China and Russia Checkmate the West and Bury the Nixon Policy of 1972

The momentous Putin/Xi Summit and subsequent joint declaration issued by the two leaders represents a checkmating of the West and a burying of the US divide and conquer manoeuvre began half a century ago by President Nixon, in February 1972.

The joint Chinese/Russian statement that emerged from the summit is over 5000 words long and is in rather clunky diplomatic language, but it can be roughly summarised in plain English in the following way:

“The US and its numerous vassal states wish to retain world hegemony and ignore international law along with the treaties and agreements they have made with others. This represents a threat to the peace and security of the world and is opposed by both Russia and China. The US has no right to judge other states as to the standard of their “democracy” and other countries have every right themselves, to decide on how they wish to live and organise themselves socially, economically and politically – that is democracy! We intend to build a Eurasian community which will encompass most of its land mass, which will be sovereignly ruled by those nations and peoples who compose it. There cannot be security for some without meaningful security for all – collective security in which states take into account the security of others in making provision for their own security. We will stand together to defeat those forces who threaten our sovereignty and collective security. Russia will support China in its efforts to reintegrate its national territory (Taiwan). China, in turn, will fully support Russia in opposing the expansion of NATO and the Russian ultimatum to the West to halt its advance into its borderlands. The West is attempting, through colour revolutions, to destabilise, control or destroy any state which is unwilling to become a US vassal state. The two states have a common interest in opposing the West’s imperialistic policies and will institute full-spectrum security co-operation in doing so, in common friendship, in the future.”

This momentous development which is of real historical significance has emerged 50 years to the month after President Nixon’s visit to China which, in the West’s narrative, helped to win the Cold War. Is a reassessment of history now in order?

Nixon proclaimed in his Beijing toast that it was “the week that changed the world.”  The Nixon-Kissinger visit to China 50 years ago was primarily an anti-Russian manoeuvre aimed at driving a wedge through the Communist world and isolating Moscow. It was a startling manoeuvre because the US did not formally recognise the People’s Republic of China at the time and Nixon was a fierce anti-communist.

Nixon had written in an article, penned for Foreign Affairs in 1967, well before his election as President, in which he said “that we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside of the family of nations”:

The world cannot be safe until China changes. Thus our aim, to the extent that we can influence events, should be to induce change. The way to do this is to persuade China that it must change: that it cannot satisfy its imperial ambitions.

In the early 19th Century China was a self-contained civilisation going about its own business when it was made war on by the British Empire because it attempted to prevent English merchants smuggling opium into the country. China demanded Britain have regular terms of trade with it. The British Opium Wars waged on China resulted in territorial concessions and unequal treaties with the Chinese which imposed fines in compensation for interference with British Opium traders. Other European Powers followed the British precedent and gained their own concessions. The United States, not to be left out in the scramble for plunder, declared its Open Door China policy. This US Open Door policy differed from the European plundering which involved the taking of territorial enclaves within the disintegrating Chinese state by treating China as being open to everybody in a kind of capitalist exploitation free for all.

American power in the world was much about economic penetration and dominance in East Asia which was facilitated by the disintegration of the Chinese State as a result of the Opium Wars. The rise of US power was dependent on a weak and declining China.

It took the Chinese State over a century to recover from these Opium Wars and foreign exploitation and to reassemble itself as a functional state, from 1948. In 1945, after its Second World War victory, the US regarded Kuomintang China as a client society which it could cultivate on capitalist lines. However, within a decade China had escaped from its embrace and constructed itself into an absolutely sovereign state with its economy serving its own purposes for development. By 1967 this new Chinese substance confronted the US and Nixon found a new use for it in the geopolitical struggle against Moscow.

After the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s the US sought to develop a more powerful China integrated in the Western world order.

To show American good faith prior to his trip to China, President Nixon gave Mao Zedong most of what he wanted on Taiwan. Nixon ordered the US 7th Fleet out of the Taiwan Strait and the withdrawal of US forces from Taiwan, where they had been stationed since the US-Taiwan Mutual Defence Treaty of 1954 (when Nixon served as President Eisenhower’s vice president).

For a generation after the change of government in Peking in 1948 and the retreat of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang army to Formosa, Washington had recognised the Kuomintang regime as the legitimate Government of China and employed its UN veto to prevent the actual, de facto, Government in Peking from taking China’s seat in the UN. In essence it treated China as “one and indivisible” with mainland China being in rebellion against the legitimate Government in Formosa (later renamed Taiwan). Nixon’s geopolitical manoeuvre against Russia resulted in the actual Chinese Government joining the UN and deposing the Kuomintang.

