x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

US-China relations: from Nixon and Mao to Obama and Hu

President Richard Nixon described his 1972 trip to communist China as "the week that changed the world". This week, nearly 40 years later, Hu Jintao and Barack Obama will tackle some pressing issues in Washington.

Hands in pockets, President Richard Nixon takes a walk during his trip to China in February 1972.
Hands in pockets, President Richard Nixon takes a walk during his trip to China in February 1972.

BEIJING // The visit to the United States this week of the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, follows Sino-US summits over the decades that have ranged from globally significant to simply entertaining.

Richard Nixon's 1972 trip to communist China, the first by a US president, was described by Mr Nixon himself as "the week that changed the world", as it refashioned the Cold War political landscape by reducing the acute mutual suspicion that had characterised relations since Mao Zedong's 1949 takeover.

Following tentative reductions in trade barriers in previous years, and two covert trips to China in 1971 by Mr Nixon's then national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, the visit was seen by Mao and his premier, Zhou Enlai, as a way to reduce China's diplomatic isolation. It succeeded in this aim, with more than a dozen countries establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing later that year.

The trip "opened up China to the outside world", according to Jia Qingguo, a professor in Peking University's school of international studies, and a board member of the Chinese Association of American Studies.

"China began to join the international system and started to play an increasing role, rather than staying outside the system and trying to oppose it," he said.

With ties between China and the Soviet Union having soured more than a decade earlier, Mr Nixon's visit prompted Moscow to initiate a thaw in relations with Washington, amid fears it could be outmanoeuvred as Sino-US links improved.

American television crews trailed Mr Nixon as he visited Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou, beaming back images of a country regarded at the time by many in the US as mysterious and deeply hostile.

The feelings were mutual, although in her recent family memoir Grandma's China, the Chinese television journalist Wei Jing noted that official attitudes towards the US softened slightly in the weeks prior to Mr Nixon's visit.

Instead of being told to denounce the US and its people as "ferocious imperialists", workers attending political study sessions were instructed to use the milder term "American imperialists".

After resigning in 1974, Mr Nixon went on to make several further visits to China, the fallen president perhaps finding common ground with the ageing and deeply controversial Chinese leader.

Washington transferred diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing on January 1, 1979, and the following month the de facto Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, travelled to the US and met the then president, Jimmy Carter. The diminutive Mr Deng was not averse to playing to the cameras, donning a cowboy hat and grinning broadly on a visit to a rodeo in Houston.

"With his charm and waving the hat around, he managed to captivate the Texas crowd," James Schlesinger, who was accompanying Mr Deng as the US energy secretary, said in a 2002 interview.

Mr Deng's visit came as he was starting the economic reforms that have since transformed China.

His trip was "probably the most significant visit by a Chinese leader to the US ever", said Barry Sautman, an associate professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who studies Sino-US relations. The Chinese used the visit to indicate to the US they were planning "very sharp reforms", Dr Sautman said, and were creating a more welcoming environment to foreign investment.

"Until that time, statements had been emanating that foreign investment would never be allowed in China. That changed very sharply after the meeting," he said.

Subsequent summits between Chinese and US leaders have perhaps lacked the same geopolitical game-changing resonance, although some are still considered highly significant. Notably, Jiang Zemin's meetings with Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1997 reflected China's re-emergence after the suppression in 1989 of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Mr Clinton's return visit to China in 1998 was generally regarded as successful, with comments from the US leader broadcast live.

"Both of these leaders were rather affable types. They did make an impression on the publics of the countries, Clinton especially," said Dr Sautman.

"When Clinton was in China he gave press conferences and major speeches and attracted a lot of attention."

However, trade issues and Taiwan were sticking points during that visit - just as they could be this week when Mr Hu holds talks with his US counterpart, Barack Obama.