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Nixon's China Game | Article

Shanghai Communiqué Issued


On February 27, 1972, the United States and China issued a joint communiqué, the culmination of Nixon and Kissinger’s historic week-long visit to the People’s Republic. Kissinger had begun to draft the Shanghai Communiqué with Chou En-lai the previous October, when he met in Beijing with the Chinese prime minister to lay the groundwork for Nixon’s upcoming visit. Kissinger continued to hammer out the details during the February 1972 summit, usually in late-night sessions with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Qiao Guanhua.

The communiqué pledged both countries to work for "normalization" of relations, and to expand "people-to-people contacts" and trade opportunities. In a not-so-thinly-veiled reference to the Soviet Union, the communiqué declared that neither nation "should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and each is opposed to efforts by any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony." 

Early in the negotiations, recognizing that China and the U.S. held many irreconcilable positions, Chou En-lai proposed an unorthodox format for the communiqué. The two sides essentially agreed to disagree, each stating its views in separate paragraphs when necessary. On the thorny Vietnam issue, for example, the U.S. endorsed Nixon’s latest peace plan, while China expressed firm support for the Communist proposal.

Yet despite the plan for unilateral declarations, Taiwan remained a stumbling block throughout the negotiations. While the U.S. sought improved relations with Beijing, it still officially recognized Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government on Taiwan. In fact, the U.S. had been inching toward a "two Chinas" policy for years. Only four months earlier, when the United Nations voted on whether to admit the People's Republic of China, the U.S. reversed its 20-year opposition to seating the PRC, but opposed any effort to expel Taiwan. Ultimately, the U.S. lost the fight for dual representation. The PRC gained admission to the UN, Taiwan was ousted -- and the U.S. was left to juggle relations with two countries that both saw themselves as the sole legitimate government of all of China.

The Chinese regarded the presence of American troops on Taiwan as a violation of China's sovereignty and pressed for full U.S. military withdrawal from the island. Nixon and Kissinger wanted to condition a withdrawal on enlisting China's help in ending the Vietnam War. And while China viewed its dealings with Taiwan as a strictly internal issue, to be handled as it saw fit, the Americans insisted that the Chinese resolve the Taiwan question without the use of force. 

In the end, both sides made concessions. As Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoirs, neither the U.S. nor China was willing to let the Taiwan issue become an obstacle to their emerging new relationship: "The basic theme of the Nixon trip -- and the Shanghai Communiqué -- was to put off the issue of Taiwan for the future, to enable the two nations to close the gulf of twenty years and to pursue parallel policies where their interests coincided." 

The U.S. declared its "interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves," and affirmed a total U.S. military withdrawal from the island as an "ultimate objective." The U.S. also agreed to "progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes," thereby giving China a stake in the abatement of the Vietnam War.

For its part, the PRC firmly rejected any "two Chinas" formulation, declaring unequivocally that "the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government of China" and "Taiwan is a province of China." The U.S., in deft phrasing, acknowledged "that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China," but neatly avoided the question of who should govern this "one China." 

A last-minute objection by Secretary of State Rogers was similarly sidestepped. Nixon and Kissinger had deliberately kept Rogers and his staff out of the negotiations on the communiqué, and when State Department officials finally saw the text, they immediately objected. All of the United States' defense treaty partners in Asia were specifically named -- except Taiwan. When Rogers managed to bring the issue to Nixon’s attention, the President was beside himself. Nixon knew he couldn’t just walk away from U.S. commitments to Taiwan without incurring the wrath of his conservative supporters back home. Nor could he afford the bad publicity if Rogers broke ranks and "leaked" to the press. Rogers managed to force the communiqué back to the negotiating table -- much to Nixon and Kissinger's dismay -- but in the end, both sides simply dropped all references to U.S. treaty partners, rather than force the Taiwan issue. 

In fact, Nixon and Kissinger went significantly further on Taiwan in their private talks with Chou than in the communiqué. As recently released notes and transcripts reveal, the Americans offered Chou extensive assurances that they intended to open full diplomatic relations with Beijing as soon as possible -- and were willing to sacrifice Taiwan to do so. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, however, Nixon was unable to carry through on these promises, and the U.S. didn’t establish full diplomatic relations with the PRC until 1979. 

Yet once the Shanghai Communiqué was issued, the writing was on the wall. As journalist and China scholar James Mann has written, " . . . Nixon’s initiative conveyed America’s acceptance, for the first time, of the outcome of the Chinese civil war and the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek. The United States stopped challenging the Chinese Communist Party’s authority to rule the country. . . . The American acceptance (in the communiqué) and, indeed, its embrace (in Nixon’s private talks) of a one-China policy was to govern American conduct from that point onward." 

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