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Office of the Historian

Rapprochement with China, 1972

In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon traveled to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and met with Mao Zedong, the Chairman of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, and Zhou Enlai, the PRC Premier. Over the course of this visit, the two governments negotiated the Shanghai Communiqué, an important step toward improving relations between the United States and the PRC after many years of hostility.

Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party Mao Zedong shakes hands with U.S. President Richard Nixon in Beijing, February 21, 1972. (Nixon Presidential Library)

Diplomatic estrangement between the two countries went back to the 1940s. After the Chinese civil war ended in 1949, the Communists established the People’s Republic of China on the Chinese mainland while many soldiers and officials of the defeated Republic of China (ROC) evacuated to the island of Taiwan. For the 30 years that followed, the United States recognized the Republic of China as the legitimate government of China and had no official diplomatic relations with Communist China.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were indications that the United States and the People’s Republic of China were considering rapprochement. The escalating war in Vietnam led U.S. officials to look for ways to improve relations with Communist governments in Asia in the hopes that such a policy might lessen future conflict, undermine alliances between Communist countries, diplomatically isolate North Vietnam, and increase U.S. leverage against the Soviet Union. Likewise, Sino-Soviet tension contributed to the Chinese leadership’s desire for a rapprochement with the United States. Nixon signaled his interest in improved relations by easing the travel and trade restrictions against China that dated from the Korean War in the early 1950s. Although the Sino-U.S. Ambassadorial Talks, which began in 1955 and continued intermittently over the years that followed, had reached a hiatus, the two sides agreed to reopen them in 1969. Of greater significance, Nixon established a secret channel to the PRC’s leadership through Pakistani President Yahya Khan. In Nixon’s view, Khan was an attractive intermediary since he had good relations with the leaders of both the United States and the PRC, and he also provided a means to circumvent the U.S. Department of State, which Nixon feared might oppose or publicize his initiative.

By late 1970, the pace of rapprochement was accelerating. Through the Pakistani channel, the PRC government expressed interest in high level discussions with the United States aimed at improving relations. Mao likewise told U.S. journalist Edgar Snow that he would be happy to talk with Nixon. In 1971, Nixon removed the last remaining restrictions preventing Americans from traveling to mainland China. Following well-publicized fraternization between U.S. and PRC table tennis players during an international competition in Japan, the PRC issued an invitation in April 1971 for the U.S. ping pong team to play a match in Communist China. In April 1972, the PRC ping pong team visited the United States on a good-will tour. This informal “Ping Pong Diplomacy” provided a public face for more serious diplomatic negotiations.

Henry Kissinger, the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, traveled to Beijing twice during 1971 to discuss the conditions under which each side would consider a normalization of relations. The first of these trips was conducted in great secrecy and only revealed to the American public during a dramatic speech by President Nixon. Kissinger’s second trip to the PRC, in October 1971, coincided with a vote on Chinese representation in the United Nations. The United States advocated that the United Nations seat delegations from both Communist China and Taiwan. This proposal failed and, instead, the member states of the United Nations voted to seat the PRC delegation in place of the Taiwan delegation. Although the United States unsuccessfully opposed Taiwan’s expulsion from the General Assembly, it supported Communist China’s entrance and assumption of a seat on the Security Council; this contributed to a major diplomatic triumph for the People’s Republic of China.

Nixon travelled to Communist China February 21–28, 1972, becoming the first U.S. President to visit mainland China while in office. Near the end of the trip, the two governments issued the Shanghai Communiqué, in which each articulated its position on a crucial obstacle to normalization, the Taiwan issue. The People’s Republic of China affirmed that Taiwan was a part of China, and that it opposed all attempts to create two Chinas, one China and one Taiwan, or an independent Taiwan. The United States declared that it “acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China,” and that it did not challenge that position. The United States also noted the importance of finding a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan issue and that it intended to withdraw remaining U.S. troops from Taiwan. Over the course of the talks, Mao and Zhou made clear to Nixon that their country would not normalize relations with the United States as long as Washington continued formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan; Nixon stated that the United States did not support Taiwanese independence. The principles established in the Shanghai Communiqué provided the basis for the establishment of formal diplomatic relations [Carter normalization milestone] between the two countries in 1979. On a global scale, rapprochement fundamentally altered the context of the Cold War and influenced the subsequent movement towards détente between the United States and the Soviet Union.