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Nixon's trip to China laid the groundwork for normalizing U.S.-China relations

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Fifty years ago this week, President Richard Nixon made his famous trip to China. And at the end of it, he had this to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD NIXON: We have been here a week. This was the week that changed the world.

MARTIN: And it did. The trip helped bring China out of isolation and realign the global balance of power. It laid a foundation for the eventual establishment of relations between Beijing and Washington. But the meeting failed to address one major issue, one that's become an even more pressing issue today. NPR's China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch explains.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Shortly after landing in Beijing, as the first U.S. president to set foot in China for more than two decades, Nixon was summoned. Ailing Chinese leader Mao Zedong wanted to meet. An iconic black-and-white photo released afterwards shows Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger sitting with Mao, a translator and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. But there was another American at the meeting that day in Mao's cluttered study.

WINSTON LORD: It was just filled with books and manuscripts all over the place - in the back of Mao, where he sat and all the tables.

RUWITCH: Winston Lord was 34 at the time and an aide to Kissinger.

LORD: There were several very comfortable chairs we sat in, with tea served in between. There was spittoons, standing lamps. Mao, even then, was quite frail. His doctors weren't sure he could do this meeting.

RUWITCH: But the chairman did do the meeting, putting a huge stamp of approval on the controversial visit, and setting the tone in a way that only Mao could do.

LORD: Mao kept deflecting Nixon's efforts to engage in substantive exchanges. He would give a one or two-sentence answer and say, that's something for Premier Zhou Enlai to handle.

RUWITCH: Lord says the Americans were a little disappointed at first.

LORD: But then we realized in the coming days that Mao had rather skillfully, somewhat elliptically and certainly laconically sort of put down a few markers, which gave Zhou Enlai the authority and the structure to elaborate Chinese positions in much greater detail.

RUWITCH: By the end of the week, the two sides had hammered out the Shanghai Communique, a document that has been a cornerstone of U.S.-China relations ever since.

LORD: We pulled it off, I think, very skillfully because the two sides basically agreed to postpone intractable problems, like Taiwan, so we could get on where we could cooperate.

RUWITCH: Where they wanted to cooperate most was in counterbalancing the Soviet Union, which both saw as a threat. At the time, Lord says, Beijing appeared to be happy with the arrangement. The U.S. had diplomatic relations with the ruling Communist Party's arch enemy, the nationalists based in Taiwan. And in the Shanghai Communique, the U.S. crucially acknowledged the Chinese position that Taiwan is a part of China. It was a breakthrough, says Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University.

WU XINBO: Before Nixon's visit, the U.S. policy on Taiwan issue was kind of one China, one Taiwan - or two China.

RUWITCH: Indeed, just months earlier, the Nixon administration had tried to keep Taiwan in the United Nations under a two-Chinas formula. Taipei eventually left the U.N. And Beijing was voted in in the fall of 1971. With Nixon's China visit in February of '72...

WU: The U.S. adopted the one-China policy, which means there's one China and Taiwan is part of China. So that's very important for China.

RUWITCH: Washington didn't agree to switch diplomatic relations right away, though. And it kept its defense treaty with Taiwan intact. A couple of weeks after Nixon returned home, the Taiwanese ambassador to the U.S. visited the White House. It was recorded on the Nixon tapes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES SHEN: Well, Mr. President, I'm going back to Taiwan.

RUWITCH: He asks if Nixon had a message for Taiwan's president, Chiang Kai-shek.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIXON: I wish him good health. And...

RUWITCH: Nixon wished him good health and said he knew how painful his visit was for Taiwan. But the U.S., he said, had to take the long view in all of this. In the five decades since, Taiwan has remained separate from the mainland. It has thrived economically and politically. But its fate is as unresolved as ever. And tension has been rising as China-U.S. relations stumble. Shelley Rigger, a professor of political science at Davidson College, says the way Nixon warmed relations with China in secret did not go down well in Taiwan.

SHELLEY RIGGER: The Taiwanese absolutely saw this process as a betrayal.

RUWITCH: And, she says, it also created mistrust between Beijing and Washington.

RIGGER: I would argue that Beijing, to this day, looks back on those events as a kind of betrayal and says, you know, there's an original sin here.

WU: I think the discussion between the two sides kind of gave Beijing the reassurance that over time, this issue could be handled in a way satisfactory for Beijing.

RUWITCH: Wu Xinbo of Fudan University says that hasn't happened. And from Beijing's perspective, the U.S. is once again playing the spoiler.

WU: On the Taiwan issue, the U.S. is trying to discover the geopolitical and geo-economic value of Taiwan, and play its card against China by putting Taiwan in the broader framework of U.S. Indo-Pacific project.

RUWITCH: At the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., there's a room covering the February 1972 China trip. It has statues of Nixon and Zhou Enlai, a video documentary and artifacts, like a tin of panda cigarettes from a banquet. Visitors can also flip through images on a touchscreen display from the yellow legal pads on which Nixon scribbled copious notes. And they're telling.

JOE LOPEZ: This is an interesting one here, this section - what they want, what we want, what we both want.

RUWITCH: Joe Lopez works at the library.

Can you read it?

LOPEZ: Yeah. So what they want, President Nixon writes, build up their world credentials. No. 2, Taiwan. No. 3, get U.S. out of Asia.

RUWITCH: He says the U.S. wanted help ending the war in Vietnam and a reduced threat of confrontation with China.

LOPEZ: What we both want, reduced danger of confrontation and conflict, a more stable Asia and a restraint of USSR.

RUWITCH: The Soviet Union may be gone and the war in Vietnam long over. But from the Chinese perspective, Nixon's words were prophetic. They're building global credentials. They'd probably like the U.S. out of Asia. And Beijing is still trying to get its hands on Taiwan.

John Ruwitch, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF J LORENZO'S "RAIN ON LEAF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.