Nixon's visit to China stoked Soviet fears - WTVM.com-Columbus, GA News Weather & Sports

Nixon's visit to China stoked Soviet fears

Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai toast at a banquet in February of 1972. (Source: National Archives/Wikimedia Commons) Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai toast at a banquet in February of 1972. (Source: National Archives/Wikimedia Commons)
President  Nixon and his wife Pat arrive in Peking and review the troops at the airport. (Source: National Archives/Wikimedia Commons) President Nixon and his wife Pat arrive in Peking and review the troops at the airport. (Source: National Archives/Wikimedia Commons)
The Nixons tour the Great Wall of China and Ming tombs. (Source: National Archives/Wikimedia Commons) The Nixons tour the Great Wall of China and Ming tombs. (Source: National Archives/Wikimedia Commons)
Spectators stand in front of a large sign as they await Nixon's motorcade during the president's visit to China. (Source: National Archives/Wikimedia Commons) Spectators stand in front of a large sign as they await Nixon's motorcade during the president's visit to China. (Source: National Archives/Wikimedia Commons)
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(RNN) - President Richard Nixon's trip to China 42 years ago was a master stroke of grand strategy, said Bud McFarlane, former national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan. It was so successful in forging a Chinese-American relationship that Soviet leaders were concerned that the U.S. would support China if the USSR attacked.

It was a policy many did not welcome. China's ties to the north in the Vietnam War, memories of the Korean War, human rights violations, and a firm distrust of communism created opposition to Nixon's decision, McFarlane said. But Nixon was able to reach out to China because he had for years solidified his anti-communist credentials.

"Richard Nixon had been a leading anti-Communist in the 1950s, which earned him the enmity of many on the left for his remaining days," said Dean Cheng, senior research fellow for the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "Hence the old saw, 'Only Nixon, a staunch anti-Communist, can go to China.'"

Nixon's hawk reputation shielded him from those across the political spectrum who were hostile to the policy, which played a huge role in hastening the end of the Soviet Union, Cheng believes.

"Insofar as it reshuffled the deck of international relations, it absolutely did," Cheng said. "The Soviets had been worried about China, and (Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger, in his memoirs, notes that at one point they had inquired about an American response in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack on China. Kissinger indicated that the U.S. would view such an attack as detrimental to U.S. security."

While they were both communist nations, China and Russia did not see eye to eye, McFarlane said. There were huge ideological differences over economics that led to the Soviets being concerned that a desperate China would move militarily to take some of Russia's wealth.

"China was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution to instill a much more brutal doctrine of both personal discipline and national sacrifice called the Cultural Revolution," McFarlane said. Those policies led to great poverty, and starvation in China. "Right across the border from China was the wealth of Russia – Siberia is rich in oil, gas, precious metals, timber and maritime commerce."

The fear of invasion by the Chinese kept 45 Soviet divisions, and missile forces tied down on the border with China, McFarlane said.

Both McFarlane and Cheng admit that Nixon's reputation is tarnished by the Watergate scandal, but that his invitation to visit China was a bold move that changed international relations beyond what anyone could have imagined.

Soviet fears increased

With China and America forming a friendship, the Soviets were forced to rethink how they deployed manpower and weaponry across the globe.

Winning a war through strategy and not bloodshed is the mark of statesman. The move by Nixon helped stretch Soviet forces, McFarlane said.

"With the opening, the USSR now had to confront the very real possibility that China's military, which was huge but primitive, might now be rapidly modernized and re-equipped with more modern, Western weapons," Cheng said. "While that didn't happen, it did tie down significant Soviet forces which might have been directed to support Soviet pressures on Europe, or in the Third World."

Nixon's calculation paid off, and combined with a weak Soviet economy and some decisions by Reagan, helped bring down the Soviet Empire, Cheng said.

"The opening to China meant that the Soviets now had to confront a growing threat on their enormous eastern border," he said. "Coupled with the later moves by Ronald Reagan to modernize the U.S. military and to push things like missile defense, the resulting economic pressures on the Soviet Union hastened its collapse - especially since they were much weaker than we believed for most of the Cold War."

China open to new alliances

The Chinese, likewise, were fearful of the Soviets and were open to U.S. overtures, Cheng said.

"The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 raised the possibility in Beijing that the Soviets might use force against China," Cheng said. "The chaos of the Cultural Revolution and the fall of Mao Zedong's designated successor, Lin Biao, led to domestic political changes that allowed for the possibility of opening to the despised American capitalists. China was unlikely to propose an opening to the West, but was receptive to being asked. Nixon took the step of asking."

Lessons for today's leaders

Today's strategists can learn from Nixon, both men said. And to use modern terminology, they should try to think outside the box.

"Perhaps the most important is for decision-makers to constantly question their assumptions," Cheng said. "Nixon could visit China in part because he was willing to re-examine assumptions about China, and American relations with the People's Republic of China. Nixon surprised his enemies and rivals, precisely for the same reason; they did not recognize his ability to question his own assumptions."

Could that mean a visit to Tehran, or Havana, would be wise, and might prevent military conflicts?

"It is certainly possible to open relations with any of these states, but none have the relative importance that China did in 1972," Cheng said. "None are as large. And since the end of the Cold War, there is no direct bilateral rivalry that such an opening would influence."

Nixon probably would have conducted foreign policy very differently from Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama, Cheng added, as he arguably was more focused on foreign policy than any of the most recent presidents. "But looking at his foreign policy, there is reason to argue that he was one of the more brilliant foreign policy presidents, with a real ability to navigate those rocky shoals," Cheng said. "Opening up to China, implementing détente with the USSR meant a significant set of changes in foreign policy from the previous 20 years of 1948 through 1968."

McFarlane said the White House has not had a resident as of late who thinks that strategically.

"There hasn't been a parallel to Nixon's preparation, or openness to China," McFarlane said, adding that it takes a combination of military, economic and political power. "There are opportunities."

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