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America and China's Unhappy Anniversary

Fifty years ago, the United States responded to the Sino-Soviet split with a foreign policy that was creative in both design and execution. Given the current poor state of Sino-American relations, the best way to mark the anniversary is by crafting an equally imaginative approach to reviving bilateral cooperation.

NEW YORK – The United States and China are this month marking the golden anniversary of their modern relationship. In February 1972, US President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, stepped off a plane in Beijing, and shortly afterward met with Communist Party of China Chairman Mao Zedong. Their visit triggered a geopolitical earthquake, what Nixon referred to as “the week that changed the world.”

This historic rapprochement swept away two decades of enmity between the People’s Republic of China – known by most Americans then as Red or Communist China – and the US. The antagonism had its roots in the Chinese civil war, in which the US supported the anti-communist nationalist side, which lost and was forced to flee to Formosa (Taiwan) in 1949. The following year, Chinese and American soldiers started fighting and killing one another in the Korean War.

Rising Sino-Soviet tensions in the late 1960s produced a diplomatic opening. Nixon and Kissinger, along with Mao and Zhou Enlai, China’s premier and leading diplomat, regarded the Soviet Union as a shared adversary. China sought protection against a one-time benefactor with which it had fought a deadly border clash in 1969. Nixon and Kissinger, meanwhile, believed an entente with China would give the US leverage against the Soviets and might hasten the end of the Vietnam War. It was a classic case of my enemy’s enemy being my friend.