Main lesson from Nixon's historic visit is to focus on common interests: Chas Freeman
Published: Feb 20, 2022 06:19 PM
Editor's Note:

Monday marks the 50th anniversary of US president Richard Nixon's historic visit to China. Recalling this breakthrough trip, Chas W. Freeman Jr (Freeman), who was a lead translator for Nixon during the visit, said the biggest lesson we should learn from the trip is that China and the US "could set aside ideology in the interest of cooperating to common ends." He called for the US to make the first move and change its China strategy that emphasizes competition to break ice in current China-US relations. The following is the full transcript of an interview between Freeman and Global Times (GT) reporters Yu Jincui and Bai Yunyi.

This file photo taken on February 24, 1972 shows US President Richard Nixon (C) and US Secretary of State William Rogers (R) visiting the Great Wall of China, north of Beijing, during an official visit in China.Photo: AFP

This file photo taken on February 24, 1972 shows US President Richard Nixon (C) and US Secretary of State William Rogers (R) visiting the Great Wall of China, north of Beijing, during an official visit in China.Photo: AFP

GT: Nixon once called his ice-breaking visit to China in 1972 "the week that changed the world." During that week, you were also in China as a member of the US delegation. What impressed you most in China that week?

Freeman: The weather was clear. The skies were blue. There was no pollution in Beijing then. I loved hearing people in speaking with their distinctive Beijing accent.  And I thought the Chinese side of the talks was very well prepared, very professional.  I was impressed. One cannot help but be struck by Beijing as the capital of a country that has many years of history. While I was impressed with China as a culture, as a civilization, this was not the high point of Chinese achievement. That came later.

GT: That visit left a good impression on both the Chinese and American people. What implications does this have for today's China-US relations?

Freeman: Both countries in 1972 approached each other with the idea that we could cooperate despite differences. So we set the differences aside and focused on common interests. This was a very appropriate approach, and it yielded great results for both countries. 

I think we can learn from this. We should not be talking about competition first. We should be talking about cooperation first. The main lesson of the Nixon-Mao meeting was that we could set aside ideology in the interest of cooperating to common ends.

This is very important. But to prepare the Shanghai communiqué, we spent a lot of time talking about the disagreements between us over wars, over Korea, over Kashmir, and other issues. It was very important to reassure our respective friends. China had a relationship with North Korea and North Vietnam, but we had a relationship with South Korea and South Vietnam. China had a relationship with Pakistan that was important to it. And so forth. So we had to demonstrate to our friends that despite our cooperation on a strategic level, we had not sold out their interests. We had not negotiated behind their back. We were faithful to our commitments to our partners.

GT: A view in the US holds that Nixon's visit 50 years ago was a mistake, so is the US engagement policy of China. How do you comment on this?

Freeman: Those who make this argument have forgotten the circumstances in which the United States and China reached out to each other and the major gains for both sides from doing this. They also seem oblivious to the very positive developments in China and the world that the opening of relations between the two countries generated. Instead of acknowledging the many benefits to the world and the United States that flowed from China's emergence as a prosperous participant in the post-World War II, American-sponsored world order, they object to the loss of American global and regional preeminence and the inability of the United States to have its way unilaterally. That is narrow-minded and short-sighted. Nixon believed that the world could not be peaceful or prosperous if China had no constructive relationship with the United States and was left outside the postwar order. He was right. 

GT: The normalization of China-US relations began with ping-pong diplomacy. This year's Winter Olympics are also the focus of attention of both China and the US. If you observe the interaction between the two countries over the Winter Olympics, what conclusions would you draw?

Freeman: I was present at the meeting in the secretary of state's office on Christmas day, 1979, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. And I was the one of two people there who opposed the Olympic boycott in Moscow. I did so for several reasons. First, I think sports need to be kept separate from politics. Second, I thought we were setting a precedent that would come back to hurt us. That was indeed the case when the Soviet Union boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics four years later.

GT: The Olympics are supposed to be an event going beyond politics. But the US launched a diplomatic boycott. Some see this as an indication of America's anxiety about its declining strength, what do you think?

Freeman: This is a very bad time in terms of international relationships generally. We had in the Trump administration a secretary of state Mike Pompeo who went out of his way to insult China and other countries. China has its wolf warrior diplomacy. Both of these things have cost each of us dearly internationally. So I'm sorry to say that this is a bad time for diplomacy. I think we should all remember that the basis of diplomacy is mutual respect, empathy, understanding the viewpoint of the other even if you don't agree with it, and dealing with the other's viewpoint on a respectful basis. That is what I hope we will rediscover.

Charles W. Freeman Jr. Photo: Courtesy of Charles W. Freeman Jr.

Charles W. Freeman Jr. Photo: Courtesy of Charles W. Freeman Jr.

GT: In the Nixon era, China and the US had almost no exchanges, but they could move toward engagement; today, the two are interdependent, but the shadow of a new Cold War looms over bilateral relations. If we want to have an ice-breaking, where do you think today we should start?

Freeman: I would say that frankly, the first move needs to be made by the United States. We have a government which emphasizes competition with China. I think that is wrong. I think we should emphasize cooperation. We should say we want to cooperate with China on common issues where we have the same interests. If we can't cooperate directly, we should coordinate our policies so that we cooperate in parallel.

There are some issues on which we will compete, and we will do so fiercely. Finally, there are some issues on which we absolutely do not agree. And we may be opposed to each other. That is realistic. But we should start with an emphasis on finding areas where we can cooperate and setting aside other issues for later resolution.

