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Nixon and Mao: The Coming of the Thaw

Washington-Peking Dept.

By Jim Blum


THE GROWING WARMTH in Sino-American relations, as demonstrated by President Nixon's recent trip to China, has attracted great public interest. Several years ago, before the Nixon Administration had publicly indicated its desire for improved relations with the People's Republic of China, it appeared that the two countries would continue their heated confrontation. This paper--written in October 1969--provides some of the background for the surprising reconciliation and some of the motives of the two great powers involved.

President Nixon, in an article in Foreign Affairs in 1967, had expressed a desire to deal with China more forthrightly. In an interview published by the London Observer on November 24, 1968, Nixon restated that view. It may be fair to say, therefore, that president Nixon is most responsible for the initiation of improved relations with China--and not his National Security Affairs adviser, Henry Kissinger.

Important also is the fact that as early as November 26, 1968, the Chinese had clearly demonstrated that Taiwan and not the massive American presence in Vietnam was the main obstacle to better relations with Washington.

In the nearly three years between Peking's hints of a desire for improved relations and the Nixon trip, the U.S. eased its economic blockade and withdrew almost all of its fleet from the Taiwan Straits area. The Chinese were preoccupied with their strained relations with the Soviet Union and Japan. With the visit of the U.S. ping pong team to China and the interview of Chairman Mao by Edgar Snow which indicated that China would welcome a visit by Nixon, Sino-American relations began to blossom furiously.

What follows is a major portion of the author's paper written 30 months ago. A fully annotated copy of the entire paper is available at the Crimson.


RECENTLY, members of the Nixon Administration have shown interest in starting a dialogue with Mainland China. Whether or not their efforts will be fruitful may depend on several events between November 26, 1968, when Peking last proposed, to have informal, ambassadorial-level talks in Warsaw, and February 19, 1969, when the Chinese cancelled these talks a day before they were to begin.

What were these events? What do they mean in light of each country's foreign and domestic problems? And how can the Nixon Administration apply the knowledge gained from these events to make its China Policy effective in ending current tensions with the Mainland? Clearly, there are no simple answers to these questions, but the following explanation outlines one approach which seems most relevant to the writer...

Summary Of Events

On November 26, 1968, a spokesman of the Information Department of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the United States of postponing the Warsaw talks scheduled for November 20, even though the Chinese had already offered to give "consideration" to having them February 20, 1969, at which time, "the new U.S. president (Mr. Nixon) will have been in office for a month and the U.S. side will probably be able to make up its mind." In his statement the spokesman went so far as to list two principles which were to be discussed on February 20. "First, the U.S. Government undertakes to immediately withdraw all its armed forces from China's territory Taiwan Province and the Taiwan Straits area and dismantle all its military installations in Taiwan Province; secondly, the U.S. Government agrees that China and the United States conclude an agreement on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence."

Also, the day before the Foreign Ministry Information spokesman delivered his statement, the Communist Chinese press republished Mao's ten-section "Report to the Second Plenary Session of the Seventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China." The report, published for study and application by the masses, included two statements on timely subjects. One was on the maintenance of revolutionary discipline in the armed forces. The other dealt with peace talks. Mao wrote, "We should not refuse to enter into negotiations because we are afraid of trouble and want to avoid complications, nor should we enter into negotiations with our minds in a haze. We should be firm in principle: we should also have all the flexibility permissible and necessary for carrying out our principles."

On November 24, 1968, the London Observer published an interview with President-elect Nixon in which he discussed three points concerning U.S.-China Policy: (1) the U.S. must help the Southeast Asian countries achieve economic and military viability so as to become unattractive as targets for Chinese subversion: (2) after achieving this goal, conditions would be favorable for negotiations with China, so long as (3) Communist China recognizes that "military expansion will lead to world conflict, and world conflict is unthinkable" and diverts her energies to the solution of internal problems.

It should be pointed out that Nixon's statement was unofficial, while the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement reflected government policy.

Neither the U.S. nor China made any significant public mention of the ensuing negotiations for two months. The Mainland press did allot considerable space to worker and peasant denunciations of Nixon's inaugural address, but it did not refer to the talks until in late January, 1969, when the U.S. State Department announced the defection of Liao Ho-shu, a Chinese diplomat in the Netherlands. Then, on February 4, a spokesman of the Foreign Ministry Information Department in Peking said that both the removal of Liao Ho-shu to the U.S. and American hostility to China show that "U.S. President Nixon and his predecessor Johnson are jackals of the same lair without the least difference." The spokesman also threatened "grave consequences" should Liao not be handed back to China. On February 19, the spokesman announced Peking's cancellation of the Warsaw talks without setting a date for a future meeting.

