Nixon in China

On February 21 1972, President Richard Nixon became the first United States President to visit Communist China - Nixon in China introduction. The Chinese leader then was Moa Tse-tung. This was at the height of the cold war. Walker opined that by then, the world was bipolar with the two centres of power being the United States and the Soviet Union. These were the two super power and they were the spheres of influence. The United States was the West sphere of influence while the Soviet Union was the East. The cold war was primarily an ideological rather than a physical battle. Instead of the use of weapons, the two super powers made use of such things as propaganda and even weapon development. The United States was out to promote its capitalist ideology while the Soviet Union wanted to advance its communist ideology. All the two centres of power had to do was to win as many countries as they could over to their side. It was a carrot and stick kind of affair. The two major powers asked countries for their support in return for something else. It could have been arms, finances or even scholarships. (1995)

To the Americans, the visit by Nixon to China was to drive a wedge between China and the then USSR. The Chinese-American relationship had been strained since the communist took over power in 1949. Clearly, with China becoming communist, the Soviet Union was to gain an ally. The United States sought to change the balance of power by wooing China over to their side. The Chinese also had something to gain. First of all, if they were to unite with the United States, the Americans would have to withdraw from Vietnam. Also, Mao would be sure to get help from the Americans, in the form of technology and expertise, on how to best recover from the effects of the cultural revolution. However, the most important relevance of the meeting lay in the fact that both China and the United States each had a card/bargaining chip in their relations with the Soviet Union. They could be allies against the Soviet Union. In the end, the questions that are asked by Macmillan are the implications of the Nixon-Mao meeting. Also, if Mao in any way gave up his revolutionary principles by wanting to join forces with Nixon’s United States. Again, how the Chinese people would respond to the American because hitherto, they had for so long regarded them as imperialists. On the other hand, if President Nixon made any blunder by going to China as some kind of campaigner and the kind of impact the visit would have on the US then and even in future. (Macmillan, 2007)

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Cohen in his critique of Macmillan concluded that indeed Nixon’s visit to China did in fact change the world. This is because of the unspoken kind of alliance that developed between the two. The significance of this alliance is that it led to the change in the balance of power in the cold war. With China over to her side, the US could be seen to be succeeding in the ideological war. (2007)

However, according to Tucker, the relationship between China and the United States cannot be described as special in any way. This is for the simple reason that China has been of secondary significance to the United States. This is evident in the fact that China has only been relevant to the US in the context the US having crises with other countries. Probably, if there had not been a cold war the US may never have reached out to China. With the end of the cold war, the importance of china to the US declined. Tucker also posits that the Chinese (Sino)-American relationship over the last fifty years has more often than not been to the advantage of the Americans. The US used China to achieve its objectives. For instance, China was indispensable in the defeat of the Germans and the Japanese in the 1940s. Moreover, China was also used by the US to slow down the Soviet industrialization in the 50s and 60s, in addition to complicating Moscow’s defence in the 70s and 80s. The main reason why the US was not particularly concerned with China was for the simple fact that China could then only be regarded as a regional power. Thus, China posed no serious threat to the US as its quest to spread its influence. Still, China lacked wealth that would have made her a formidable adversary. Nonetheless, China could claim safety in numbers and that is where her strength lay. To this end, China could be both and ally and an adversary to the United States. (2005)

According to Goh, Nixon’s visit to China was very successful in that it ended the strained relations between China and the US that had been in existence for twenty years. According to Henry Kissinger, the then US Secretary of State, the relationship between China and the US was only a tacit alliance. China soon realized that the US was only out to exploit the Sino (China)-Soviet relationship only to achieve its end of defeating the Soviet Union and eventually become the only super power. The US was quick to do some damage control by strengthening their bilateral relationship. In the end, the US seemed to have used China as a kind of leverage so that they could gain Moscow’s confidence. Not so that it could culminate in some kind of alliance, but so that they could contain Moscow’s influence spread. (2005)

Thus, it was indeed true that the Sino-American talks focused primarily on the Soviet Union and that Kissinger did in fact exploit the Soviet issue against the Chinese. Conversely, the Soviet card was never really played. It was just to threaten the Chinese and show them that they shared similar security concerns, so that they could cooperate with the US. In the end, this only serves to show that the Chinese-American relationship was skewed in favour of the Americans. Nixon had only visited China because at that point in time it was necessary that he does so.


Cohen, I. W. (2007). Chinese Lessons: Nixon, Mao, and the Course of U.S.-Chinese Relations. Foreign Affairs. 86(2): 148-154.

Goh, E. (2005). Nixon, Kissinger, and the “Soviet card” in the U.S. opening to China, 1971 – 1974. Diplomatic History. 29(3): 475 – 502.

Macmillan, M. (2007). Nixon and Mao the week that changed the world. New York: Random house trade paper backs.

Tucker, N. B. (2005). Taiwan Expendable? Nixon and Kissinger go to China. Journal of American History. 92(1): 109-135.

Walker, M. (1995). The cold war: A history. New York: Holt paper backs

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