Toward strategic alignment : Sino-American relations from rapprochement to normalization
Richard Nixon’s trip to China in February 1972 marked a diplomatic breakthrough for Sino-American relations after two decades of mutual animosity since the Korean War. Nevertheless, the bilateral relations underwent a long stalemate in the mid-1970s, before the United States and China finally reached normalization of relations in December 1978. The scholarship on Sino-American relations in the 1970s tends to focus on Nixon’s visit or normalization of relations, without paying adequate attention to how Washington and Beijing dealt with the mid-decade deadlock. My report addresses this gap in the literature by analyzing the changing dynamism of Sino-American relations, determined first by Henry Kissinger and Mao Zedong, and later by Zbigniew Brzezinski and Deng Xiaoping. Kissinger sought to establish a triangular relationship with the Soviet Union and China, where the United States could manipulate the Sino-Soviet antagonism to improve its relations with both communist giants. With the failure of his initial idea of creating an anti-Soviet united front with Washington, Mao, through his Three World theory, championed the Third World struggle against both superpowers in competition for global hegemony in the disguise of détente. With Kissinger clinging to superpower détente and Mao determined to maintain a revolutionary China, their strategies were doomed to a stalemate. Unlike Kissinger, Brzezinski tried to create a bilateral structure, where the United States cooperated with China to confront the Soviet Union, which expanded its influence globally despite ongoing détente. Unlike Mao, Deng sought to replace revolution with development as China’s national agenda, by emphasizing modernization, instead of the Three World theory, in Chinese foreign policy. Their global strategies necessitated mutual cooperation, creating momentum for normalization negotiations, especially after Brzezinski’s trip to China in May 1978. The shifting dynamism in Sino-American relations from the Kissinger-Mao years to Brzezinski-Deng years, therefore, precipitated normalization of relations in the late 1970s.