Nixon and China: Time to Talk

Mr. Thomson, who wrote “How Could Vietnam Happen?” in the April ATLANTIC,was an East Asian specialist at the Department of State and the White House. 1961-1966, and now teaches history at Harvard.

Though recent years have accustomed us to political ironies, the idea of a Washington-Peking détente under the presidency of Richard M. Nixon strains the imagination. Could anything be more bizarre than a Nixon-Mao summit?

Yet considerably less bizarre, indeed almost plausible, would be a meeting between Nixon and Chou En-lai, two of the most skilled practitioners of political survival in the post-war world.

And more than merely plausible would be the new Administration’s seizure of an opportunity for maneuver and progress in Sino-American relations. Mr. Nixon’s bitterest critics denounce his bent toward “opportunism,” but it may take just such a tried and true talent to break the twenty years of deadlock between Washington and Peking.

What, then, is the “opportunity” at hand?

In the narrowest and most immediate context, the chance to talk with the Chinese at Warsaw on February 20, and to do so on the basis of one of the least polemical invitations that has come our way since 1955 — an invitation to reach agreement on principles of peaceful coexistence. In a wider and longerrange context, the chance to move toward the normalization of SinoAmerican relations and the bringing of Communist China into the international order; such aims may sound grandiose and visionary, but they are central to the opportunity.

The Warsaw meeting in February can offer a fresh start for both sides. It comes a year after the last such conversation, in January, 1968. During the intervening months both China and America have been preoccupied with upheavals at home. Both have been shocked — on somewhat differing grounds, to be sure — by Soviet behavior in Eastern Europe. Both have watched, with differing degrees of anxiety and reluctance, as the Vietnam War edges from the battlefield to the conference table. Both now emerge from two very different leadership crises — their Cultural Revolution and our traumatic election year — somewhat stabilized and ready to deal anew with foreign policy issues.

Ready for a new look

Of course, the cultural and ideological chasm that separates Peking from Washington remains deep. Yet each side might be ready for a gingerly new look at the other, or at least for a testing of the climate.

That is the significance of Warsaw. Fortunately, Mr. Nixon and his advisers seem to understand, as do the talented China experts within the State Department, and they have accepted the Chinese offer with grace and speed.

But the Warsaw meeting must be viewed in the context of the wider opportunity: the new Administration’s chance to come to grips at last with the centrality of the China problem.

For a decade now, and especially since 1961, China specialists inside and outside the U.S. government have argued for a new strategy to replace the old doctrine of containment and isolation. This new China strategy calls for continued deterrence of possible aggression by the Peking government but also for systematic efforts at the “de-isolation” of that government and its people. Such efforts it has been endlessly argued, both inside and outside our government — should take the form of unilateral U.S. initiatives to open contacts and communications with China: a freeing of travel restrictions in both directions, an end to the embargo in nonstrategic trade, acceptance of Peking’s membership in the United Nations and other international bodies, proposals for disarmament discussions, suggestions for scientific and cultural exchanges, and even the offer of de facto recognition.

The purpose of such a strategy? To present the Chinese with the clear option of an alternative relationship with the United States — of normalization (or peaceful coexistence, if you will), in the place of Mao’s vision of eternal enmity.

The prospects for the “success” of such strategy? In the short run, probably close to zero; each initiative would be rejected and denounced by Peking. But even in the short run, not absolutely zero, some have argued, for China has seemed too fluid, its inner workings too obscure, for a clear and definite judgment. Nonetheless, the new China strategy has always been offered in terms not of short-run gains but of long-run consequences: its effects on the thinking of future Chinese decision-makers who may choose to modify or reject the Maoist view of international relations. With such consequences in mind, the price of unilateral American initiatives — of unilateral American flexibility, coupled with continued deterrence — has seemed very little to pay. And the possible benefits have seemed very great.

Now, in the past eight years Washington’s proponents of a new approach to Peking achieved less than striking success. They won a few skirmishes: travel regulations were belatedly and grudgingly modified, official rhetoric was improved (Mr. Johnson called for “reconciliation” with Peking, while Mr. Humphrey wanted to “build bridges”), and the possibility of a trade relaxation was broached. But the old UN strategy was clung to year after year, Peking was used as the shaky pretext for a “thin” antiballistic missile system, and Washington escalated the Vietnam War perilously close to China’s borders.