Immediately afterwards, a State Department spokesman announced that had the talks been held, American representatives in Warsaw "had been instructed to make or renew constructive suggestions. These included consideration of an agreement on peaceful coexistence, consistent with our treaty obligations in the area, the subjects of exchange of reporters, scholars, scientists, and scientific information, and regularization of postal and telecommunications problems."


AFTER THREE YEARS of unprecedented hostility toward the U.S. government, why did Peking make a friendly offer to negotiate? The change of administrations in Washington is an obvious answer. Peking showed the new President her desire to negotiate so as to ease hostilities. But on November 24, Nixon had publicly endorsed the old China Policy: was there, then, another important reason behind Peking's proposal? Perhaps the explanation is that the Chinese were land remains very uneasy over their northern boundary with the Soviets.

Another possible reason for Peking's proposal may have been that she wanted to trade with the U.S. In the republished report of March, 1949. Mao pointed out, "So far as possible, we must first of all trade with socialist countries." With the Soviet-dominated nations hostile to her. Communist China may have been searching for more dependable sources to take over the 18 per cent of her foreign trade which has gone to the Socialist bloc in recent years, and one of these sources may have been the U.S. However, in order to trade with the United States, Peking would have found it necessary to find some way to end Washington's trade embargo against her, perhaps through negotiations.

How did Washington policy makers respond to the Chinese proposal of November 26? Passively. Meanwhile, the new President spoke of entering "an era of negotiation" but he put emphasis on parleying with the Soviets. Nixon might have shown a more positive attitude, as nearly half of the U.S. defense budget is directed against a wide range of Chinese "threats."

Why did Peking cancel the talks? One superficial view is that changes in the Peking leadership resulted in the refusal. A more likely hypothesis is that the Chinese felt that if a defector was more important to the Americans than talking to China, then the U.S. must not have been too interested in negotiation anyway. There are several unknowns in this interpretation which may, in themselves, be answers. Was it only coincidence that Liao chose to defect barely a month before the Warsaw talks were to begin? Was it only chance that the clash with Soviet forces on the Ussuri River occurred searcely a week and a half after Peking had cancelled the negotiations, that is, only a short time after Moscow could be reasonably certain Sino-American relations would remain unimproved?

One State Department official has argued that it is a sad state of affairs when one country allows so slight an incident as the defection of a diplomat to another country to surpass in importance forthcoming negotiations with that country over consequential issues. Perhaps the Chinese side (again) saw the Liao incident as an undeserved insult which indicated continued U.S. unwillingness to negotiate seriously--to them, the "current anti-China atmosphere" (in the U.S. government) made it "obviously most unsuitable" to hold talks. The Chinese implied that once this "atmosphere" has dissipated, they would be willing to negotiate; but they must first know that the U.S. in ready to communicate its real intentions to them.

The devices Peking used to condemn the Liao incident shed light on the reasons for her cancellation. In the notes of February 4 and 19, the Chinese went out of their way to emphasize displeasure with Washington's treatment of the Liao affair rather than the mere fact that he had been granted diplomatic asylum. The first sentence of the February 4 note objected to the State Department's "brazenly" announcing the defection, while the second note said that the U.S.'s plotting "to send Liao Ho-shu to Taiwan with a view to creating further anti-China incidents" merits "particular" attention. The Chinese appeared to consider the U.S. handling of the incident unreasonable and indicative of how bad Sino-American relations would be in the next four years.

To inform Peking of a change in the U.S. stand so as to clear the "haze" out of the minds of the leaders there concerning U.S. intentions, the Nixon Administration must first convince them of U.S. sincerity. Since the Chinese cancelled the February 20 talks, the State Department has carried out some of the unilateral steps its spokesman said would have been raised had the talks been held that day. A more substantive approach would be to completely end the U.S. trade embargo against the Mainland.

But more important, the U.S. should assure Peking that it would not attack her fledgling nuclear arsenal and that it would use nuclear weapons against her only in self-defense; assurances followed by the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear warheads around her would be even more effective.


THE GENERAL ATTITUDE which underlies the old China Policy is that as long as the "irrational" Mao governs the Mainland, there can be no serious talks with his government. Peking feels the same way about the capitalist ruling class in America (whose nature, they say, can never change). But what the State Department China Policy makers overlook is that the most important factor in negotiation is the readiness of both sides to get down to business, and this readiness depends more on the political and security situation of the negotiating countries at a particular time than on who governs either country. For some reason, perhaps the tension on her border with the Soviets. Peking has indicated a desire to negotiate with flexibility so as to achieve peaceful coexistence with the United States. Instead of waiting until Mao dies, Washington should consider formulating some new, serious proposals on Taiwan (and the other matters mentioned above) to test the extent of Chinese willingness to patch up relations.

* These five principles are respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty, non-agression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence

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