How Kissinger’s secret trip to China paved the way for Sino-U.S. Ties


Through Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

From 1969, Sino-American relations experienced a remarkable thaw. Both Nixon and Mao were reconsidering the possibility of dialogue by opening up long-blocked channels of communication and changing the strategic equation between the two countries. However, direct contact was not easy to initiate, as Nixon and Mao encountered strong political resistance.

The United States and China issued a joint statement that the leaders of the two countries will meet to “seek normalization of relations.” (Image: Photographs of the Nixon White House / Public domain)

Message from President Nixon

In October 1970, President Nixon sent a private message to Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Sultan Muhammed Khan. Pakistan maintained close diplomatic relations with the United States and the PRC. The message read: “It is essential that we open negotiations with China. We will send a high level envoy to Beijing.

As an indication of his good faith, Nixon vowed that the United States would refrain from entering into anti-China alliances with the Soviet Union. After waiting several months for a response from the Chinese side, the breakthrough came unexpectedly the following spring.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy

In April 1971, Zhou Enlai sent a message to an American table tennis team, then competing at the world championships in Nagoya, Japan. The US team has been invited to stop over in Beijing for “friendly competition” with the Chinese national team following the tournament in Japan. The message had been personally approved by Mao Zedong.

An important connection was established as the American and Chinese players cordially fraternized during and after their matches. At the closing banquet of the two table tennis teams, Zhou Enlai personally greeted the visiting Americans. And that same night, President Nixon lifted sanctions on non-strategic trade between the United States and China.

This was shortly followed by an affirmative response from China to Nixon’s offer to send a “high-level envoy” to Beijing.

This is a transcript of the video series The fall and rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Kissinger’s Secret Beijing Tour

In early July 1971, Henry Kissinger was on a routine tour of Asia. Halfway through the trip, while in Pakistan, he reportedly suffered from heat exhaustion.

When he was taken to a remote hill station, apparently for a few days of rest and relaxation, an elaborate ruse was unleashed. A lookalike took Kissinger’s place at the hill station, while the real Kissinger was whisked away under cover of darkness, in complete secrecy, to a nearby airfield, where a Pakistani airliner was parked on the tarmac.

Kissinger and a team of his handpicked collaborators landed in Beijing six hours later.

Kissinger’s encounters with Zhou Enlai

Photo of the Chinese and Taiwanese flags fluttering side by side.
Zhou Enlai insisted that the Taiwan issue must be the centerpiece of any US-China negotiation. (Image: David Carillet / Shutterstock)

During Kissinger’s talks with Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier insisted that the Taiwan issue must be the centerpiece of any US-China negotiation. China would not accept, Zhou said, any US policy recognizing “two Chinas” or “one China and one Taiwan.” And the United States must agree to withdraw its armed forces from Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait.

Surprisingly, Kissinger met the Chinese premier more than halfway. Stating that the US government was not committed to long-term support for an independent regime in Taiwan, Kissinger offered to withdraw US military forces from the Taiwan Strait.

In their subsequent conversations, Kissinger sought to play on Chinese fears of the Soviet Union, and he promised the Chinese premier that President Nixon would never collude with Moscow against Beijing. Going even further, he agreed to signal to the Chinese all future Soviet efforts to get Washington to make deals that could affect China’s security interests.

Kissinger further hinted that the US government was ready to see the PRC occupy China’s seat at the United Nations, even if it meant expelling Taiwan. Even more surprisingly, Kissinger revealed to Zhou Enlai that President Nixon privately intends to get US military forces out of Vietnam as soon as possible.

Learn more about the complex and contradictory figure of Mao.

Outcome of preliminary negotiations

Most outside observers credit Zhou Enlai for gaining the upper hand in these preliminary negotiations. The Chinese premier conceded very little while he gained a lot in return.

When Kissinger’s secret mission ended on July 11, the two sides issued a joint statement informing the world that Zhou Enlai had invited Nixon to visit China, that Nixon had agreed, and that the leaders of the two countries “would seek a normalization of relations “. and an exchange of views “on matters of interest to both parties”.

Photo of Nixon and his wife at the Great Wall of China.
President Nixon’s week-long visit to China in 1972 went off without a hitch. (Image: Nixon White House Photographs / Public domain)

True to Kissinger’s word, when the annual resolution to sit the PRC at the United Nations was introduced in October 1971, the United States did not pressure its allies to oppose the motion as it did. had done so every year for the previous 20 years.

Now feeling that the political winds had radically changed, the Taiwanese delegation withdrew from the General Assembly even before a vote could be taken on a motion to expel them. With the departure of Taiwan, Beijing became the sole Chinese representative to the United Nations, and its member agencies were granted the right of veto as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Learn more about the Nixon Presidency.

Visit of President Nixon to China

Despite attempts at disruption, President Nixon’s week-long visit to China the last week in February 1972 went off without a hitch. At the start of the president’s journey, Nixon and Kissinger were received in audience by the visibly fragile and crippled Mao Zedong.

During their conversation, Nixon approvingly quoted Mao’s poetry, while Mao argued that it was necessary for the Chinese to talk to “right-wingers” like Nixon to solve major international problems.

But the finesse of the televised images broadcast around the world hid deep underlying tensions on both sides.

Common questions about how Kissinger’s secret trip to China paved the way for Sino-U.S. Ties

Q: During his meetings with Kissinger, what were some of Zhou Enlai’s requests?

Zhou Enlai insisted that the Taiwan issue must be the centerpiece of any US-China negotiation. China would not accept, Zhou said, any US policy recognizing “two Chinas” or “one China and one Taiwan.” He also said the United States must agree to withdraw its armed forces from Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait.

Q: What happened when the annual resolution to sit the PRC in the United Nations was presented in October 1971?

When the annual resolution to sit the CPP on the The United Nations was introduced in October 1971, the United States did not pressure its allies to oppose the motion as it had done every year for the previous 20 years.

Q: When did President Nixon visit China?

President Nixon paid a week-long visit to China in the last week of February 1972.

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