On this day in 1984, President Ronald Reagan arrives in China for a diplomatic meeting with Chinese President Li Xiannian. The trip marked the third time a U.S. president had traveled to China since President Richard Nixon’s historic trip in 1972 (Gerald Ford visited in 1975).
First lady Nancy Reagan accompanied her husband to China, along with approximately 600 journalists, a slew of Secret Service agents and, according to BBC reports, officials who guard the codes for launching nuclear missiles. The Reagans toured historical and cultural sites in Beijing and attended a dinner in their honor hosted by Xiannian.
Reagan’s trip highlighted his administration’s desire to improve diplomacy with China in light of the growing economic relationship between the two nations. Other topics of discussion between the two leaders over the course of the six-day trip included the development of commercial nuclear power in China and China’s displeasure with continuing U.S. support for nationalists in Taiwan.
After communists took over power in China in 1949, successive American presidents had refused to recognize the new Chinese government and supported pro-democratic nationalists who had been exiled on the island of Taiwan, off the coast of China. U.S. support for Taiwan included sales of arms, which infuriated the communist government in Beijing. President Nixon made tentative diplomatic overtures to China in 1969 and, in October 1970, told a Time reporter if there’s anything I want to do before I die it’s go to China. In 1971, he led the U.S. government in officially recognizing the communist Chinese government and became the first American president to visit China the next year. It was not until 1984 that another president, Reagan, would travel to China in an attempt to resolve remaining diplomatic differences.
During his visit, President Reagan impressed reporters and dignitaries with his occasional attempts to speak Chinese. However, the trip failed to break through the deadlock between China and the U.S. over the issue of Taiwanese independence.