Evolving Dynamics of Northeast Asian Geopolitics:
The Legacy of Two Foreign Policy Realists
Joseph A. Bosco
Senior Associate CSIS
Along with the threats posed by ISIS and international terrorism and the
resurgence of Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria, the deteriorating
security situation in East Asia is a cause of mounting concern for the
United States and countries in the region.
China’s increasingly assertive actions in the South China Sea, its
history-based hostility to Japan and the West, the use of cyber warfare
against the United States by both China and North Korea, and the
reckless threats of nuclear strikes that periodically emanate from both
countries, make East Asia potentially the most dangerous region
Washington must confront. In all cases, China is the pivotal player,
either because of its own direct actions, or its continuing support for
three generations of the Kim family tyranny in Pyongyang. Military
scholars now openly debate scenarios for war between the U.S. and
China,--over Taiwan, or freedom of navigation in the South or East
China Sea, or on the Korean Peninsula.
We may ask, how did it come to this, after Nixon’s historic opening to
China and almost 45 years of intensive Western engagement carried out
by eight successive U.S. administrations? When he returned from
Beijing in 1972, Nixon proclaimed to his aides that his opening of
relations would "reduce the chance in the immediate future of a
confrontation between the United States and the PRC in Asia, such as
we had in Korea, and such as we had indirectly in Vietnam." Nixon was
equally sanguine about the long-term:
Looking further in the future, when they become a nuclear super
power, we will have such relations with them that we can discuss
differences and not inevitably have a clash. No one can look at
Asia and take 750 million Chinese out of it and say you can have
any policy in the Pacific that will succeed in preventing war
without having the Chinese a part of it. It’s just as coldblooded as
In expressing his confidence in the value of engagement with China,
Nixon was reflecting the sober assessment of not
engaging China that he
had made the year before he was elected president. In his seminal
article, he stated:
[W]e simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the
family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates
and threaten its neighbors. There is no place on this small planet
for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry
Even as he launched the opening to China, however, Nixon knew it was
a "strategic gamble" according to Richard Solomon, a former aide who
was involved in the project. But even when he looked back on his
strategic initiative thirteen years later, Nixon still felt it had been a risk
worth taking: "China does not threaten us,"
Then, in October 1989, Nixon made an unpublicized trip to China,
where he told Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng—four months after the
Tiananmen Square massacre and during Congressional consideration of
sanctions against China: "I am more confident about the future of Sino-
American relations than I was in 1972."
But, in a "Personal &
Confidential" memorandum to six Congressional leaders just days after
the trip, Nixon said "Sino-American relations are in the worst condition
they have been in since before I went to China seventeen years ago."
He said the gap in perceptions over Tiananmen "is totally
Nevertheless, Nixon asserted, Washington and Beijing should follow the
example he and Mao set in 1972 and simply put aside "irreconcilable
differences" for the sake of a common front against the Soviet Union,
nuclear proliferation, global warming, and even a resurgent Japan. He
argued against closing China off from the world using some of the same
words he had used in his 1967 article: "To leave the present and future
leaders of China isolated, nurturing their resentments and even hatred of
the United States because of what they consider to be unjustified actions
against China is senseless and counterproductive."
By the year 2000, however, Nixon confessed to real fears about China’s
direction. In an interview with his former speechwriter, he was asked
whether economic engagement and "our strengthening of [the Chinese]
regime [had] brought political freedom." Nixon’s response was a
chilling acknowledgement that his visit to China, which he had
proclaimed in his Beijing toast as "the week that changed the world,"
may have changed it for the worst. The article stated: "That old realist,
who had played the China card to exploit the split in the Communist
world, replied with some sadness that he was not as hopeful as he had
once been: 'We may have created a Frankenstein[‘s monster].’"
