Three former U.S. national security advisers who helped to launch the modern U.S.-Chinese relationship--or sustain it through significant tensions and change—appeared at USIP on March 7 to reflect on the personalities, strategic priorities and complexities in play through the creation of one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships.

Three former U.S. national security advisers who helped to launch the modern U.S.-Chinese relationship--or sustain it through significant tensions and change—appeared at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on March 7 to reflect on the personalities, strategic priorities and complexities in play through the creation of one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships.

Henry A. Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft spoke at a conference co-sponsored by the Institute and the Richard Nixon Foundation, "The Week that Changed the World: President Nixon’s Historic Trip to China and the Future of U.S.-China Relations". The conference brought together key players in the U.S.-Chinese relationship 40 years after the Nixon trip to China, which took place February 21-28, 1972.

Kissinger, who was the U.S. national security adviser from 1969 to 1975, offered some behind-the-scenes glimpses of the diplomatic maneuvering involved with his then-secret July 1971 mission to Beijing and his ensuing October 1971 visit, which laid the groundwork for the historic February 1972 trip by Nixon. The Nixon administration had some difficulty initiating meaningful contact with the Chinese government. “We were dropping hints all over the place,” he recalled. Nixon himself issued instructions that “if you ever see a Chinese leader, tell him we want to talk.” Kissinger and his China policy aides flew to Beijing in July 1971 unbeknownst to the news media. In the Chinese capital, he was out of communication with the White House. But he nonetheless was able, during the October trip, to negotiate in advance most of what would be known as the Shanghai Communique—save for the very sensitive segment on Taiwan. “Nixon and I had spoken so frequently that I knew his thinking,” said Kissinger. He said he “desperately tried not to meet Mao on my first visit,” hoping to ensure that the first American official to meet China’s paramount leader would be Nixon himself. His first impression upon arriving in the Chinese capital: “I was struck by how empty the streets were.” But also on his mind, Kissinger recalled, were the risks if his mission failed to succeed in arranging a formal invitation for Nixon to visit. “It would have been a huge humiliation,” he said.

Kissinger’s main interlocutor was Zhou Enlai, the worldly Chinese premier. Zhou had “wonderful human instincts,” said Kissinger. “He was elegant, thoughtful, well prepared, infinitely patient.”

China’s paramount leader, Mao Zedong, was a man of “demonic capacities,” but in term of his analytical capabilities, according to Kissinger, “I have met nobody who was better than him.” Mao liked to tell stories and “conduct his conversations in a Socratic manner,” Kissinger said, addressing his interlocutors with such phrasings as, “Have you considered the following?”

“We wanted to build China into the international system,” Kissinger said. Going forward, “We have to learn, as a country, that competition with China is inevitable in some respects,” he said. “Both of our countries have to avoid the easy temptation to behave as if the books are balanced at the end of every month.” He added, “The relationship between the United States and China is a key to the peace of the world.”

Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser from 1977 to 1981, oversaw the normalization of U.S. relations with the People’s Republic of China that commenced on January 1, 1979. Brzezinski said that in the years following Nixon’s scandal-driven resignation from the presidency, “some of the momentum was lost.” One problem was the way in which Beijing perceived the U.S.-Chinese-Soviet “triangular dynamics.” Said Brzezinski, “The Chinese were profoundly suspicious that in this triangular game that they were being used by the Soviets and by us.” When Carter sent him to Beijing, the president cautioned him not to “overplay” the anti-Soviet side of the equation and not to “overflatter” the Chinese. The United States agreed to China’s call for accepting an “anti-hegemonic posture.”

Brzezinski described Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping as very direct, “even sarcastic” in conversation, apparently reflecting his penchant for probing U.S. intentions. Deng once asked Brzezinski if the United States feared offending the Soviet Union. Brzezinski’s retort: “I’d be willing to make a bet with you as to who’s less popular with the Soviet Union.” Deng attended a private dinner at Brzezinski’s home and later invited Brzezinski and his family to China after he left the White House. He called Deng one of the two most impressive political leaders he has met.

On the critical issue of Taiwan, Brzezinski said that during normalization talks he advocated the idea that the issue would have to be worked out over time among the Chinese themselves and that the United States hoped it would be resolved peacefully. But to the surprise of the Americans, as normalization took effect, Deng seemed to assume that arms sales would be discontinued immediately, Brzezinski said. The U.S. view was that the sales—which remain a highly sensitive issue to this day--would be suspended that year, then continued. The two sides moved forward, however, agreeing to disagree, he said. The normalization breakthrough, he said, produced “a new strategic alignment” that yielded rapid cooperation on intelligence, on Vietnam and Cambodia, on joint efforts to oppose the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and on trade and scientific cooperation.

Looking ahead, Brzezinski warned of “a growing tendency toward demonization of us toward them, by them toward us.” He cited three priority issues on the bilateral strategic agenda that he said will need to be addressed: the scope of U.S. air and naval patrols in seas near China; China’s military buildup; and the future of Taiwan. “That’s not going to wait indefinitely,” he said of the Taiwan question. Nor can the United States continue to be the source of weaponry for Taiwan without negative consequences for the relationship, he said. In the long run, Brzezinski said he expects “accommodation between the two, depending upon the scale of China’s own geopolitical success.”

Scowcroft was a relatively junior military aide in the White House at the time of the Nixon visit and was on Kissinger’s advance trip to Beijing. Later, as President George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser when China launched its deadly 1989 crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, he was credited with helping to steady a shaken relationship. 

Back in 1972, on the flight to Beijing, Scowcroft described the atmosphere as “almost breathless—almost electric.” Said Scowcroft, “This was literally two separate worlds coming together….It was like people from Mars talking to people from Earth. Our cultures had been completely separated since 1948—except for some hostility.” 

Scowcroft said that Nixon understood how his political standing—as a famously anti-communist conservative—positioned him better than a Democrat would have been to carry out the China breakthrough. Had a Democratic leader like Hubert Humphrey attempted to do the same, Scowcroft said, the right would have said that Taiwan cannot be abandoned. Nixon used his reputation to implement a policy that made sense intellectually, Scowcroft said. Over the decades since, China policy stands out as “the most successful” part of U.S. foreign policy through that period, he said.

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