When détente is transformed into cold war

Fifty years after Kissinger’s secret mission it is time to examine how Sino-US relations transformed


Dr Moonis Ahmar July 25, 2021
The writer is former Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi and can be reached at [email protected]

When in July 1971, the then US National Security Adviser Dr Henry Kissinger undertook a secret visit to Peking (now Beijing) via Islamabad, it was not conceivable that Sino-American détente which brought qualitative changes in the world order will be transformed into a cold war in five decades time. President Richard Nixon had authorised Kissinger to start backchannel negotiations to cause a breakthrough in relations with Communist China knowing that the Sino-Soviet rivalry provided a valuable opportunity to mend fences with Peking.

Fifty years after Kissinger’s secret mission to Peking it is time to examine and analyse how Sino-US relations transformed from positive to negative and why Washington is pursuing a policy of ‘containment’ of China? How China, which was economically weak and militarily inferior to the US, is the world’s second largest economy with its defence expenditures amounting to $240 billion as against $767 billion of the US. Fear and jealousy in Washington against China’s growing power is so apparent that during G-7 and NATO summits held in June, President Joseph Biden insisted that his allies should take a position against Beijing. The policy of the Soviet ‘containment’ – pursued by the successive American Presidents, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan – is now being replaced by a policy to contain China.

Before Kissinger undertook his secret visit to China, initial steps were taken by both sides to create plausible conditions for a breakthrough in their relations. That led to the famous ‘ping pong diplomacy’ when the Chinese leadership allowed an American table tennis team to visit their country and play matches. In return, a Chinese table tennis team visited the US which reinforced goodwill at the popular level. One needs to bear in mind that from October 1949 when the Communist revolution took place in China under the leadership of Mao Zedong till 1970, the US had blocked Chinese membership to the United Nations; the two countries lacked diplomatic relations and Washington took every step to hurt and isolate China. It was during the first term of President Nixon when he wrote, “We simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations.”

It was not primarily the Vietnam War which was an impediment to embarking on the process of Sino-American détente but the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had put a condition that the US must adhere to one-China policy which meant that the US must break diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The Nixon-Kissinger duo agreed to the Chinese condition which paved the way for the expulsion of Taiwan from the UN and admission of the People’s Republic of China. The US dropping its veto vis-a-vis the admission of Communist China into the UN paved the way for Nixon’s historical visit to PRC. In fact, Nixon shocked the world when on July 15, 1971 in a televised statement, he announced that he would be visiting China in 1972. From February 21-28, 1972, Nixon undertook a landmark visit to China which changed the dynamics of the global order.

The US-PRC rapprochement cannot be examined without mentioning the key role played by Pakistan to bridge differences between the two adversaries. Two major implications of Pakistan’s role in Sino-US détente needs to be examined.

First, Pakistan severely antagonised the Soviet Union as Moscow termed Kissinger’s secret visit to Peking via Islamabad detrimental to its vital security interests. Emerging Sino-American détente with the facilitation of Pakistan was unacceptable to the USSR as it would have meant a likely alliance of two former adversaries against Moscow. In retaliation, the Soviet Union signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with India in August 1971 and openly sided with New Delhi during the 1971 war with Pakistan.

Second, by facilitating Kissinger’s secret mission to China, Pakistan paid a heavy price in the form of open Soviet hostility and the eventual Indo-Soviet position against Islamabad during the 1971 war. Despite Pakistan’s critical role in the Sino-US thaw, neither the US nor the PRC came up to Pakistan’s assistance when an overt Indo-Soviet alliance led to its disintegration. One wonders if Pakistan had not played the role of a bridge state between the US and Communist China, the Soviet Union wouldn’t have tilted in favour of India.

Why did Pakistan’s state authorities fail to redeem the consequences of Kissinger’s visit to China via Islamabad? Despite its earlier tilt in favour of India in reaction to Pakistan joining the US-sponsored alliances of Baghdad Pact (renamed as CENTO) and SEATO, Moscow remained neutral during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war and mediated between Islamabad and New Delhi during the Tashkent summit of January 1966. Pak-Soviet relations after the 1965 war had improved drastically but Pakistan’s decisive role in the Sino-American détente led to a U-turn in the Soviet policy which led to the signing of Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in August 1971. President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (who later became the Prime Minister) tried to mend fences with the USSR by visiting Moscow in March 1972, but the damage had been done.

But how did China – which was highly underdeveloped in 1971 and far behind the US economically – transformed into the world’s second economic power and caused fear and jealousy in the American mindset? China’s great leap forward in economic development, superseding the US in trade and foreign exchange reserves, and achieving excellence in infrastructure modernisation can be explained in just one sentence: the slow moving turtle had raced past the rabbit because the latter felt asleep. The moral of the fable applies to the discussion at hand too: when the US was militarily engaged in different parts of the world, with around $4 trillion spending on its overseas wars, China was focusing on human, social and economic development. This is the lesson one must learn from the Chinese miracle in the last five decades.

Furthermore, it was Mao’s leadership which transformed China from a lazy, opium-ridden nation to a successful and vibrant country. The US, on the other hand, wasted its resources and energies in fruitless overseas wars and inventions.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 25th, 2021.

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