The reasons for inaction are not hard to guess. Preoccupation with Vietnam was undoubtedly central. So, after 1962, was preoccupation with Soviet-American relations. Russia required attention as our primary nuclear antagonist; in addition, in a world divided between “good” and “bad” Communists (and white and yellow ones), our instinctive sympathies lay with the good (and the white). Furthermore, most Democrats, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson included, were acutely gun-shy on China policy; in the late forties and fifties Republicans had had a political field day with the issue of the “loss of China.” Moreover, no Democratic President would move on the long-term China strategy proposed by the specialists unless urged to do so by his Secretary of State. And, of course, Mr. Rusk — participant in China’s “loss,” persistent advocate of close containment and isolation, a man apparently obsessed with “Asian Communism” on the march — was not one to make such a pitch; indeed, for most of his tenure, the Secretary successfully prevented the recommendations of the specialists from moving forward to the President (changes on travel and rhetoric occurred only when he was outflanked).

Yet to reflect on these reasons for previous inaction is to sense the new Administration’s opportunity. Vietnam, for instance, has moved to the conference table, and we are firmly assured that the new President wants a nonescalatory solution. The process of Soviet-American détente has been badly shaken by the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Furthermore, gone are eight years of Democratic Presidents; and gone as well is Secretary Rusk.

This brings us back to Mr. Nixon.

Nixon’s chance

The new President takes office with room for maneuver on Vietnam. He did not create the Vietnam calamity, nor did he initiate its resolution. Attuned to public weariness, he can follow his predecessor’s negotiatory track, while blaming the Democrats for his paucity of options. And he can sell a softish solution by casting similar blame, if necessary.

More important, however, he can blur the lines of a less than satisfactory settlement by transcending Vietnam. He can move to fold the Vietnam War’s resolution into a larger act of statesmanship: reengagement with China through a series of initiatives toward Peking.

In part such a strategy will be good public relations — a diversionary tactic to shift attention from the gloomy Vietnam residue — and it will make political sense.

But in larger part, such a strategy will be not merely gimmickry but wisdom — a long-overdue shift in the focus of government policy and public attention to the heart of our Pacific dilemma. There can be no viable peace and little stability in East Asia until deadlock gives way to mutual accommodation in SinoAmerican relations. Peacemaking in Vietnam is one logical point of departure for normalization with China.

Not only is the time ripe for Mr. Nixon as a result of Vietnam. Equally ripe are the circumstances at home. For a Republican President, and pre-eminently this Republican President, brings to the China problem some very special assets.

Who, for instance, can pin the label of “softness on Communism” on Richard M. Nixon when he makes overtures to Peking? If little else is clear about the new President, his anti-Communist credentials are impeccable. The ironic fact is that any Republican would have greater domestic room for maneuver on China policy than a Democrat, and that Mr. Nixon will have more room than most Republicans.

Add to this asset his congressional relationship. Over the past two decades it has been the congressional Republican leadership, plus a handful of Democrats, that has deterred policy-makers from movement on the China problem. But today much of the old so-called “China Lobby” is either dead or retired. Equally important, the leadership of the new Congress lies with relatively flexible Democrats, many of whom have been restive under the rigidity of Mr. Rusk’s China posture. In coalition with the increasing number of moderate Republicans who have urged a review of China policy, these Democrats in the Senate and House can probably assure the President firmer support for China initiatives than he could have expected from a Republicandominated Congress.

Such congressional support would be a belated reflection of apparently changing attitudes among the electorate. Since as early as 1964, and particularly since 1966, opinion polls and surveys of newspaper editorials have shown a rising degree of public flexibility on such issues as trade with China and UN representation for Peking. It seems clear that the passions of the Korean War era have given way to greater public acceptance of a live-and-let-live relationship with the Chinese Communists.

In brief, then, Mr. Nixon is a lucky man. He need not prove anti-Communism — neither his own nor his party’s. He need not cater to the residue of China war hawks in the Republican Party. He can marshal the developing sentiment for reconciliation with China among the American public, and particularly the younger voters. And he can envelop a distasteful settlement of the Democrats’ cardinal blunder, Vietnam, in a wider and longerterm act of Pacific statesmanship. He can create thereby a personal and national image of magnanimity.

So far so good. But will the Chinese play? And what about the Russians?

