As the concluding act of President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to communist China, the president and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai issue a joint statement summarizing their agreements (and disagreements) of the past week. The “Shanghai Communiqué” set into motion the slow process of the normalization of relations between the two former Cold War enemies.
President Nixon arrived in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on February 21, the first time an American president had ever set foot in China. The visit was immensely significant for other reasons, as well. Following communist leader Mao Zedong’s successful 1949 revolution, the United States had refused to establish diplomatic ties with the PRC. Relations between the two nations were extremely chilly, and the U.S. and PRC troops had clashed during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.
During the 1950s and 1960s, China was one of the main suppliers of aid to Ho Chi Minh’s communist regime in North Vietnam. Nixon had been one of the harshest critics of the PRC during this time. When the United States came to the assistance of South Vietnam, and eventually committed combat troops to quell the communist insurgency in that nation in 1965, relations between the U.S. and China became even more strained.
The situation had changed dramatically by the early-1970s. Relations between the PRC and the Soviet Union had grown tense and angry. The United States was embroiled in an unpopular and fruitless battle in Vietnam. Nixon and his foreign policy advisors saw a unique opportunity in these circumstances. Establishing closer relations with the PRC might further divide the two great communist powers and make the Soviets more malleable concerning several issues—including their support of North Vietnam. And the PRC might conceivably put pressure on its North Vietnamese ally to agree to a peace settlement in Vietnam in order to curry more favor with the United States.
The Shanghai Communiqué summarized the areas of agreement and disagreement between the United States and the PRC at the end of Nixon’s visit. In one section of the document, their differences concerning events in Asia were apparent. The PRC restated its support for North Vietnam, while the United States steadfastly supported South Vietnam. On Korea, the Chinese stressed the need for “unification,” while the United States pressed for a “relaxation” of diplomatic tensions between North and South Korea.
However, the two nations also stressed their sense of unity on a number of general themes, including the need for peaceful coexistence between the East and West. Much of the statement concerned the Nationalist Chinese government on Taiwan. This was a point of tremendous importance, for the PRC declared that it would not begin diplomatic relations with the United States until the latter cut its diplomatic ties to Taiwan. In the statement, Nixon promised to slowly reduce the American military presence on Taiwan. Finally, the statement noted that both China and the U.S. would encourage greater contact through increased trade and travel by each nation’s citizens.
The Shanghai Communiqué set the stage for a dramatic reversal in the U.S. policy toward China. Since 1949, the United States had recognized the Nationalist regime on Taiwan as the government of China. It had consistently refused efforts to have the PRC government represented in the United Nations. After 1972, relations between the United States and the PRC began to warm. By the end of the administration of Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), the United States had—in one of the most surprising twists of the Cold War—severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan and formally extended diplomatic recognition of the PRC.