Vincent Matthews: Nixon and China - has much changed?

Nixon and Kissinger’s diplomacy would now be seen as capitulation
Richard  Nixon meets   Mao Zedong during Nixon’s groundbreaking trip to China in 1972. Photo / AP
Richard Nixon meets Mao Zedong during Nixon’s groundbreaking trip to China in 1972. Photo / AP

The opera Nixon in China being played at the Auckland Arts Festival recalls an historic event that some candidates contesting the current US presidential election would condemn as shameful.

But Richard Nixon was a Republican President and he went to China to make radical changes in America's foreign policy.

No Democratic President would have been able to do what he did without being attacked by Republicans as a traitor for capitulating to the Communist Chinese.

In February 1972 Nixon formally recognised the Communist government in Peking and conceded that Taiwan was a part of China. I was in China at the time reporting Nixon's visit for Australian and New Zealand newspapers. I wrote that Premier Chou En-lai had won an outstanding victory.

Chou's victory came after all-night negotiations with a weary Nixon, sitting in the study of his Peking guest house, sending his national security adviser Henry Kissinger across to another villa where Chinese officials were working on a final draft of the communique.

At 4am Nixon agreed to the final wording of the communique that gave Chou what he wanted - the US agree agreeing to leave the Taiwan question to the Chinese.

All this was disclosed a couple of days later in what became known as the Shanghai Declaration and none of it could have happened without the influence of Kissinger and the diplomatic skills of Chou.

Next day Nixon told a crowd of journalists, almost all of them American (and one Australian) : "We don't want walls between people. One result of our trip may be that the walls erected, whether quizzical or ideological, will not divide the people of the world."

But it was 10 months earlier that Chou had ended Communist China's isolation and brought it back into the world with a brilliant diplomatic initiative.

One April morning in 1971 I was surprised to receive a telegram at my home in Canberra from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Peking telling me I had been granted a visa to accompany the Australian table tennis team on a visit to China. No Australian-based journalist had been allowed into China since the Communist takeover led by Mao Tse-tung in 1949.

The arranged visits of table tennis teams was Chou's way of opening up China for the first time since the revolution. It became known as ping-pong diplomacy. (Table tennis was chosen because Chinese players are the world's best.)

On that first visit to China I was taken to major cities, Canton, Shanghai, Peking, where Red Guards marched through the streets waving Mao's Little Red Book and shouting Mao's aggressive slogans.

Everyone was dressed like Mao in khaki trousers and buttoned-up coat. For the Nixon visit, just 10 months later, all this had changed. The streets were cleared of the Red Guards, and also of all the massive pictures and paintings of Mao on every wall.

People were allowed to wear what they wanted - as individuals. This was done so that American journalists would write more favourably about a changed China than the one they would have seen before the clean up for the Nixon mission.

Now 44 years later official American attitudes to China have changed. China is now the world's second most important economy and, more concerning for Washington, its military power has grown along with its influence in Asia and the Pacific.

New Zealand's dairy industry, in particular, relies heavily on the Chinese market and like many other nations we want to grow trade with Beijing.

Nothing would be more harmful to these trade prospects than for New Zealand to follow Australia and the US in adopting too aggressive a position against China's moves to strengthen its control over islands in the South China Sea.

All the rhetoric in the US presidential election preliminaries indicates that Republicans in particular insist that the US and only the US should have the military power to dictate what should and should not be done in any part of the world.

The Chinese are a proud people and what is needed today is the diplomatic skill and understanding of a Kissinger and the political courage and cunning of a Nixon to cope with a nation so very different from the one the US dealt with in 1972.

*On December 22, 1972, the New Zealand Labour Government formally recognised the People's Republic of China and acknowledged that Taiwan was a part of China.

Australia's Labor Government of Gough Whitlam, elected on December 2, recognised the PRC on December 5 and included Taiwan as part of China.

Vincent Matthews, a British-born journalist, has worked in London, Singapore, East and South Africa. He was political editor of the Melbourne Herald and wrote for US newspapers. He now lives on Auckland's North Shore.

- NZ Herald

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