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Nixon's China Visit Marked Turning Point in Sino-American Relations

It has been 40 years since former U.S. President Richard Nixon made his historic trip to China. That visit marked the beginning of what experts say has become one of the world's most far-reaching and challenging international relationships.

Nixon's trip to China was such a grand drama on the world stage that years later, it, indeed, became an opera.

The historical record is much simpler:

He arrived on February 21, 1972 at a time when the two countries were far apart diplomatically. He had only one meeting with Chinese leader Mao Zedong. But near the end of his visit, Mr. Nixon remarked that it was “the week that changed the world.”

“Usually that’s hyperbole and spin and pumping up an occasion. In this case, it was true. It really did change the world. We [i.e., the United States] had been at war [in Vietnam] and [China was] totally isolated -- the two countries -- one with the most people, the other with the most power. And this log jam was broken,” said retired diplomat Winston Lord, who traveled with the president.

The two countries disagreed on many issues, but they shared a common concern -- the Soviet Union.

The late Zhang Hanzhi was Mao’s interpreter during Mr. Nixon's visit.

“The real threat to China was from the north and its vast border with the Soviet Union. And Chairman Mao would often talk about the millions of [Soviet] troops along China’s border. And while the Soviet Union and the U.S. were rivals, they could frequently find room for compromise. China’s relations were tense -- both with the Soviet Union and the United States,” Hanzhi said.

Common interests helped the two countries to find common ground. And Sino-American relations expanded over the years, with the formalizing of diplomatic ties in the late 1970s and the opening of China’s economy under former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.

Brent Scowcroft was Mr. Nixon’s military assistant.

“It was a narrow bilateral discussion and relationship, but it served to get us used to talking to each other and to get to know each other and it went very well. But with the collapse of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, the glue of that relationship fell apart,” Scowcroft said.

Now, mutual military concerns, human rights, trade and a host of pressing issues dominate relations between the world’s two biggest economies.