The impact of both key figures and lesser personages on U.S. foreign policy toward China, both Chinese and American, cannot be overemphasized. This extends from leaders like Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Deng Xiaoping, to bureaucrats like Paul Wolfowitz operating at lower levels. As in every other human endeavor the people involved brought their own goals and prejudices to their role in Sino-American relations, and even those not in high-profile positions were able to dramatically impact the course of Sino-American relations.
The biases and goals of the Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong had the longest enduring impact because of his virulent early anti-American stances. Mao’s anti-American strategy took the form of his “lean to one side” policy of aligning with the Soviet Union, and was part of a concerted effort to exclude Western influences from China. Sino-American disputes over Taiwan and during the Korean War solidified Mao’s anti-American policies, as did American efforts to exclude China from the United Nations. Only the failure of the Sino-Soviet Alliance pushed Mao toward better relations with the United States, particularly after border disputes led to armed clashes between Soviet and Chinese troops.
Mao’s virulent anti-Americanism also meant that during his lifetime, only he could truly push for reconciliation with the United States, just as Nixon was one of the few Americans with the anti-Communist credentials to reestablish relations with China. This is particularly true on the issue of Taiwan, where Mao brushed aside the question of reunification by saying that he could wait one hundred years to resolve that issue. Taiwan continued to be a disruptive factor in Sino-American relations: issues of diplomatic recognition, American arms sales, and the Mutual Defense Treaty remained, but Mao was able to brush away a major obstacle in Sino-American reconciliation by indicating that it could wait a long time for resolution.
On the American side, President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger were pivotal in reestablishing relations between China and the United States. Nixon came to office with the goal of enhancing relations with China, which Kissinger agreed with as a ploy to counter the Soviet Union. Further, Nixon saw better relations with China as a means to withdraw American forces from Vietnam without embarrassing the United States. His long record of active anti-Communist activities immunized Nixon from any claims that pursuing reconciliation with China was “soft” on Communism, which allowed him to make moves in this arena that would be difficult for Democrats. Nixon’s anti-Communist record also allowed him to partially deflect outcry from Taiwan when he pulled the 7th Fleet out of the Taiwan Strait in order to assist negotiations with China. He was also able to tell Taiwanese leaders that he would sell them out, and then announce his trip to China without providing his opponents an opening to attack him politically – or prevent the trip.
Nixon’s distrust of the State Department and its career Foreign Service Officers also colored reconciliation efforts during his Administration. His belief that the State Department never contributed new ideas, combined with his desire to run Foreign Policy from the White House, served to cut the department’s China specialists out of the loop. American ambassadors also felt the impact of Nixon’s hands-on approach to foreign policy, as they were excluded from meetings between the President and foreign leaders. Running his own foreign policy, and the exclusion of the State Department from the policy process, also allowed Nixon to hold negotiations with China in secret, avoiding disruptions from Congress.
If anything Henry Kissinger was even more concerned with controlling foreign policy than Nixon, especially in his role as National Security Adviser. When Nixon met with foreign leaders, Kissinger only provided the State Department the information he thought they needed, and generally kept the ambassadors and China specialists out of the negotiation loop. This also tied into Kissinger’s desire to control access to the President, which prevented both full use of the available resources and airing of opinions contrary to his. Kissinger did not even allow the National Security Council staff to attend meetings with Nixon.
The Nixon-Kissinger penchant for secrecy was also designed to keep negotiations with China from becoming negotiations with the American press, and to keep American allies from attempting to insert their own policy goals into the process. However, Kissinger’s need to keep information to himself also extended to not informing individuals the President wanted involved in the process of what was going on, as in the case of William Rogers and Kissinger’s first trip to China (Tucker, 246). Kissinger’s reaction is only partially due to a fear of information leaks, but also due to insecurity about his role and arrogance regarding his particular knowledge of the situation.
Kissinger also brought the attitude that geopolitical advantage should triumph all other concerns in foreign affairs. This led him to convince Chinese leaders that the American alliance with Japan was for the benefit of both nations. Not only did it assist in isolating the Soviet Union, but also it prevented Japanese remilitarization. As long as Japan was comfortable with the security provided by American forces, it would not attempt to create powerful armed forces or develop nuclear weapons. Kissinger also promoted his favored concept of balance of power with Chinese leaders as a method to contain Japan, and prevent Japanese hegemony in Asia. Kissinger also placed geopolitical concerns far above human rights issues, which led him to urge President Bush not to damage relations with China over the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.
American President Jimmy Carter pushed normalization of relations with China further than either Nixon or Ford, and came into office with this as a policy goal. Unlike earlier, or even later, Administrations, Carter accepted the idea that the United States had to accept Chinese demands to achieve normalization. As a result he virtually abandoned Taiwan and revoked the Mutual Defense Treaty, stopped development efforts for the Taiwan liaison office, and failed to insist on Chinese renunciation of force as a means to reunite with Taiwan (Tucker, 284). When Congress forced passage of the Taiwan Relations Act, Carter told Chinese leaders that he would interpret TRA in a manner compatible with the Sino-American normalization agreements. Most of these developments regarding China arose from Carter’s desire to radically alter American relations with Asia in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Post-Mao Chinese leaders also had a significant impact on Sino-American relations, but none more that Deng Xiaoping. During the Carter Administration, Deng acted to further improve relations based on his pragmatic view of the world. Not only was he pragmatic on issues important to Americans like free emigration, but also he made Zhou Enlai’s four modernizations top priorities for the CCP. He also moved to rid China of the last remains of the Cultural revolution, introduced pro-capitalism economic reforms, and tried to develop closer ties with the West in order to gain trade opportunities and access to technology (Tucker, 283). Deng’s plans to modernize China forced him to develop much closer ties to the United States.
Deng and Carter’s efforts did not ensure good relations between the United States and China. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June 1989, Congress pushed for a larger role in determining American foreign policy. This was largely a result of President George Herbert Walker Bush’s attempt to preserve ties with China at all costs, which made him seem weak when confronting dictators. Bush continued to show that he was generally weak on human rights issues when he blamed Winston Lord and the Beijing embassy staff for Chinese displeasure over Fang Lizhi’s invitation to a Presidential dinner in China. When Bill Clinton criticized President Bush for being weak on dictators during the 1992 Presidential Election, Bush broke an agreement with China regarding the capabilities and numbers of weapons sold to Taiwan and damaged Sino-American relations to score domestic political points.
Bill Clinton’s record regarding China was no better than Bush’s. Clinton created strains in relations during the election by attacking Bush as soft on China after Tiananmen. Clinton further damaged relations by trying to tie Most Favored Nation trade status to Chinese improvements on human rights, and then reversed the decision after Chinese leaders refused to make any changes. Winston Lord blamed Clinton’s policy problems on a lack of true focus on China or foreign policy during the Clinton years.