By contrast, Henry Kissinger--Nixon’s partner in the China project—has
never confessed to any regrets or second thoughts about the wisdom of
engagement and what it has accomplished, or not accomplished. As he
wrote in the Wall Street Journal
just this past weekend, "The opening to
China was based on an immediate and observable adjustment in Chinese
policy, not on an expectation of a fundamental change in China’s
Unfortunately, that "immediate and observable
adjustment in Chinese policy" was supposed to include Beijing’s help in
arranging an honorable withdrawal from Vietnam—which never
The difference in their later thinking between the two geopolitical
realists can be seen most clearly in their views on the future of Taiwan.
The ambiguity of the Shanghai Communique allowed Beijing to believe
the U.S. would eventually acquiesce in China’s forcible takeover of
Taiwan. But by 1994, Nixon had concluded that history had passed
unification by and Taiwan’s democratic course made it an incompatible
marriage partner for Beijing. "The situation has changed dramatically ...
[he said] The separation is permanent
politically, but they are in bed
But Kissinger over the ensuing decades, while ostensibly espousing
Washington’s one-China concept, has edged closer to China’s
unambiguous one-China principle
that Taiwan belongs to China, period.
In a talk before the Asia Society in 2007 he warned Taipei to get on with
its political accommodation with Beijing because "China will not wait
North Korea presents an interesting case study of the evolution of realist
thinking. According to documents in the National Archive, Nixon and
Kissinger planned to launch devastating nuclear strikes against North
Korea after it downed a U.S. reconnaissance plane flying in international
airspace. The plan was scrapped as too dangerous because of likely
North Korean retaliation against U.S. bases and allies in the region.
25 years later, when North Korea began developing its own nuclear
weapons and missiles, initially with Chinese technology acquired
through the A.Q. Kahn network, Kissinger described the prospect as one
of the greatest potential catastrophes confronting humanity.
Yet, while repeatedly arguing that China opposed North Korean nukes
as much as the rest of the world, and while acknowledging that it is the
only nation with the power to persuade or deter Pyongyang from that
course, for the next twenty years, Kissinger offered no less than eight
different explanations of why Beijing tolerated and even enabled the
North Korean nuclear and missile programs.
Meanwhile, China has effectively played the North Korean card against
the U.S., posturing as the reliable and indispensable negotiating partner
and responsible international stakeholder, gaining enormous leverage in
its other dealings with the U.S.
Over the decades, the evidence has mounted that the older Nixon’s
pessimism and regret were justified. Nixon’s original expectations of
what change would accomplish in China were badly frustrated by
Beijing’s skillful management of that change. China’s Communist
leaders certainly followed Nixon’s advice in Foreign Affairs
to focus on
domestic development. But they used that progress, first, to build
loyalty to the government that otherwise lacked political legitimacy, and
then, to finance a massive military buildup that has stirred Chinese
nationalism and now intimidates all China’s neighbors.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who knew something about
dictatorships, once told Nixon that "Chinese policies would not change,
even after Mao’s death; he was certain that the entire Chinese leadership
was instinctively aggressive."
Deng Xiaoping, China’s great reformer,
dramatically demonstrated the point. While he energetically followed
Nixon’s advice to open China’s economy, he never forgot Mao’s
teaching that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun"—in both
the domestic and international realms. He "taught a lesson" to Vietnam
in 1978 and to Chinese students in 1989.
In the end, it can be argued that China’s realists had decisively bested
America’s leading realists in managing the China-U.S. relationship. We
are still living with the consequences of Nixon’s "week that changed the
This page last updated October 28, 2015 jdb
| Nixon tapes, Feb 29, 1972.
|Richard Nixon, Real Peace (Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1984) 68.
| Media Advisory, United States Institute of Peace and Richard Nixon Foundation, "Newly Released Document
Reveals President Nixon’s Forecast of U.S.-China Relations," March 6, 2012.
| Memorandum of Richard Nixon to Congressional leaders, "The Crisis in Sino-American Relations," November 1989, 1.
|William Safire, "The Biggest Vote," The New York Times, May 18, 2000.
|Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2015.
| Richard Nixon, Beyond Peace (New York: Random House, 1994), 133.
| Richard Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1978), 882.