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Dateline:  Nixon's Groundbreaking Visit to China - 2002-02-21

President Bush is on his first visit to Beijing. His two-day stay in China comes exactly 30 years after another U.S. president, Richard Nixon, arrived on a history-making eight-day trip that reversed a generation of animosity between Washington and Beijing. On this edition of Dateline, we recall President Nixon's visit and look forward to what this week's talks might accomplish.

In February of 1972, as Richard Nixon prepared to leave Washington for Beijing, he calmly stated the reason for his visit. "The meeting between the leaders of China and the United States is to seek the normalization of relations between the two countries and also to exchange views on questions of concern to the two sides," he said.

The world was able to watch on television 30 years ago as Mr. Nixon was greeted outside Beijing by Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai. The trip became such a dramatic encounter that it even became the subject of an opera, the 1987 production "Nixon In China."

The lyrics to one number in the opera say, "When I shook hands, when I shook hands with Chou En-Lai, when I shook hands with Chou En-Lai, on this bare field outside Peking, just now, the world was listening…"

Winston Lord traveled to China with President Nixon. As special assistant to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, he also participated in two earlier trips to China one of them secret. Those talks paved the way for Mr. Nixon's trip and worked out much of the language that would appear in a final summit communique. "Nixon knew from his history that John Foster Dulles, the U.S. Secretary of State, refused to shake Chou En-Lai's hand in 1954 at a Geneva Conference on Indo-China. So Nixon went out of his way at the airport to hold out his hand, knowing symbolically that this would mean a great deal to Chou and the Chinese government," Mr. Lord recalls.

He calls the Nixon visit "one of the most significant geopolitical events since World War II" and one that continues to pay dividends today. The summit got off to a quick start when President Nixon found himself face-to-face with Chairman Mao Zedong within minutes of Mr. Nixon's arrival from the airport.

"We knew we would have a meeting between Nixon and Mao, though we never knew the date," he said. "And that is typical of the Chinese, going back in their history, where the emperor, in this case Mao, keeps you guessing on when he will summon you into his presence. We had just arrived at the guest house when Chou En-Lai came back about half hour later and said the Chairman wanted to see President Nixon. We took this as a very good sign, because it meant that the Chairman was telling his own domestic audience and the world that he was fully behind this visit."

The former official said the visit very carefully scripted. "The toasts, as you say at the banquets, were important," he said. "Nixon did say 'This is the week that changed the world' and people thought he was exaggerating. But 30 years later, I think it's fair to say he was not. And it's interesting that 30 years later people are still talking about the Shanghai Communique which is quite remarkable for any diplomatic document, which is usually forgotten within a week. It was unique in the sense that most communiques and the draft we submitted to the Chinese in October stress convergence of policies, like-minded approaches, agreements wherever possible. And we tried a rather traditional communique along those lines.

"And the next day, Chou En-Lai, obviously having checked with Chairman Mao, all but threw it on the floor and said 'This is absurd. We've hated each other and been isolated for 22 years. How can we pretend that we're now getting along so well? This will look not very credible to our domestic audiences and it'll make our allies nervous. So why don't we have a different kind of approach where each side states its positions on its own. And then wherever there are convergence and agreements, we can put that in as well. And they will have more credibility because we've been honest and candid enough to state our differences.'"

Thirty years ago, Taiwan was the major stumbling block in talks between the leaders of China and the United States as it may be again this week for Presidents Bush and Jiang Zemin. While President Nixon had a chance to size up the Chinese leadership in 1972 after two decades of isolation, analyst Michael Swaine says President Bush will be looking to get a measure of the new leaders who will soon be coming to power in China.

"There's going to be a major transition in leadership beginning this fall with the 16th Party Congress. And several figures who are coming into prominence as a result of that are not known to the American leadership because they haven't really spoken out very much on issues," he said. Mr. Swaine, co-director of the China Program at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says issues in addition to Taiwan also include hindering bilateral ties. They include charges of weapons proliferation by Beijing, human rights in China including religious rights, Washington's plans for a missile defense system, U.S.-based scholars who have been detained by Chinese authorities, and last year's collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet.

But, Mr. Swaine said in an interview, two areas of common concern are creating opportunities for cooperation. "What you do have is a basis for cooperation that essentially extends to the fight against terrorism China is willing to cooperate with the United States to a certain degree to deal with that. And the other is economics the desire to cooperate to maintain the strength of China's economic growth. And China's just been able to enter the World Trade Organization. The United States sees the benefit of China being in that organization. So there is a basis for cooperation there," he said.

VOA What is on the must-do list that President Bush brings with him to Beijing?

Swaine "He really needs very much to strike a note of commonality with the Chinese on the struggle against terrorism. Secondly, I think he needs to convey that the United States is indeed committed to developing a working, constructive, cooperative and candid relationship with China. And that Bush is very interested to deal with entrance into WTO and the economic side of things. And at the same time, Bush also must show that the United States remains very concerned about certain aspects of the Chinese government's behavior that it is very troubled by, such as the human rights area."

VOA And those technology exports?"

Swaine Yes. One real must-do in my view is to push the Chinese on the export control guidelines that it had committed itself to in November of 2000."

VOA Is this on the must-do list: working to persuade China that any U.S. missile defense system is not aimed at China…and that it is not aimed at establishing a security alliance with Taiwan?

Swaine Yes. That is something that needs to be said again and again, very clearly, and said, in this case by the President. To say it in China…to say it directly to Jiang Zemin…and to say it very publicly…I think is a very important thing.

VOA President Bush is going to have an opportunity to speak directly to the Chinese people. How should he use that opportunity?

Swaine Well, I think he should every much use that opportunity to communicate to the Chinese people that the United States is interested in developing cooperative relations with China…that the United States does not threaten China's interests, does not want to undermine China's stability. There's an enormous amount of sentiment in China that is very suspicious of the United States that extends beyond the leadership. They both view the U.S. as being too domineering, too aggressive, too bullying if you will.

And anything that Bush can do to try and reassure the Chinese while not betraying his positions on issues like proliferation and human rights would be a very, very important message to the Chinese people.

Michael Swaine of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says, "despite relatively low expectations," President Bush's visit to Beijing can help ensure the long-term improvement in relations between China and the United States.