The Nixon policy paved the way for the 1972 Shanghai Communique, in which Beijing stated its one-China principle, that Taiwan is part of China and would eventually be reunified with it by either peaceful or non-peaceful means. Washington used the communique to state its own one-China policy, which implicitly accepted Taiwan’s future merger with China (as long as it was accomplished more or less peacefully). The current US President, Joe Biden, recently excluded China from his “Democracy Summit” and has warned Beijing against re-incorporating Taiwan into the national territory. He treats Taiwan, in effect, as a foreign state from China, while Taiwan itself has never revoked its claim as being the legitimate Government of China!

While the primary aim of US policy had been to drive a wedge between Communist China and Communist Russia, Nixon’s manoeuvre appears to have been also part of a broader US strategy aimed at promoting liberal democracy in China and bringing it into the Western orbit. But Nixon later, in an interview with New York Times columnist William Safire, one of his former speech-writers, feared that he had created a “Frankenstein’s monster” in what he had done. In his 1978 memoir he had revealed the impending potential danger:

We must cultivate China during the next few decades while it is still learning to develop its national strength and potential.  Otherwise we will one day be confronted with the most formidable enemy that has ever existed in the history of the world.”

It had become the US objective to intentionally promote the development of the Chinese economy and and expansion of its middle class with the understanding that greater prosperity would inevitably bring about a demand for political pluralism and democracy, destroying the rule of the Communist Party of China.

Western investment and Chinese participation in the global market was greatly encouraged by Washington. Following Nixon’s visit and the gradual opening of China’s economy, capital and technological know-how, encouraged by the US, poured in. The US encouraged the growth of China believing in the inevitable expansion of liberal democracy. Washington promoted investment and welcomed the country into the global market.

In January 1979 Deng Xiaoping visited the US. The following year the US granted Communist China “most favoured nation” status giving it the best possible trade terms with the US and full access to the American market. China’s manufacturing was reorientated for export to the US market where extravagant American middle class consumption stimulated a massive growth in its economy, impossible without this free access. The granting of this free access to a Communist Power was an extraordinary thing for Cold War America to do given the strength of anti-Communist attitudes in the US.

Even after the events of Tiananmen Square, when the Chinese successfully headed off the kind of disintegration promoted in Russia, the policy was continued and China was granted favoured status annually until it was made permanent in 2000. John Mearsheimer warned the US in 2001:

It is clear that the most dangerous scenario the United States might face in the early twenty-first century is one in which China becomes a potential hegemon in Northeast Asia… What makes a future Chinese threat so worrisome is that it might be far more powerful and dangerous than any of the potential hegemons that the United States confronted in the twentieth century… The United States has a profound interest in seeing Chinese economic growth slow considerably in the years ahead. For much of the past decade, however, the United States has pursued a strategy intended to have the opposite effect. The United States has been committed to ‘engaging’ China, not ‘containing’ it. Engagement is predicated on the liberal belief that if China could be made both democratic and prosperous, it would become a status quo power… As a result, American policy has sought to integrate China into the world economy and facilitate its rapid economic development… This US policy on China is misguided.” (The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, pp. 399-400)

In 2001 China was permitted to join the WTO, opening the global market to the Chinese economy, making it more competitive and powerful. George W. Bush, while smashing up the Muslim world and attempting to remake it in the US image, was saying that “China is on a rising path, and America welcomes the emergence of a strong and peaceful and prosperous China.” (February 2002) And to get its wish Washington continued to let its technology flow unhindered into China allowing the Chinese to build a remarkable capacity for innovation. All, it seems, in the continuing geopolitical battle against Russia, long after, it appeared, the Cold War had been won and victory proclaimed.

It seems to have been believed that encouraging Chinese collaboration in the capitalist world market would undermine the Communist Party, since politics follows from economics, doesn’t it? However, at the same time as the Russian enemy was being effectively subverted China was being built into a formidable force (the new enemy?) because the Communist Party of China had no Gorbachev, who liquidated the Party in the name of aimless reform, and instead has conducted its statecraft very shrewdly indeed. Both Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger, Cold War warriors from both wings of US democracy/imperialism, enthusiastically supported the policy.

