“Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations,” replied President Richard Nixon when asked why he supported U.S. relations with China. And while the bilateral relationship has evolved throughout the decades, the 50th anniversary of Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China opened the door to diplomatic discussions and eventually led to a longstanding partnership.
Long before he became president, Nixon stressed the importance of engaging with China. In Nixon’s eyes, China could help the U.S. counterbalance Soviet aggression during the Cold War era. In China, President Mao Zedong and Vice Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Zhou Enlai reciprocated the belief; from their perspective, the United States could help China with its own Soviet rivalry. On February 1, 1969, President Nixon replied to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger regarding a report from the day before, which contained commentary on China. Nixon wrote, "I think we should give every encouragement to the attitude that this Administration is 'exploring possibilities of rapprochement with the Chinese.' This, of course, should be done privately and should under no circumstances get into the public prints from this direction.”
What happened next was a form of covert diplomacy between 1970 and 1971. Through a series of coded messages and signals, the U.S was able to communicate with China through Paris, Warsaw, and via the leaders of Romania and Pakistan. Meanwhile, Nixon would go on to finally approve the U.S. national ping-pong team’s friendly trip to China, which would become known as “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” The visit’s ripple effect led to the real breakthrough in the bilateral relationship when, in that same month, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai issued a message, part of which read: “The Chinese government reaffirms its willingness to receive publicly in Peking a special envoy of the U.S. (for instance, Mr Kissinger).” It was Zhou’s message coupled with the success of the U.S. ping-pong team’s visit that culminated in Kissinger’s secret trip to China.
On an early morning in July 9, 1971, Kissinger quietly boarded a plane in Pakistan, which flew him to mainland China and made him the first U.S. official to visit the country since its founding in 1949. The details of “Operation Marco Polo,” named after the 13th-century explorer who spent 17 years in China, remained a secret until April 2001, after Nixon’s presidential materials were released. The meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou was held from 4:00 pm to nearly midnight, with Kissinger touring the Palace Museum and setting a date for Nixon to visit the following day.
Kissinger’s meeting with Zhou was evidence of a rebirth between China and the United States. It began a new chapter for both countries and paved the way for Nixon’s visit in February of 1972. Continuing his diplomatic career, Kissinger assumed the role of harbinger of peaceful relations and went on to visit China nearly 100 times since his first secret trip.
While it took time for Sino-American relations to normalize, change did occur. In 1973, the U.S. and China established Liaison Offices in Beijing and Washington. On a global front, the international system appeared to have transformed from a bipolar order into a tripolar one, according to Hal Brands, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Not only that, but countries around the world saw China in a different light. The same year of Kissinger’s visit, the UN General Assembly admitted China as a member. And in the 1980s, a wave of economic reforms took shape that would influence modern history. Chinese Communist Party Leader Deng Xiaoping opened the Chinese market to foreign direct investment and international trade. The U.S. and other countries started investing in China and by the early 2000s, China had fully integrated itself into the global economy. In 2010, China surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy after the United States.
While tensions between the U.S. and China still remain, it is important to reflect on the evolution of the relationship since Kissinger’s visit. The Secretary of State’s trip to the People’s Republic of China changed the dynamics of geopolitics, teaching us that there is always room for diplomacy, even during times of conflict.