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The break-up: Richard Nixon’s great wager reverberates from the '70s to today

Today, the rise of China has changed everything. (Photo illustration/Special to WBUR)
Today, the rise of China has changed everything. (Photo illustration/Special to WBUR)

This is Part V of The Great Wager. Click here for all five episodes. 

In 2011, Vice President Joe Biden and Premier Xi Jinping went for a walk in the woods.

Biden was in China on a state visit. It was already clear that Xi would soon become the leader of the Communist Party.

Xi turned to Biden and started talking about spy planes. He told Biden to stop sending American spy planes over Chinese territory.

Biden replied, if China was more transparent, the United States wouldn’t have to.

But Xi didn’t back down. He told Biden that China wouldn’t stand for such interference.

Biden told me and other American reporters based in China this story in 2013. Of course, now in 2022, both Biden and Xi are their country’s top leaders.

And that walk in the woods feels more significant. Back in 2011, the relationship between the two countries was relatively easy. The power balance was still clear, and still in favor of the U.S. But there were hints of change on the horizon.

Today, the rise of China has changed everything.

Nixon’s wager

More than 50 years ago, President Richard Nixon made a bet that a relationship with China would help the U.S. remain the most powerful country in the world. But the gap has narrowed.

The current relationship between the U.S. and China is widely considered to be at its lowest ebb since 1972, with minimal dialogue.

For years, it’s been evident that China was becoming a huge economic competitor with the U.S., and their newfound economic strength would be accompanied by military might. Still, the current leader’s assertiveness caught the U.S. by surprise.

Xi became China’s leader in November of 2012. He has been rougher and tougher than anyone expected. At home, he acts as an unrestrained dictator, suppressing free speech, operating massive work camps to put down the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority. And he’s combative abroad.

By 2019, when I was preparing to leave my post as Beijing bureau chief for The New York Times, the relationship between the U.S. and China had totally tanked. I realized this when I was invited to lunch by a friendly Chinese official. I expected a warm farewell. Instead, I got a long lecture on the treachery of the U.S.

The Chinese government now regards America as a nation in decline. They hammer this message every single day.

And the view from the U.S. isn’t much better, where politicians are quick to trash China.

Perhaps Nixon’s diplomacy can help us understand how these two countries can move forward today.

Nixon predicted this low moment. His biographer, Richard Reeves, recounted how Nixon told him that a clash between China and the U.S. “was inevitable.”

“It might be a shooting war. It might be an economic war,” Nixon told Reeves. “But their interests were fundamentally different over the long term, and eventually they would clash, and the jobs of the leaders of the West were to prevent that from happening.”

Nixon worried that U.S. leaders wouldn’t be able to do that — and China would win.

There’s not a lot of optimism right now. Jon Huntsman Jr., a former ambassador to China, said he worries that American politics can undermine diplomacy abroad.

“You got a lot of complaining, you got a lot of finger-pointing, you’ve got a lot of accusations, but you don’t have a lot of thought being given to how we got to where we are today and how we get out and how we preserve the world and make it more safe going forward,” he said. “What we’re doing now, just making it a never-ending political circus is highly detrimental to our ability to operate abroad.”

Huntsman was also ambassador to Russia — the only American to hold both posts. He would like to see strong diplomacy from the Biden administration but said that they face a very different context from Nixon in the 1970s.

“We approached the Soviet Union and indeed China from a standpoint of security,” he said. “We had the world’s leading economy. We had the indisputably strongest military in the world. We had nuclear weapons. We had global reach. We had an array of allies who mattered enormously in those days. Today it’s almost like we’re approaching the world from a standpoint of insecurity.”

A lot of that insecurity is economic.

China is critical to the American economy. Trade between the two countries is ever-increasing. Nearly every trip to the store in the U.S. is linked to China.

“We don’t talk about it very much, but American consumers have enjoyed the benefits of China’s manufacturing capabilities and global trade for a long time,” said former Defense Sec. Robert Gates. “We talk about the manufacturing jobs lost here in the United States, but we don’t talk about the fact that somebody can buy a $6 steam iron because it was made in China.”

Gates said that people from both parties worry that the U.S. economy has become over-reliant on China — and that America is helping China’s economy outpace its own.

