Nick Lindquist, a conservative freelance writer, has a piece in Law & Liberty in which he essentially blames Richard Nixon for China’s rise. Provocatively titled “Nixon’s New Red Century,” the article claims that Nixon hoped to bring China “onto the world stage with hopes that they will eventually become a friend rather than a foe — a prosperous, democratic business partner rather than a bitter, isolated communist rival.” Instead of fulfilling Nixon’s hope that the opening to China would be a “great leap forward,” Lindquist writes, China “has taken the world backward.” This is an oversimplification and misreading of Nixon’s geopolitical design.
Without China as a U.S. ally, it is doubtful that the Soviet Union would have collapsed in 1989-1991.
In international politics, context is everything. Nixon came into office and inherited a growing quagmire in Vietnam, a Soviet enemy who had achieved nuclear parity with the United States and whose leaders believed that the “world correlation of forces” were moving in their favor, and a fracturing NATO alliance whose leading European member (Germany) was forging an independent Ostpolitik policy toward the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. The Sino-Soviet split was real and growing, as evidenced by a border clash in March 1969 near the Ussuri River. It is true, as Lindquist points out, that Nixon believed, as he wrote in his famous 1967 Foreign Affairs article “Asia After Vietnam,” that the U.S. could not afford “to leave China forever outside the family of nations,” but Nixon’s primary reason for the opening to China was geopolitical.
Nixon and his top foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger, understood that American national security in the face of Soviet hostility depended on the geopolitical pluralism of Eurasia. Kissinger called it “triangular diplomacy,” and it featured both the opening to China and détente with the Soviet Union. The immediate goal of triangular diplomacy was to position the United States closer to the Soviet Union and China than they were to each other. The long-term goal was to embrace China in a de facto alliance against the Soviet Union and thereby sustain and enhance the geopolitical pluralism of Eurasia. Nixon’s strategy worked. Without China as a U.S. ally, it is doubtful that the Soviet Union would have collapsed in 1989-1991. In this sense, as Kissinger claimed in the third volume of his memoirs, Years of Renewal, Nixon set the stage for the Reagan administration’s policies that won the Cold War.
Lindquist correctly notes that after the Berlin Wall fell, “Democratic and Republican administrations saw bilateral relations with China as a benefit rather than a detriment.” Presidents from Clinton through Obama failed to appreciate that the U.S-China “alliance” was a marriage of convenience during the Cold War — for both countries, the enemy of my enemy was my friend. That should have ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but on our side it didn’t. U.S. policy toward China in the post–Cold War years helped fuel China’s rise economically and militarily.
Lindquist criticizes those “American elites” who believed that “once the Chinese people got a taste of westernization and a higher quality of life, they would begin to demand certain things of their government — among them, more rights and democracy.” “[T]hat hasn’t happened,” Lindquist writes, “and never will.” Here, Lindquist ignores Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the current protests over COVID lockdowns, which have included calls for the CCP to surrender power. It also ignores the vibrant democracy in Taiwan that puts the lie to Lindquist’s suggestion that “Eastern and Confucian tradition” causes Chinese citizens to have no desire for self-governance.
But Lindquist is right to criticize Western political and business elites who saw (and see) only dollar signs when they view the Chinese market. Their political hubris and economic greed blinded them to geopolitical realities. “While our leaders over the last several decades smiled and shook hands with Chinese officials,” Lindquist writes, “the CCP built an empire of oppression, military might, and fear, standing in complete opposition to our values.”
The “Red Century,” Lindquist writes, “has turned out to be the 21st century.” If that is so — and it’s probably too early to tell — it isn’t Nixon’s fault. Nixon dealt with China during a particular time period in the context of specific geopolitical circumstances. Nixon understood that it was geopolitics, not values, that brought the U.S. and China together during the latter years of the Cold War. He also knew that after the fall of the Soviet Union the geopolitical arena changed. He foresaw China as a potential rival — a 21st century peer competitor to the U.S.-led global order.
As Josh Rogin noted in his invaluable book Chaos Under Heaven, the Trump administration, especially in its last two years, shifted U.S. policy from engagement to containment, recognizing that great power rivalry had replaced terrorism as the geopolitical center of gravity. But while the Biden administration sometimes sounds Trumpian in its rhetoric toward China, its actual China policy has more in common with Trump’s predecessors.
Neither Trump nor Biden has the geopolitical mind of a Richard Nixon. Nixon, as Time’s observer of presidents Hugh Sidey once wrote, “understood the men, the ingredients, the glory, the brutality, the action and reaction of power as well as anyone else of our time.”