When we opened this relationship 50 years ago, we had a very concrete, very real common threat of Soviet expansion. And now we have threats that are more abstract and less immediate - climate change, pandemics, nuclear proliferation. These are, in some ways, greater threats than the Soviet army represented in 1969-72. But people don't take them so seriously. It's very easy to regard them as long term and to continue thinking only in the short term. Can we find a way to discover these common interests?

So can we find a way to cooperate? I think the start to that is, as the Chinese side has said, mutual respect. I think the Chinese side reflects a concern about face. Face, or mianzi, is the self esteem that you gain from the respect of others. It's a major force in Chinese culture. We have similar concerns in American culture, but probably a different concern about what we call honor.

So we need to find a way to bridge these and to recognize that despite our disagreements, there are many reasons for us to work together.

GT: Under the current situation when toughness against China is the mainstream of US politics, do US policymakers have the ability to change the course that focused on competition and find new strategies that are in line with US interests?

Freeman: Sadly the American political system is stalemated. It is in gridlock. President Biden has limited if no freedom to depart from the Trump policies toward China and other issues, because he has no clear majority in the House or Senate.

And all of the indications are that in 2022 when we have a midterm election, he may be further weakened. Fifty years ago, the United States took the first step in opening to China. China has been relatively passive until recently. Historically, we Americans have taken the initiative, but I don't think our political condition at the moment will now allow us to do that.

So I'm quite pessimistic that we will see any improvement in the relationship in the near term. And I note that in China, there are similar constraints. That is to say, both countries have seen a surge of nationalist opposition to each other, the so-called netizens in China. This is a bad situation. I don't see it improving in the near term.

GT: Compared with 50 years ago, US domestic politics is more fragmented, polarized, and to some extent more populist. Can politicians overcome domestic politics if they want to improve China-US relations?

Freeman: Not in the short term. I will say two things. The American republic, which began as an experiment 250 years ago and which has been very successful, is now unraveling. If I were Chinese, I would be very cautious about the prospects of the United States. I would not bet against America. We have so much going for us, geopolitically, with two wide oceans, tremendous bounty of agricultural land, a very diverse human population, institutions that have generated a great deal of global innovation and a capacity for reform, which I admit we are not seeing at the moment.

So I think there is a problem among those in China who say the day of the United States has passed. I think the day of America may be dim but brightness can return.

GT: Trump is planning to bid for the 2024 presidential elections. Do you think he will come back? And what does that mean for China, for the US and for China-US relations?

Freeman: I don't know whether he will come back or not. I don't think anybody does. But the fact that this is a real question is indicative of a major problem in the United States. We have a political order in our country that is in a state of confusion.

That is very menacing to our republic which was founded almost 250 years ago. It's lasted a long time. The constitution of our republic, however, is now largely ignored by our political class. And the system is not working. Trump is somebody who exploits a widespread dissatisfaction with the current American condition. And if he does not come back, there are others like him who are prepared to take his place.

GT: How do you predict the development of China-US relations in 2022? Are we going to have a tougher year, or a relatively smoother year than previous years?

Freeman: There is a lot happening internationally. There is a crisis in Europe over European security architecture, and the possible expansion of the American sphere of influence, represented by NATO, to the borders of Russia through Ukraine. Russia is using shows of force to propel a negotiation about this. I don't know whether that negotiation will occur or not. I see that China has been very cautious about the issue of Ukraine, but clearly considers NATO to be something more than a defensive alliance, given its dismemberment of Serbia, promotion of the independence of Kosovo, and its intervention in Afghanistan and Libya.

So NATO, which once was a purely defensive alliance, now clearly has elements of offense. This is of concern to China, especially because NATO has begun to express hostile opinions about China.

We also have the breakdown of the understandings over how to set aside the Taiwan issue in US-China relations. Besides, China is now risking a lot in the new approach to a common prosperity. It is not clear that it will work. China has previously been applying models it adapted from abroad. Now it is striking out on its own with a new, purely Chinese approach. Will it work? And, as I mentioned earlier, the midterm elections here in the US could have major effects on the Biden administration's ability to take initiatives.

So I think this is going to be a year of living dangerously. There will be many ups and downs. And it's very hard to say how it will all turn out.

GT: You just mentioned the Taiwan issue. Does the Taiwan question constitute the biggest obstacle to improving relations? Is there a possibility that the red line will be crossed leading to a complete breakdown of China-US relations?

Freeman: The common understanding between Taipei and Beijing that facilitated dialogue has broken down. The United States cannot decide what relationship people in Taiwan and the Chinese mainland want to have with each other. Chinese have to do that themselves. But at the moment, there is no positive dialogue across the Taiwan Strait. So this is a very dangerous issue. 

And it's one that inflames passions in China on nationalist grounds and challenges the American sense of honor embodied in our pledge to be friends with people in Taiwan. And we cannot simply turn our back on them. So this is a very difficult issue emotionally. We need to find a way not to talk about military solutions, which would devastate Taiwan, whatever happened. The US and China would become bitter enemies for a long time. If the United States prevailed in a war with China and Taiwan was separated from the rest of China, China would not give up.

The question then is, can we find a way to solve two questions? One, what is the strategic importance of Taiwan to China and to the United States and by extension to Japan? Is there a way to neutralize Taiwan in strategic terms? Second point is, can people in Taiwan who are Chinese but who have acquired a distinct identity find peace with people on the mainland? Is the mainland prepared to treat them in a way that gives them face so that they can make friends with people they regard with suspicion? 

I think those are the issues. And I think this is indeed the most critical matter in US-China relations.

GT: What will be the biggest risks and uncertainties in bilateral relations in 2022?

Freeman: One of them is, in fact, the Taiwan question. This is uncertain. This is a three-way issue, which means that all three parties can make mistakes. If any one of them makes a mistake, there will be a problem.