In 1995 China accounted for 3 per cent of global trade but now it accounts for over 12 per cent, the largest share of any country, and it has displaced the US as the EU’s largest trading partner. More dangerously China has shown that a Communist Party can run the world’s most successful capitalist economy and democracy is not essential to success. In fact, while the US attempts to export democracy have met with dismal failure, chaos and state collapse “authoritarian” China has just gone from strength to strength. That is very bad when there was supposed to be an “end of history” as liberal democracy annexed the world, creating a utopian paradise. Paradise Lost?

The People’s Republic of China, or the Chinese Communist Party to be precise, presiding over the world’s most successful capitalist economy, is a provocative affront to the accepted wisdom that liberal democracy won the Cold War

Is this why Cathay Delenda Est?

Xi Jinping gave a speech after he became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, on January 5th, 2013, to the Party’s then-newly elected Central Committee. It was made behind closed doors. An abbreviated version of it was published in Xi Jinping’s first book, The Governance of China. The Party’s premier ideological journal, Qiushi, published a much larger version later. The speech and subsequent events appear to have badly shaken the sense of triumphalism in the West. It has not been made available to the general public in the West, perhaps in fear of it disrupting the accepted victory narrative. War is said to be won in the mind of the enemy command. If it is then the war in which victory was proclaimed, was not won. Here is the significant part:

“There are people who believe that communism is an unattainable hope, or even that it is beyond hoping for—that communism is an illusion…

Facts have repeatedly told us that Marx and Engels’ analysis of the basic contradictions in capitalist society is not outdated, nor is the historical materialist view that capitalism is bound to die out and socialism is bound to win. This is an inevitable trend in social and historical development. But the road is tortuous. The eventual demise of capitalism and the ultimate victory of socialism will require a long historical process to reach completion.  In the meantime, we must have a deep appreciation for capitalism’s ability to self-correct, and a full, objective assessment of the real long-term advantages that the developed Western nations have in the economic, technological, and military spheres. Then we must diligently prepare for a long period of cooperation and of conflict between these two social systems in each of these domains.

For a fairly long time yet, socialism in its primary stage will exist alongside a more productive and developed capitalist system. In this long period of cooperation and conflict, socialism must learn from the boons that capitalism has brought to civilization. We must face the reality that people will use the strengths of developed, Western countries to denounce our country’s socialist development. Here we must have a great strategic determination, resolutely rejecting all false arguments that we should abandon socialism. We must consciously correct the various ideas that do not accord with our current stage. Most importantly, we must concentrate our efforts on bettering our own affairs, continually broadening our comprehensive national power, improving the lives of our people, building a socialism that is superior to capitalism, and laying the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.

Stephen Kotkin, a thoughtful US Professor, historian and observer of Russia was recently asked what he thought of this. He remarked about the Chinese Communist Party:

“We all thought they were cynics… they just wanted the Leninist structures to stay in place politically and therefore they tried to legitimate themselves with the verbiage and rhetoric of Communism. And so we were dismayed that the Communist ideology was still there. We just could not believe it. Smart people could not believe that. Not after what happened in the Soviet Union, not after what happened with the triumph of the markets globally. But some of them actually believe it!”

It appears that old Communists never die. Was there really a Cold War victory at all?

Perhaps this is what spurred President Trump to draw some conclusions and call a halt to the US policy begun by Nixon and declare a trade war in 2018. President Biden has continued the Trump policy, but without giving his predecessor the credit for having put a stop to (dare we say it?) this “appeasement”. The US Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 passed by Congress labels China the greatest political and geo-economic challenge for United States foreign policy and has defined Taiwan as a sovereign state of vital strategic importance for the US.

It appears, however, that the Nixon manoeuvre was not an American stroke of genius after all. The Chinese, we were always told, are “an inscrutable people”. They have a civilisation much older and wiser than the West and they take history very seriously. They are not taken with superficialities and fads and fashions as is the way in the West.

The 1972 opening wasn’t just Nixon’s idea, or that of his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. It was also Mao’s—or, to be more precise, it was a product of a select group of Chinese military men working for Mao. Nixon and Kissinger are widely credited with playing China against the Soviet Union but Mao’s China was a strategic actor as well with its own political agenda. This information is contained in Michael Pillsbury’s sensationally titled 2015 book, The Hundred Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace the United States as the Global Superpower.

Before the Great War of 1914 it was said that Germany was out for world domination. Before that it was the French and the Russians, who, in the decade prior to 1914 were acquired as allies to prevent imminent German world domination. History seems to suggest that people who write books about enemies seeking world domination speak on behalf of the actual dominators of the world.

