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China-US relations

Remembering Nixon, a Trump White House can only be bad for China-US ties

Jean-Pierre Lehmann says the contrasting fortunes of the two nations since Nixon’s landmark 1972 visit bring home the challenges of a Trump presidency

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2017, 5:51pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2017, 7:06pm

Of all the many surprises that have occurred in my lifetime, the news on Monday morning, February 21, 1972, that US president Richard Nixon was in Beijing stands out as one of the greatest. Since the “Liberation” in October 1949, China – better known to Americans as “Red China” – had been ostracised by the US, its allies and the international community. The “legitimate” government of China was in Taipei under Chiang Kai-shek, not Beijing.

What Americans termed the “fall” of China – the victory of the Communists – had unleashed powerful forces of anti-communism and purges under the aegis of the “House of Un-American Activities”. Nixon, a lawyer by training, had been conspicuous in these activities as a hardliner; hence, his anti-communist credentials were impeccable. The visit was a huge “black swan” event; eminent Canadian historian Margaret Macmillan subtitled her book, Nixon and Mao, “The Week That Changed the World”. It did; and how!

Watch: Nixon visits China in 1972

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Chairman Mao Zedong (毛澤東) only travelled twice abroad, both times to Moscow; the first time in December 1949, and the second in 1957, to attend celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution. This year, 2017 – which marks the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution – President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ), apart from having paid official visits to virtually every nook and cranny of the planet, is attending the World Economic Forum summit in Davos – the first Chinese head of state to do so. In a week when Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the US, Xi is in Davos presenting himself as the global leader of open trade and the fight against climate change.

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From having been ostracised by the international community, China is today present everywhere and much solicited everywhere. After the opening-up reforms in the 1980s under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), China rapidly became the world’s biggest export power and hub of global manufacturing supply chains.

In the past decade, its global conspicuousness has been evident in other ways. It is a major source of capital and acquirer of US Treasury bills; a major source of aid to developing and least developed countries; a major source of outward foreign direct investment; a major investor in international property; a major funder of global infrastructure projects, notably with its “One Belt, One Road” initiative; a major source of outbound tourism, with more than 120 million Chinese tourists having gone overseas in 2015; and a major source of overseas students, especially to the US, Britain and Australia.

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China has come a long way from its days of having been marginalised as a non-entity in the world economy. Today, it is no exaggeration to say that if the Chinese economy were to sneeze – which is not impossible – the rest of the world economy would catch pneumonia.

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Meanwhile, back at the US ranch, things are going somewhat in reverse, albeit in a haywire fashion. When Nixon visited Mao, the US was still embroiled in the Vietnam war, though it was ending. It ended ultimately with America’s defeat in 1975. For the ensuing three decades, until 2003, while there were a number of challenges on the global geopolitical front – notably in 1979, with the Iranian Islamic Revolution overthrowing the regime of the Shah that the US had imposed by coup on the Iranian people since 1953 – by and large, the US increasingly emerged as the uncontested leader of the world, combining both seemingly unchallengeable soft and hard power.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US became the unrivalled global hegemon and, virtually everywhere, Pax Americana prevailed. Then another event occurred, on Thursday, March 20, 2003 that would also change the world, though this time in cataclysmic fashion, rather than catalytically, as had been the case with Nixon’s surprise visit to Beijing: the invasion of Iraq. It is impossible to exaggerate the catastrophic global consequences of this illegal act. Whereas Nixon’s visit to Beijing led to a more open, stable, dynamic and ultimately peaceful world, George W. Bush’s invasion (in cahoots with Tony Blair) had the opposite effect: it led to a world that is more closed, more instable, more stagnant and, especially, more bellicose.

Of course, the US stands no risk of being ostracised. One can condemn and impose sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine, but not the US for invading Iraq. The US will continue to maintain significant global hard and soft power. Yet Trump has been elected on a platform combining offensive nationalism and defensive isolationism.

One can condemn and impose sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine, but not the US for invading Iraq

Whereas Nixon’s surprise visit to Beijing led to quite peaceful and constructive – even if at times turbulent – relations between China and the US, Trump’s offensive tirades against China, echoed by his senior appointments, will result in a possibly serious deterioration of US-China relations. Indeed, actual conflict between the two countries is increasingly seen by major think tanks and thought leaders as a not unfathomable scenario.

In praising Nixon and denigrating Trump, I should add and stress that Nixon was not a person who was much liked and certainly not trusted – “Tricky Dicky” was his sobriquet. The difference is not in respect to their moral character, but in their brains. Nixon was an astute practitioner of Machiavelli-inspired realpolitik. He did not approach Beijing out of any friendliness towards the Chinese, let alone out of contrition for America’s discriminatory, imperialist and racist policies vis-à-vis China, but because of the strategic advantage he thought Washington would gain in linking up with Beijing, as opposed to linking up with Moscow.

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Nixon and Trump differ greatly in intellectual capability and policy orientation. The first opened up relations with China to the great benefit of China, the US and the world. The second seriously risks antagonising relations with China, which will be to the great detriment of the US, China and the world.

There is, however, one thing they may come to share in common. Two years after his historic visit to Beijing, in 1974, Nixon once more made history by becoming the first – and so far only – US president to have been forced to resign from office. On the basis of all the noise that his candidacy has generated and the many closets that may be opened, Trump may stand a chance of being the second. Beijing will no doubt be closely watching.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor at IMD, founder of The Evian Group, and visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong