Author: Sourabh Gupta, Institute for China-America Studies
On 28 February 1972, the United States and China issued the Shanghai Communique. The document marks a pivotal moment in the history of China’s modern international relations, comparable to its historical treaties at Nerchinsk, Nanjing and Shimonoseki.
In Nerchinsk (1689), China’s Qing rulers placed relations with Russia beyond the framework of the tributary system and treated it as a sovereign equal. Nanjing (1842) inaugurated the ‘unequal treaty’ era of extraterritorial rights and merchant autonomy. In Shimonoseki (1895), sovereign Chinese territory (Taiwan) was forcibly ceded to Japan. Coming full circle, the Shanghai Communique — and the earlier October 1949 proclamation of the establishment of the People’s Republic — presaged the ‘fourth rise’ of China, its fuller re-engagement with international society, and the remarkable decades of ‘reform and opening up’.
For the United States, the fundamental strategic calculus that underpinned the China rapprochement was that if Moscow and Beijing were more afraid of each other than they were of Washington, that would present an unprecedented opportunity for American Cold War diplomacy. Improved US–China relations became the key to the Nixon administration’s strategy to modify Soviet conduct. For China, the calculus was simpler: to deny Moscow the attempt to geopolitically encircle China and dominate continental Asia. ‘The small issue is Taiwan; the big issue is the world,’ as Mao confided to Nixon.
The Shanghai Communique laid the groundwork for a tacit US–China alignment to counter Soviet expansionism in Asia. That premise no longer holds today. Russia is now the balancing power in the equation. Should the US desire a rapprochement, Putin’s terms of endearment have been spelt out in a public document that has no parallel in the annals of post-17th century Russian diplomacy.
The political drivers that facilitated the US–China rapprochement are also inapplicable today. At the time, both countries were facing domestic frailty. Regime disunity following Lin Biao’s death and the cultural revolution’s disruption weighed on Mao and Zhou Enlai. The Vietnam quagmire and inflationary pressure from the fraying gold-dollar link, as well as the Great Society programs, weighed on Nixon and Kissinger.
Today, neither country feels its back against the wall in the same way. At that time, Nixon was retrenching the US conventional forces’ presence in Asia as part of his Guam Doctrine. Today, three successive administrations have sought to ‘rebalance’ the American troop presence in the Indo-Pacific. In an ironic twist at the time, it was the American side that sought to downplay the ‘essential differences… in social systems and foreign policies’ to promote peaceful coexistence while the Chinese side proclaimed that ‘revolution… ha[d] become the irresistible trend of history’. Today, that ideological shoe is on the other foot.
Yet, the Shanghai Communique remains enduringly relevant to the 21st-century era of US–China strategic competition.
In Shanghai, the two sides trained their focus on the big picture and were not shy to memorialise their differences. No effort was made to mask the divergent stances on Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Indochina. But also no effort was spared to situate these divergent perspectives within a broader framework of stable and peaceable coexistence.
At a time when US–China relations are suffering due to the privileging of the ‘extreme competition’ tendencies in the bilateral relationship, the communique provides an object lesson in the constructive management of differences. It is telling that the language in the communique — which crisply spelt out rival positions, such as regarding Taiwan — has stood the test of time. The few areas of supposed consensus, like the two parties’ views on South Asia, bear no relation to the current political reality.
In mid-November, President Xi suggested that the two sides should adopt a ‘peaceful coexistence, no conflict, no confrontation’ bottom line. For his part, President Biden spoke of the need to manage strategic risks responsibly and equip the relationship with common-sense guardrails to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict.
Fifty years to the day that Chairman Mao and President Nixon forged a productive bilateral engagement, Biden and Xi should now utilise their respective approaches as a common bottom line. There is opportunity to commence ‘the journey of a thousand miles’ towards a fresh communique — one which articulates a new paradigm of ties founded on the principles of ‘stability and constructive coexistence’ in an era of strategic competition.
The juxtaposing of divergent policy positions within a steadying framework could create a balance between the goals pursued by Washington and Beijing and the requirements of the system. As implausible as such a communique might seem in this post-Trump ‘new normal’ era, a window may open up for a second-term Democratic Party president — specifically, if Biden is re-elected — that is steeped in the politics of US–China normalisation.
Given the importance of their relationship to Asia and the world, both Washington and Beijing would need to rise above their parochial visions of ideology and justice and sculpt a durable consensus for a new era of ties. It would have to be a consensus that keeps tensions within a manageable range, prioritises stability and coexistence, encourages communication, and privileges a constructive working relationship in areas of common interest, without trampling on the other party’s system, values and regional commitments.
Sourabh Gupta is a resident senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies, Washington