Rapprochement

In Philosophy of War I dedicate the last chapter to analyzing and connecting Clausewitz’s theories to the Cold War. A geographical area of importance to the Cold War during this period was China. China had concerns about the expansionist nature of the Soviet’s foreign policy, when conflicts on the Russian-Chinese border emerged it further threatened China’s security and Mao considered adopting a new policy toward the United States.[1] The following analysis will attempt to explain the motivations for rapprochement and the impact it had on the Cold War.

Significant differences existed between the Chinese and Soviet leaders since the 1950’s. Sino-Soviet relations came to an end over different interpretations of the same ideology with each accusing the other as a traitor of true Marxism.[2] In March 1969, Soviet leaders considered a preemptive nuclear strike on China’s nuclear facilities following the bloody conflicts between the two forces on Zhenbao Island.[3] The situation encouraged China’s leaders to look for ways to improve their nation’s security.[4]

According to Geoffrey Warner, few people in the Nixon administration believed there existed any chance to improve relations with the communist China regime. Before becoming president, Nixon wrote an article that was published in Foreign Affairs 1967, expressing his concerns—we don’t want a massive amount people living in angry isolation.[5] Mao noticed the article and passed it to other Chinese leaders, commenting that relations may improve between the United States and China if Nixon was to become president.[6] However, the Nixon administration pondered whether an isolated China would be a substantial threat to national security if it posed no major offensives against U.S. interest. Furthermore, according to Geoffrey Warner, in response to the possibility of a Soviet strike on China, Nixon disclosed to the National Security Council—it was in the U.S best interest to prevent China from being destroyed by a Sino-Soviet war.[7] 

In 1968, after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, Beijing alleged that the Soviets had took the place of U.S. imperialism to become a social-imperialist country. Taking the two-separate events into consideration—the border conflicts and the Soviet imperialistic actions, Beijing justified the need for rapprochement with the United States. In China’s view the Soviets had become the most dangerous imperialist country. However, according to Chen Jian, Mao had his own reasons for pursuing rapprochement with the U.S., his Culture Revolution was losing momentum.[8]  Either way, Yang Kuisong contends in his publication in Cold War History, titled “The Sino-Soviet Border Clash of 1969: From Zhenbao Island to Sino-American Rapprochement,” throughout 1969, Mao warned the Chinese people of the possible Soviet invasion.[9]

In 1969, Mao ordered a group of military commanders to conduct a study of international affairs and deliver a report with options regarding their findings; known as the “marshals.” The group presented their findings to Mao and the Central Committee. They concluded that because the Soviets and the United States faced many internal problems as well as problem abroad, it was unlikely that either would launch an attack on China, jointly or independently.[10] Shortly after the meeting signs emerged that indicated Washington’s attitude toward China was changing. For example, the U.S, State Department announced it was easing restrictions on American citizens traveling to China.

The United States also expressed a desire for better relations with China because of the Soviet threat, as indicated by Nixon and his remarks on a possible Sino-Soviet war. However, neither Beijing nor Washington could find an easy opportunity to initiate talks. Communications began and continued through third parties, mostly Pakistani, Romanian, and Polish affiliates.[11] The Nixon administration had a sense of urgency concerning the establishment of talks; they may have thought there existed a limited window of opportunity. The opportunity finally presented itself in an unlikely event centered around an international sport competition.

During an international ping pong tournament, American players had several unplanned encounters with Chinese players where they engaged in friendly conversation. Officials of the Chinese delegation reported the events to Beijing via telephone calls. Table tennis or ping pong was a popular sport in China and the Chinese players were the best in the world. Later, the manager of the American delegation encountered the general security of the Chinese delegation and inquired about the American team visiting China to learn table tennis from the Chinese players. The Chinese delegation reported the inquiry back to Beijing. Officials in China took the request seriously and decided that the timing was not right for the Americans to visit but advised there would be opportunities in the future. However, the officials were uncertain about the decision and decided to send the report to Mao for a final ruling. Before the report could be finished another chance encounter between the American and Chinese players occurred. An American player accidently got on the Chinese’s bus; realizing his mistake, but before getting off, a champion Chinese ping pong player presented the American with a scarf as a gift. Initially, the head of the Chinese delegation attempted to stop the exchange, but the Chinese player asked for leniency, reminding him as “head of the [Chinese] delegation you have many concerns, but I am just a player,” the official was convinced and allowed the exchange. Journalists swarmed the area around the bus as they noticed the event because it was such an odd occurrence for an American player to be emerging from a bus with Chinese players, in addition having a friendly exchange. When Mao learned of the news reports regarding the encounters, he could hardly believe it; he was up late deliberating the events and pondering what decision to make. Earlier, he had approved the message, declining the Americans request to visit. Now, after taking several sleeping pills in an attempt to sleep, at the last possible minute, he called on his chief nurse to immediately call the Foreign Ministry and invite the American team to China. The next day, upon learning of the invite, the White House quickly approved it. The event was covered by the media and it seemed to ease tensions between the two countries allowing for direct talks regarding rapprochement, the only other obstacle standing in the way was the Taiwan issue.[12]

The United States’ position in its global competition with the Soviet Union was greatly enhanced by the Sino-American rapprochement. The Sino-Soviet split disrupted Communist ideology and their sympathizers, signifying that communism was not the solution to problems created by modernization. Moreover, the rapprochement between Beijing and Washington may be partially blamed for the collapse of the Soviet empire.[13] 


[1] Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 244-245.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Yang Kuisong, “The Sino-Soviet Border Clash of 1969: From Zhenbao Island to Sino-American Rapprochement,” Cold War History Vol. 1, no. 1, (Summer 2000): 32. Accessed December 7, 2107, http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/eds/detail/detail?vid=1&sid=bc8b5abd-4c20-4f95-875a-ed39cbf9d34c%40sessionmgr120&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#AN=000207945100002&db=edswah.

[4] Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 240-241.

[5] Geoffrey Warner, “Nixon, Kissinger and the Rapprochement with China, 1969-1972,” International Affairs vol 83, no. 4, (2007): 764. Accessed December 7, 2017, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=25916662&site=eds-live&scope=site. 

[6] Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 245.

[7] Geoffrey Warner, “Nixon, Kissinger and the Rapprochement with China, 1969-1972,” International Affairs vol 83, no. 4, (2007): 764. Accessed December 7, 2017, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=25916662&site=eds-live&scope=site.  

[8] Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 243.

[9] Yang Kuisong, “The Sino-Soviet Border Clash of 1969: From Zhenbao Island to Sino-American Rapprochement,” Cold War History Vol. 1, no. 1, (Summer 2000): 48. Accessed December 7, 2107, http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/eds/detail/detail?vid=1&sid=bc8b5abd-4c20-4f95-875a-ed39cbf9d34c%40sessionmgr120&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#AN=000207945100002&db=edswah.

[10] Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 247.

[11] Ibid., 250-251.

[12] Ibid., 260-256.

[13] Ibid., 276.

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