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Richard Nixon and Sino-American Relations: 1971-1972 Essay

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Updated: Sep 3rd, 2020


Diplomacy is a fancy word describing the process of managing international relations (Bozo, 2012). Experts in this field are called diplomats. Skillful diplomacy is as important as an effective military strategy (Senese & Vasquez, 2008). Notable landmarks in history offer spectacular examples of the adroit use of diplomacy. However, there was a period when it felt as if diplomacy was the best solution to the world’s problems. At the height of the Cold War, when the world was at its lowest point due to the threat of a nuclear holocaust and the numerous proxy wars held in different areas of the globe, diplomacy was like a beacon of hope for many people. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger provided a master class on how to use it when they announced plans to visit China in a press conference that was held in 1971 (Ladley, 2002). In the said press conference, Nixon made known his intention to visit China the following year. The former commander-in-chief gave his Chinese counterparts ample time to prepare for a historic visit. Thus, one can argue that the announcement was a good example of a skillful use of diplomacy. Advance preparations were necessary steps considering the ideological differences between China and the United States.


Effective diplomats are characterized as having impressive people skills (Goh, 2005). However, the ability to make friends is a useless skill-set if they do not know how to negotiate. In diffusing conflicts and crafting mutually beneficial trade agreements, diplomats are expected to use the language of negotiation (Goh, 2005). Political issues in the home front and the moral responsibility to escalate another major land war in Asia brought Nixon to the negotiating table. Nixon suffered from a sagging popularity due to the president’s failed promise of ending the Vietnam War.

Furthermore, the Vietcong’s victory in its military struggle with U.S. soldiers was not an assurance that North Vietnamese leaders had reached the satiety level to end their appetite for expansion. Vietnam is a short distance away from countries like Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. Thus, the need to negotiate a favorable peace treaty with the Vietcong was at the top of the agenda (Ladley, 2002). Once again, Nixon demonstrated his diplomatic skills by hitting two birds with one stone so-to-speak. Nixon’s successful diplomatic campaign strengthened Sino-American relationship and provided a face-saving strategy to end the Vietnam War.

Coercive Diplomacy

Forceful persuasion is another name for coercive diplomacy (Small, 2011). In most cases, national leaders manifest the use of coercive policy through a calibrated military response. The best example of the said tactic was John F. Kennedy’s containment effort in blocking the arrival of nuclear warheads that the Russians were stockpiling in Cuba. Kennedy’s coercive diplomacy was the use of naval blockade. Thus, one can see how force was applied. However, the use of force was minimal with a threat to escalate the use of the same in the event of an unfavorable response (Small, 2011). Nixon had the option to use coercive diplomacy when he embarked on a diplomatic trip to China in the year 1972.

However, before the planned visit to Asia, Nixon’s foreign policy approach with regards to China was going through a radical transformation as a result of a paradigm shift. Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoirs the following lines: “The reorientation of our strategy signaled to the People’s Republic of China that we saw its purposes as separable from those of the Soviet Union’s, that our military policy did not see China as a principal threat” (Ladley, 2002, p.25). As a result, there was no clear incentive for using coercive diplomacy at that point. Instead of using forceful persuasion for the purpose of accomplishing critical goals, Nixon decided to establish friendly relations with China. Nixon’s gamble paid off at the end. However, he had a lot of ground to cover in the days and months leading to the historic visit to the People’s Republic of China.

Spiral Model vs. Deterrence Models

Seasoned diplomats are aware of the ramifications of the Spiral Model and the Deterrence Model as conceptual frameworks explaining the steps leading to war (Senese & Vasquez, 2008). The Spiral Model points to the use of punitive force or coercive measures as the root cause of war. In other word, the target of military attacks and other punitive measures was compelled to react in a hostile manner due to fear or anger. On the other hand, the Deterrence Model points to the unexpected root cause of military conflict due to the decision of national leaders to give concessions as acts of appeasements (Senese & Vasquez, 2008). In other words, the said acts of appeasements were viewed as signs of weakness. Thus, the other party attempts to exploit the said weakness by not giving in to the demands made earlier. Nixon had a clear understanding of the futility of using punitive force in order to persuade China to go along with his plan for Vietnam.