Pillsbury served in a number of high-ranking positions within the U.S. government and its accompanying think tanks, including RAND. He is currently senior fellow and director for Chinese strategy at the Hudson Institute in Washington. In the late 1960s and 1970s, he was well-situated to observe the first steps in America’s partnership with China. Indeed, Pillsbury was an early advocate for a Sino-American alliance, arguing that the U.S. should provide more economic and military assistance to China to fight the USSR. Pillsbury, while working at the United Nations in 1969 and 1970, collected intelligence from the Soviets that played a minor role in the Nixon administration’s decision-making. During the 1980s, he rose to the position of assistant Under Secretary of Defense for policy planning at the Pentagon, during the Reagan administration.

Pillsbury makes his view clear that even though Nixon did propose an engagement with China in 1967, Chairman Mao was actually the more proactive agent: “Nixon did not first reach out to China; instead, China in the person of Mao, first reached out to Nixon.” Pillsbury points to Mao’s overtures, including his unprecedented public appearance, on October 1st, 1970, alongside the American journalist Edgar Snow on the Tiananmen review stage. Mao “gave his guest a message: President Nixon was welcome to visit China.”

In 1969 Mao had had discussions with his generals concerned at the threat from Soviet Russia since the split in the Communist world. The fear Mao had was that the US would provoke a major conflict between the 2 great Communist states. During mid-1969 there had been a number of battles on the Sino-Soviet border that resulted in hundreds of casualties on both sides. Mao feared that Washington would sit on top of a mountain watching 2 tigers fight. It was decided to study the Russian-German pact of 1939, concluded by Stalin. The US was viewed by the Chinese in the Hitler role, as the ruthless hegemon aggressor.

The Chinese had carefully studied the period of the Warring States (475 BC-221 BC) in Chinese history. They examined how the less powerful states had unseated the hegemon. The Chinese even mentioned this in their talks with Nixon. A diplomatic translator referred to the US as the “ba” translating the word as “leader” but which more accurately means “tyrant” in Chinese.

Mao successfully turned the tables on the US, according to Pillsbury.

It is now universally accepted in the US that it bungled in relation to assisting the growth of Chinese power. At the very least it is understood that this policy was continued for too long. But what should have been done? Foreign Affairs is at a loss for an answer. But all that needs asking is what its predecessor, Britain would have done in its position. Britain’s great success was built around its Balance of Power policy which meant great reorientations in foreign policy following the cutting down to size of former enemies and the employment of these old enemies against new rivals that appeared on the scene. Sure, Britain catastrophically miscalculated in 1914 in relation to Germany but for two centuries this policy made Britain, a small island people, master of the globe.

Taking a leaf out of Britain’s book, the US should have concluded, around the year 2000, that Russia was done as a serious rival and employed it as an ally against a rising China. Putin, who was open to friendship with the West would probably have co-operated in return for Western benevolence toward Russia. China, potentially a much more significant geopolitical rival with its vast population and economic potential, could have been encircled and effectively curtailed, at least for a generation. But the US lacked the immorality of Britain which had enabled it to ignore the character of its allies. True, during the Cold War the US had managed to suspend its morality in assisting dictators and authoritarians all over the world to do down opposition in ferocious ways. But that was to vanquish the greatest evil of all – Communism. Now there is internal evil in the US as well as external and it can never let go of its hatred of Russia. This has left the US with the worst of all results as the Cold War enemy reunites for purposes of mutual defence against the US, 50 years after Nixon prised them apart.

President Xi Jinping in his Summit with President Putin and joint declaration has left no doubt that the Nixon/Kissinger policy has been a failure and the West has been checkmated in its move on the East by the cohering of a powerful bloc of resistance. Russia has arisen from the ashes and is ready to stand and fight for the revision of the humiliating settlement being relentlessly imposed on the country by the US and associated powers. The victory of the market and the death of Communism has also apparently been greatly exaggerated in relation to China.

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Perhaps we should consult von Clausewitz:

“If one side uses force without compunction, that side will force the other to follow suit. Even the most civilised of peoples can be fired with passionate hatred of each other. The thesis must be repeated: war is an act of force, and there is no logical limit to the application of that force.” (Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book One, Chapter One)

Perhaps President Biden should now realise that if he chooses the path of confrontation with the parts of the world that wish to remain outside of US hegemony and want to exercise self-determination he may be choosing Armageddon for us all.

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