To deal first with Moscow: In the past few years Soviet anxieties about China have already surfaced in ludicrous but periodic Russian rumors about a Washington-Pekingdeal. Such anxieties will undoubtedly intensify if the February 20 meeting shows any signs of promise. Indeed, it is clear that the Soviet-American détente since the Cuban missile crisis is in part a result of the Sino-Soviet conflict. It would be deeply alarming to the Russians for their chief military adversary to improve its relations with their chief Communist rival.

For this reason, we can expect that many of Washington’s Soviet experts will argue against any and all overtures to Peking — as they have argued, with considerable success, for the past six years. And their arguments should be examined with care.

But should they be accepted in toto? Not unless we prefer to have America’s China policy manufactured in Moscow. A continuing Sino-American deadlock may be ideal for the Russians. But does it serve our national interests?

Hostility is a luxury

Soviet-American relations are of vital importance worldwide. But they cannot be of definitive importance in our development of a new East Asian relationship. Russian displeasure and even Russian threats may accompany any modification of our China policy. But the grounds for legitimate Soviet fears are minimal. China and America remain separated by a chasm, while Russia and America share a wide community of interests. SinoAmerican hostility may be a luxury with which the Soviet Union is loath to part; but deft American diplomacy, including candid reassurances to Moscow, can ease the Russians through their parting with that luxury.

And what of China itself?

One must begin by assuming that Peking’s overture to the incoming Administration may be dictated in varying degrees by three fears: of the continuing Soviet-American détente, of exclusion from a Vietnam settlement, and of increased isolation now that Moscow has prevailed in its desire for a conference of Communist parties. Peking’s request for an early Warsaw meeting can be viewed as an attempt at divisive intrusion into Soviet-American relations. But it can also be viewed as an effort to avert further isolation from the wider world community.

The new Administration should understand and accept both Chinese objectives. Peking’s intrusion into the détente need not undermine those aspects of the Soviet-American relationship that suit our interests. But it can enable us gradually to create a healthy multiple relationship that more nearly fits the reality of the map: Moscow, Washington, and Peking, each pursuing independent policies vis-à-vis the others, rather than a ganging up of any two against the third. And Peking’s effort to reduce its isolation may permit some movement toward China’s re-emergence as a participant power with a stake in the international order.

One key to such re-emergence might be found in the development of a Vietnam settlement. A settlement that includes China could have greater long-term durability than one that doesn’t. Ideally, Sino-American ambassadorial conversations at Warsaw — and if possible, higher-level conversations — might run parallel to the ongoing Paris conversations. Ideally, some of the wider implications of the Paris talks might also be explored separately with the Chinese. And ideally, a Paris settlement might ultimately be ratified by a larger group of states that included China, perhaps through a reconvened Geneva Conference.

All this looks far beyond the immediate and limited possibility offered by the February meeting.

All this depends, too, on Chinese behavior in the months ahead as the mainland slowly recovers from the two-year convulsion of the Cultural Revolution. Chinese behavior is a matter on which prediction would be folly. But there are nonetheless tentative signs, including the Warsaw invitation, that China’s leaders have regained sufficient domestic control to return at last to the making of foreign policy. The least that a new American Administration should do is to test the changing atmosphere, through both conversations and unilateral actions.

Bypassing Taiwan

Two final thoughts:

First, any movement by Mr. Nixon toward a new China strategy must be accompanied by close consultations with East Asia’s other great power, our ally Japan, with whom we have a difficult defense treaty to renegotiate before 1970. “Consultations” does not mean dependency, however; even if a Japanese government were to object to improved Sino-American relations, America’s China policy should no more be made in Tokyo than in Moscow.

And second, conversations, with Peking inevitably involve our ally the Chinese Nationalist government on Taiwan. While reaffirming our commitment to Taiwan’s defense against mainland conquest, the new Administration would do well to make two points clear: our nonsupport for Nationalist return to the mainland, and our dedication to self-determination for the people of Taiwan once time and mortality have eased old tensions. In the meantime, we should strive to bypass Taiwan as an issue. Peking’s rhetorical outrage will not soon abate; but once we explicitly cease to be supporters of a rival claimant to mainland rule, we may find ways to move on to other issues.

So much for the opportunity. Will Mr. Nixon seize it? If he does, he will demonstrate not merely “opportunism” but statesmanship.