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"The Week that Changed the World": A Panel Discussion to Mark the 50th Anniversary of Nixon's Trip to China

February 17, 2022

Chair: Raffaella Baritono, Professor of American History, University of Bologna, ItalyPanel members: Mario Del Pero, Professor of International History, SciencesPo, Paris; Matteo Dian, Senior Assistant Professor of Asian History and Institutions, University of Bologna, Italy; Antonio Fiori, Professor of International Relations of East Asia, University of Bologna, Italy; John L. Harper Senior Adjunct Professor of American Foreign Policy and Professor Emeritus, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe; Sergey Radchenko, Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe.After a brief introduction by Professor Baritono, Professor Harper began the panel with an overview of Nixon’s role in the 1972 visit to China that ended nearly 25 years of mutual hostility. Harper outlined the historical context of the visit. Relations between the US and China had been frozen since the Korean War, and the US still had a formal defense treaty with Taiwan. Harper said that Nixon was the “right man” at the “right time” to renew diplomatic relations with China because his hardline anti-communist politics gave him more flexibility vis-à-vis China, his realist view of international relations minimized the importance of ideological differences, and by 1972, relations between the Soviet Union and China had deteriorated giving the US an opening. Harper concluded with an assessment of Nixon’s visit, saying that the immediate impact was mixed, but that the visit did begin the process of normalization.
Professor Del Pero spoke next about Kissinger’s role in the China visit. He said that although often credited to Kissinger, the idea to normalize relations with China was really Nixon’s. He said that although the visit did benefit Nixon politically and electorally, the effect of the visit was meager initially, and it took six years to fully normalize relations with China. He then spoke about the impact the visit had on Kissinger, who used the visit to boost his profile as a kind of “modern Marco Polo.” Del Pero said that Kissinger’s role in the visit reflects his penchant for authoritarian leaders as well as his “East” versus “West” framing of international relations.
Professor Fiori then spoke about the Chinese perspective and their motivation for rapprochement with the US. He said that the main driver to normalize relations with the US was strategic. After the Warsaw Pact’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, China feared Soviet incursion and sought to ease relations with the US to improve their overall security. Fiori said that although ideological motivations were secondary to strategic ones, Mao Zedong did see rapprochement as a way to firm up domestic support by antagonizing the Soviet Union on ideological grounds.
Professor Radchenko followed with the Soviet Union’s perspective on the China visit. Relations between the Soviet Union and China had worsened since 1959, and in 1969 the two nations even fought an undeclared war on their border. Radchenko said that the Soviets began suspecting Sino-American rapprochement as early as the mid-1960s, and after the visit the Soviet Union sought to improve relations with the US. Radchenko discussed Kissinger’s visit to Moscow soon after the China trip, and how Brezhnev desired a world order based on US-Soviet “condominium,” in which the two powers would jointly manage international affairs, China included.
Professor Dian concluded the panel with an overview of contemporary US-China relations. He spoke about deteriorating relations between the US and China and pointed to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech at the Nixon library — in which he said that the US policy of engagement with China had failed and needed to be replaced with a policy of strategic competition — as an important moment in the deterioration of US-China relations. Dian said that although the Biden administration embraces multilateralism and free trade, the administration has largely continued the Trump administration’s policy of competition with China.
During the Q&A session, the panelists touched on topics like the detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the Korean and Japanese perspectives on Nixon’s visit, and the future of Taiwan.