of the twentieth century’s most important diplomatic documents, the “Shanghai Communiqué.”