Several years before the scheduled trip, Zhou Enlai made known his commitments to send Chinese troops to Vietnam if the United States government decided to attack Chinese military bases (Christensen, 2011). Punitive action and threats of escalation was out of the question. However, appeasements were also seen as counterproductive. Nixon had no intention of revealing any form of weakness. He resolved the dilemma created by the Spiral Model vs. Deterrence Model argument when he created the Nixon Doctrine (Small, 2011). The Nixon Doctrine radically altered U.S. foreign policy with regards to allies under the threat of a communist invasion. In the said framework, Nixon made a commitment to pull out American troops from Vietnam. As a result, he succeeded in removing the use of force or the threat to use force. However, it was not seen as a form of appeasement, because Nixon made a commitment to support U.S. allies from within without having to send troops from an external source.

Balance of Terror

Balance of Terror is another way to express mutual deterrence, a concept describing the ability of one state to completely wipe out the enemy state due to sheer military power (Gelber, 2007). The said theoretical framework was realized through the availability of nuclear weapons. America’s capability to annihilate the Union Soviet Socialist Republic and vice versa created an environment of mutual deterrence (Christensen, 2011). However, it was a costly endeavor as both countries had to stockpile nuclear weapons. Expanding nuclear arsenals never ensured long-lasting peace. Thus, Nixon had to find another way to compel the Soviets to reduce the volume of nuclear armaments (Gelber, 2007).

His surprise visit to China in 1972 was calculated to take advantage of a rift between Chinese and Soviet relations that grew even wider in the 1960s (Bozo, 2012). Nixon’s strategy was effective in causing alarm at the Soviet camp. Russian leaders cannot afford the strengthening of Sino-American relations without having the same level of relationship between Russia and the United States. Nixon’s long-term goal paid off when he also engineered the Moscow Summit after a face-to-face encounter with Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong. Nixon’s one week stay in Beijing created the impression that China was siding with America (Goh, 2005). However, the agreements that were made during the Moscow Summit revealed that in reality, Nixon was able to neutralize both China and the USSR with his unexpected political moves.


One can make the argument that the fear of American hegemony was the compelling factor in China’s decision to support North Vietnam (Senese & Vasquez, 2008). Therefore, the secondary goal of Nixon’s Beijing visit was to persuade Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong that he can do something to lessen the threat of an American hegemony in the Asia. Nevertheless, Nixon was in a bind. He had to find a way to explain the need for a military base in Japan, a nation with a long history of conflict with both Russia and China. Nixon once again displayed extraordinary diplomatic skills when he made the Chinese leaders understand that the Soviet Union was the bigger threat (Christensen, 2011).

The said perception was strengthened by border clashes between Chinese and Russian troops and the continued Russian buildup within the region (Christensen, 2011). Thus, it was to the best interest of China to allow continued U.S. military presence within Japan for the purpose of reducing the military capability of Japan. China also feared the implications of the improvements in diplomatic relations between Japan and the Soviet Union. China preferred a Japanese government tethered to the United States as opposed to the alternative scenario of an emerging Russo-Japanese alliance. In other words, Nixon persuaded his Chinese counterparts to believe that it was mutually beneficial for both parties to prevent a Russian hegemony in the said region.


Bozo, F. (2012). Visions of the end of the Cold War in Europe, 1945-1990. Oxford, NY: Berghahn Books.

Christensen, T. (2011). Worse than a monolith: Alliance politics and problems of coercive diplomacy. New Jersey, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gelber, H. (2007). The dragon and the foreign devils: China and the world, 1100 B.C. to the present. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Goh, E. (2005). Constructing the U.S. rapprochement with China, 1961-1974. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Ladley, E. (2002). Nixon’s China trip. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Inc.

Senese, P., & Vasquez, J. (2008). The steps to war: An empirical study. New Jersey, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Small, M. (2011). A companion to Richard M. Nixon. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

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