Revisiting Strategic Imperatives of Sino-American Rapprochement in the 1970s


China has emerged as the United States’ formidable strategic rival in the current global landscape. However, even just a decade ago, the bilateral relations were much more harmonious, and have been through a journey of high and low in the past five decades. Their current relationship stands on the foundations of a remarkable rapprochement process that began in the 1970’s. Prior to this pivotal period, there had been long hostility between the United States and mainland China, characterized by decades of antagonism. However, in a surprising turn of events, in the early 70’s, President Richard Nixon and his astute advisor Henry Kissinger, embarked on a diplomatic journey that would reshape the global geopolitical landscape in the coming decades. In the face of numerous cold war realities and geopolitical imperatives, Nixon and Kissinger perceived the necessity for an alternative approach and took several revolutionary choices to start a process of reconciliation with China.

The two countries held extensive dialogues during this rapprochement process, in an effort to establish points of agreement and potential ground of cooperation. This involved diplomatic negotiations, trade talks, and cultural exchanges aimed at fostering mutual understanding and trust. It represented a significant departure from the previous hostile stance, as both countries explored avenues for collaboration and peaceful coexistence out of their strategic imperatives.

Background to the Rapprochement Process

By the late 1960s, developments in global geopolitical forces spurred a reconsideration of Sino-American relations. President Richard Nixon adopted a pragmatic approach known as “realpolitik” in response to the expensive and escalating Vietnam War, China’s tense ties with the Soviet Union, and the desire to take advantage of cracks within the communist bloc. This approach emphasized pursuing national interests rather than ideological battles, leading to a reassessment of relations with China and marked a departure from previous hostility to set the stage for improved relations.

Strategic Imperatives of Sino-American Rapprochement

As the perception of the USA and PRC changed gradually due to the changes in circumstantial realities, both states were under pressure to adjust their foreign policy by taking national interest into consideration rather than ideological views.

Under Mao’s leadership, China initially embraced ‘cultural revolution’ as its foreign policy principles in an effort to foster ‘people-to-people’ relationships and ‘spread the people’s revolution’ throughout the world. This approach produced fear in many states to establish relationships with China and diplomatically it was being isolated. As a result, China made the decision to develop a multifaceted “state to state” foreign policy strategy that would enable it to forge relations outside the communist bloc. At the same time, due to its exclusion from international affairs, it struggled to draw in foreign investment and predominately remained an agrarian nation, whereas by the 1970s, its archrival Japan had established itself as an economic powerhouse in East Asia with US assistance.

Therefore, from a financial standpoint, normalizing ties with the USA helped it achieve its objective of self-sufficiency. Another significant factor is the deterioration of China’s relations with the Soviet Union by late 1967. The “Brezhnev Doctrine,” which governed Soviet policy, provided justification for a number of expansionist measures, including the “Prague Spring of 1968,” which compelled China to alter its view of the Soviet Union. As a result of the Soviet Union’s heightened military capacity in East and Central Asia following the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Chinese leadership began to worry that it may be the target of the next Soviet advancement. In addition, Moscow sought to work with Japan to establish a new Asian security structure aimed at containing China after the “Prague Spring”. Moreover, following the “Prague Spring” Moscow intended to create a new Asian security system with Japan that aimed at containment of China. Such an international atmosphere drove China towards the policy of rapprochement with the USA to provide itself a chance against Soviet expansion and further isolation in the region.

From an American perspective, a number of factors coincided with China and pushed it towards rapprochement with the PRC. The anti-war movement exposed the vicious split that the war had caused inside US society. The prolongation and lack of success in the Vietnam war forced the American leadership to find a new solution and foreign policy approach instead of war. The American economy also had taken substantial damage to finance the war as the military budget crossed 30 billion by the time Nixon ascended into the office. Domestically and internationally, there was rising frustration with the Vietnam War. During the election campaign, Nixon accurately scrutinized public sentiment and pledged to wind off the war and seek out other solutions.

Additionally, as the cold war tension mounted, public pressure to seek tranquility in foreign policy intensified due to the fear of an escalation and full-fledged nuclear war in situations like the Cuban missile crisis. At that time, the Sino-soviet rivalry seemed to be the only alternative to serve the American interests, where the US could contain both the Soviet and PRC simultaneously by establishing formal relations with China and using the two communist powers against each other. Moreover, with China, it could pressurize North Vietnam for ending the war honorably without further expenditure of its troops and budget and it also would give the US an extension to her strategy in its ideological confrontation against the Soviet Union.

The Rapprochement Process

In the period of multifaceted international atmosphere, the Sino-American rapprochement process was a complex and multifaceted journey that involved diplomatic negotiations, cultural exchanges, and strategic decisions. It can be divided into several key phases:

  • Secret Diplomatic Outreach (Early 1970s): The first stage involves clandestine diplomatic contacts between the US and China. Henry Kissinger, the national security adviser, undertook covert trips to China to set the groundwork for future high-level involvement.
  • Ping-Pong Diplomacy (1971): In a unique turn of events, American table tennis players visited China for a friendly competition Giving the diplomatic process a cultural face, this event, termed “ping-pong diplomacy,” fostered goodwill and cleared the door for more meetings.
  • Nixon’s Historic Visit (1972): President Richard Nixon made a historic visit to China, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to do so. His week-long trip included meetings with Chinese leaders, cultural events, and a widely televised meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong. The visit was a crucial turning point in the reconciliation effort.
  • Shanghai Communiqué (1972): Following Nixon’s visit, the United States and China jointly released a declaration known as the Shanghai Communiqué. It provided guidelines for mending ties, such as acknowledging the One China policy and the desire to strive towards peaceful cohabitation.
  • Establishing Full Diplomatic Relations: In 1979, the United States formally established full diplomatic relations with the PRC, acknowledging its 3 demands raised in the Shanghai Communique, namely cutting off diplomatic relations with Taiwan, withdrawing its military from there and annulling its treaties signed with Chiang Kai-shek regime.
  • Trade and Economic Cooperation: As relations improved, trade and economic cooperation became important pillars of the rapprochement, leading to increased trade, investment, and technological exchanges between the two countries.
  • Bilateral Agreements and Summits: Over the years, the United States and China engaged in numerous bilateral agreements and high-level summits to address a wide range of issues. These included agreements on arms control, human rights dialogues, intellectual property protection, and climate change cooperation.

The Sino-American rapprochement process in the 1970s marked a historic turning point in the relationship between these two major powers. After decades of antagonism, the United States and China were able to effectively normalize their ties through covert diplomacy, cultural exchanges, and high-level visits. The geopolitical landscape of the world saw enormous changes as a result of this event, which also had far-reaching implications. The Sino-American reconciliation effort serves as a reminder of the ability of nations to get over old resentments and cooperate on common objectives. It emphasizes the value of diplomacy, cultural interactions, and practical involvement in influencing international relations. The same should be recreated in the current setting of global order where the world passes through the days of chaos and uncertainty.

– Wahid Uzzaman Sifat is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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