31. Editorial Note

President Richard M. Nixon’s February 21–28, 1972, trip to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was the first to Mainland China by a United States President. While there, the President discussed Vietnam on several occasions with Premier of the State Council, Zhou Enlai. The United States was withdrawing from Vietnam, the President told Zhou, and had pulled out almost 500,000 troops since he had become President. However, the United States would not complete the withdrawal except on negotiated terms, the essential conditions being that American prisoners of war had to be returned and the American ally, the South Vietnamese Government, had to survive the negotiating process. On the latter point, Nixon told Zhou, “we cannot remove the government of South Vietnam and in effect turn over the government to the [Page 113] North Vietnamese.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XVII, China, 1969–1972, Document 196)

Premier Zhou made carefully calibrated responses to Nixon’s statements. While noting that the PRC supported the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong cause, and would continue to provide aid to them, he nonetheless concluded: “there is one thing we scrupulously abide by, [and] that is our respect for their sovereignty and independence.” Moreover, he continued, the Chinese had no intention to and no right to negotiate for the North Vietnamese. (See ibid., Document 204) On this point, Nixon admitted that to get the negotiations back on track the United States would welcome any assistance the Chinese might provide. At the very least, he hoped that they would not discourage the North Vietnamese from negotiating. To this, the Chinese agreed. (Ibid., Documents 196 and 199) More positively, Premier Zhou confirmed that if the war in Indochina persisted, the PRC, while still sending aid to Hanoi, would not become militarily involved as long as the United States did not attack China. (Ibid., Document 196) Since the United States obviously had no such intention, Kissinger seemed justified in concluding that Zhou had told him in a roundabout way that China would not send troops to Vietnam. (Kissinger, White House Years, page 1062)

In their official histories of the Vietnam war, the North Vietnamese indicated that they largely accepted the Chinese position. Hanoi believed that a great power such as China had to play a full role in the international community. Resuming relations with the United States would create favorable conditions for the PRC to enter the United Nations and to normalize relations with other countries. ( Le Duc ThoKissinger Negotiations in Paris, page 210) More pragmatically, as long as the Chinese continued to send food, military equipment, construction materials, weapons, and machinery to North Vietnam, the great power diplomacy of the United States and the People’s Republic of China seemed not to matter greatly. Even so, North Vietnamese leaders reassured Chinese (and Soviet) leaders that while pursuing their policy of protracted war against the Americans and the South Vietnamese they intended to fight only in Indochina. They would not allow the war to expand further and threaten world peace. (Nguyen Dinh Bin, ed., Vietnamese Diplomacy, 1945–2000, page 234)