Normalization of U.S.-China Relations: An International History

By Harris, Stuart | The China Journal, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Normalization of U.S.-China Relations: An International History


Harris, Stuart, The China Journal


Normalization of U.S.-China Relations: An International History, edited by William C. Kirby, Robert S. Ross and Gong Li. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006. xxii + 376 pp. US$49.50 (hardcover).

US President Nixon's 1972 visit to China both surprised the world and brought about a substantial geopolitical realignment in Cold War relations. It changed US bilateral relations with China and also made possible China's reform which has depended so heavily on US trade, investment and technology.

Given that the process of moving to the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué was achieved in three years, why did the subsequent move to normalization, effective on 1 January 1979, take much longer? The answer becomes clearer from this excellent book, demonstrating as it does the many complexities involved. Contributions in its nine chapters (including the editors' introduction) reflect the varying perspectives of three American and four Chinese scholars and one scholar each from Taiwan, Russia and Britain. These contributions illustrate the centrality of the Taiwan issue but also how other factors, above all the fear of rising Soviet power, influenced both the US and China. A growing literature and improved access to archival material have permitted new insights.

The modus vivendi reflected in the 1972 communiqué was based largely on a coincidence of strategic interests linked to the Soviet Union, but it also involved significant secret concessions by Kissinger and Nixon on the Taiwan issue. Given the firm Chinese position on Taiwan, and the commitments and interests of the US, arguments about how much was, and needed to be, conceded constitutes an interesting element of the discussion in several contributions. Arguments are made that the later concessions in President Carter were more than were necessary. Others argue that Carter's hands were largely tied over Taiwan by the concessions made in discussions and negotiations leading to the Shanghai Communiqué. These are countered by arguments that, without the Kissinger/Nixon concessions, the 1972 breakthrough with China would not have been possible and were necessary later to achieve normalization. Willingness to make concessions, however, also depended on other factors that impinged on the decision-making processes, in particular on responses to Soviet actions and statements.

The stagnation in US-China relations in this period largely reflected the attitudes of both countries towards the Soviet Union. While China saw an increasing Soviet threat, and Nixon remained keen to improve relations with China as a counter to Soviet influence, he also wanted to improve US-Soviet relations, visiting Moscow for the second time as president in 1974. This, as with subsequent efforts by Ford and then Carter to pursue détente with Moscow, was viewed unfavorably by China. They came to see it as double dealing and as encouraging the Soviets to intensify their pressure on China. Not until 1977, when US efforts at détente had stalled and China again became the priority for the US, did movement forward occur.

Despite seemingly firm positions on both sides over Taiwan, eventually the US, in particular, made concessions. …

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