Friday, August 19, 2011

U.S., China's road from bitter foes to wary rivals

As we watch U.S. Vice President Joe Biden hold talks with his Chinese hosts this week, it is apt to look back at the precarious state of China-U.S. relations four decades ago and how far they have come along.

Forty years ago, Henry Kissinger secretly visited Beijing and pulled off the improbable: the first direct contact between senior Chinese and American officials in over 20 years.

"It was an extremely bold move," says Kenneth Lieberthal, senior fellow at Brookings Institution in Washington. "It was a visit that set the stage for re-ordering of global politics in a grand scale."

Kissinger's sortie into China was a mix of ruse and suspense. While in Pakistan on a trip to Asia, Kissinger feigned acute illness. He was rushed away ostensibly for treatment and rest. Surreptitiously, he and his three aides took a Pakistani plane destined for Communist China.

His mission: to exchange views with the Chinese and lay the groundwork for U.S. President Richard Nixon's visit.

America's strategy was to persuade the Chinese to influence their North Vietnamese allies to agree to an "honorable peace" that would allow the United States to withdraw from Vietnam with dignity. It also wished to bring China closer so the United States could focus on coping with the threat of the Soviet Union.

China, for its part, also wished to neutralize the Soviet threat -- and to break out of its diplomatic isolation by coaxing the United States to recognize the People's Republic of China (PRC) instead of Taiwan as the sole legitimate representative of China. (more)