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2.4  Rapprochement Under Nixon-Ford & Mao (1969 - 1977)

1 January 2017

Nixon’s Sino-American Rapprochement and Kissinger’s Constructive Ambiguity


Despite the Sino-Soviet split in 1962, the Johnson Administration continued to characterize the Soviet Union and China as virtually the same. This perception of the ideological nature of China and the Soviet Union, reflect the nature that Johnson was using these perceptions to his own advantage by drawing a sharp dichotomy between the US as a freedom and peace loving country and the Soviet Union and China as the communist enemies working together against the United States. Hence, during Johnson’s presidency, the US further consolidated the policy of containment, ratifying a series of bilateral and multilateral treaties designed to encircle the Soviet Union and its allies, including the PRC.


By the early 1970s, things began to change with the election of President Richard Nixon’s (served 1969 – 1974).  Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, pioneered the policy of détente with the Soviet Union, seeking a relaxation in tensions between the two superpowers. Kissinger, a proponent of Realpolitik often compared to Metternich, saw the Sino-Soviet split as an opportunity to establish closer relations with the PRC in order to further divide the two great communist powers and to put pressure on the Soviets into making conciliations to several issues—including their support of North Vietnam.


Kissinger orchestrated the Sino–American rapprochement by first making two secret trips to the PRC in 1971 to confer with Premier Zhou Enlai, who was then in charge of Chinese foreign policy. His efforts paved the way for the ground-breaking 1972 summit between Nixon, Zhou, and Chairman Mao Zedong which culminated in the formalization of relations between the two countries, ending 23 years of diplomatic isolation and mutual hostility.


To Mao, the military power and ambition of the US had by this time been blunted and broken in Vietnam. This left the “social imperialism” (i.e. socialist in words, imperialist in deeds) of the Soviet Union as the greatest threat. The invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the clash between Chinese and Soviet troops on the border island of Chenbao in 1969 showed the danger that the Soviet Union could pose even to communist countries. China thus needed to seek an alternative strategic partner to counterbalance against its former communist ally.[1] The Sino–American rapprochement thus resulted in the formation of a tacit anti-Soviet strategic alliance between China and the US.


For the normalization of relations to proceed, one issue of tremendous importance to PRC was the political status of Taiwan. As guidelines to Kissinger, the chief negotiator on the US side, Nixon advanced his five principles distilled from previous exchanges with the Chinese. They were:[2]

  • an affirmation of a one China policy;

  • the US would not support internal Taiwan independence movements;

  • the US would discourage any Japanese move into Taiwan (a matter, given history, of special concern to China);

  • support for any peaceful resolution between Beijing and Taipei; and

  • commitment to continued normalization.


On February 28, 1972, the two sides would sign the “Shanghai Communique” to conclude the historic visit. It summarized their positions over issues related to Vietnam, Korea, and Taiwan.[3] The PRC, for example, restated its support for North Vietnam and stressed the need for unification of Korea while the US steadfastly supported South Vietnam and pressed for a “relaxation” of diplomatic tensions between North and South Korea.


As for the political status of Taiwan, the Chinese side reaffirmed its position that:

  • the Taiwan question is the crucial question obstructing the normalization of relations between China and the United States;

  • the Government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legal government of China;

  • Taiwan is a province of China which has long been returned to the motherland; the liberation of Taiwan is China's internal affair in which no other country has the right to interfere; and

  • all US forces and military installations must be withdrawn from Taiwan.

  • the Chinese Government firmly opposes any activities which aim at the creation of "one China, one Taiwan", "one China, two governments", "two Chinas", an "independent Taiwan" or advocate that "the status of Taiwan remains to be determined".


The US, on the other hand,

  • acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position.

  • reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.

  • affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all US forces and military installations from Taiwan. In the meantime, it will progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes.


In effect, the US acknowledged the One-China policy and agreed to cut back military installations on Taiwan without fully endorsing the Chinese position on the issue. This use of "constructive ambiguity" by Kissinger created the opportunities for both countries to move on with the process of normalization despite their differences on the issue.


In his book “On China”, however, Kissinger presented a different perspective according to a later exchange with Mao in October 1975 on the issue of Taiwan. To Mao, “the small issue is Taiwan, the big issue is the world”. Mao did not want to confuse the debate about Taiwan with the strategy for protecting the global equilibrium. Therefore he repeated an assertion made in 1973 that China did not want to recover Taiwan at that moment and that China was prepared to wait one hundred years but eventually China will fight to get it back. Meanwhile, however, it was better to have the renegade province under the care of the US.[4] Mao, though, was unequivocal that complete normalization would begin only after the US cut its diplomatic ties to Taiwan.[5]


The joint Communiqué was a major milestone for it was the first time since the communist PRC was founded in 1949 that a US president acknowledged its existence. Prior to that, American leaders viewed the government in Taipei, Taiwan, as the only legitimate one in China.[6]


More importantly, the Communiqué established the basis of alliance between China and US against the Soviet Union with its anti-hegemony stipulation that “neither should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and each is opposed to efforts by any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony”. With the alliance sealed, Beijing no longer sought to constrain or check the projection of American power—as it had before President Nixon’s visit. Instead China’s avowed goal became to enlist the United States as a counterweight to the “polar bear” by means of an explicit strategic design.[7]

PREVIOUS : 2.3  Vietnam War and Deterioration of Sino-Soviet Relations Under Kennedy-Johnson & Mao (1961 – 1969)

NEXT 2.5  Full Normalization OF Sino-US Relation Under Carter & Deng (1977 - 1981)



[1] See Brantly Womack. (2006). Pg 181.

[2] See Kissinger. (2011). “On China”. Pg 375.

[3] See Wikisource. “Shanghai Communiqué.”

[4] Ibid. Pg 421.

[5] See “1972: Shanghai Communique” issued.”

[6] See “Major Milestones in U.S.-China Relations.”

[7] See Kissinger. (2011). Pg. 382.

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