But Gates said that economic insecurity is just a piece of the puzzle. There’s also insecurity about military power.

When it comes to some important weapons, Gates is concerned that China is now surpassing the U.S. For example, their hypersonic missiles move far faster than the speed of sound and are almost impossible to detect.

“Hypersonics can be maneuverable almost to the end,” Gates said. “They could launch, and we won’t know whether it’s headed for Los Angeles or Chicago or New York.”

Minxin Pei, a U.S.-China expert at Claremont McKenna College, is also worried about China’s growing military strength.

“I think [the United States] should do everything to prevent a Cold War from spiraling into a shooting war,” Pei said.

He worries it could take something like the 1962 Cuban missile crisis to prompt real dialogue.

“My fear is that the U.S. and China will not start talking seriously until they’ve actually gone through a similar episode — a really hair-raising, very dangerous episode in the next, say, three to five years,” Pei said.

The subject that really tore at Nixon and Kissinger — and one they chose to downplay — is now unavoidable: Taiwan. If China invades Taiwan, the question will be if the U.S. and China will fight a war over it. But Gates said China might make a less frontal but still deadly move.

“Using cyber, [the Chinese government] could bring down the entire infrastructure of Taiwan. They could wreck the Taiwanese economy,” Gates said. “They could engage in all kinds of sabotage and other kinds of activities on the island that would be difficult to attribute. And then if they wanted to do things that are a little bit more aggressive, the likelihood of the Americans being willing to go to war I think comes into question.”

What would Nixon do?

Nixon used the U.S.  relationship with the Chinese to put pressure on the Soviets — to make the Soviets feel more vulnerable. For a while, people thought the Biden administration could pull off the mirror image and try to peel Russia away from China.

When we spoke this fall, Gates said that if Nixon were calling the shots now, he might attempt to recreate a strategic advantage like the one the U.S. had in the 1970s.

“Where the United States had a better relationship with Russia and China than they had with each other so that the United States was, if you will, in the catbird seat in this triangular relationship,” Gates said.

With the brewing conflict in Ukraine, the possibility of strengthening ties with Russia is out of the question. But it’s going to take bold action to make any progress. The new U.S. ambassador to China is Nicholas Burns, a veteran diplomat. At his Senate confirmation hearings, he was forceful that the diplomacy of the future needs to be more expansive, nimble and creative.

Even before he was president, Nixon said that he didn’t think the world had anything to gain from cutting off China.

In his first inaugural address, he said, “We seek an open world. Open to ideas, open to the exchange of goods and people. A world in which no people great or small will live in angry isolation.”

There is no going back to China living in angry isolation and the U.S. being the sole superpower.

I’d love to know what Nixon would say now. How would he deal with this?

He died in 1994. But he was fascinated by China until the end. He kept in touch with Mao Zedong until Mao died in 1976. Later, Nixon traveled to China to meet with Deng Xiaoping. Nixon never stopped caring about what he’d started, said his son-in-law Ed Cox.

“Whether as president or former president, he had terrific antennae and understood that change was taking place, and he wanted to see what it was,” Cox said.

Cox said that if Nixon were still alive he’d be trying to find a solution.

“The president wasn’t much for reminiscing. He was always analyzing what’s next? Where are things going? And that was the fascinating part of being with him,” Cox said.

Fifty years ago, Nixon dared to go to China.  He set us on a path of decades of prosperity for both countries. Today, some people think he made a mistake — that by reaching out to China, Nixon gave away too much.

America’s military edge in Asia has diminished. Countries there look to China for economic strength. China seems willing to fight a war against the U.S. over Taiwan. And China could win.

And yet, there are large problems that require global cooperation, including global warming and future pandemics.

Nixon’s wager brought a sense of progress and even peace. What’s the next big bet, and is anyone at the table?

What happens if no one shows up?

Show notes

Want to know more? Here are some of the resources The Great Wager team consulted during reporting and production.


The Great Wager was reported by Jane Perlez and produced by Grace Tatter. Special thanks to The Belfer Center, The John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; Luz Ding, researcher; William Burr and the National Security Archive; Susan R. Johnson, Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training; Ryan Pettigrew, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library; Lucas Nichter, Texas A&M University; Roger Lewis at Ground Zero Books; Jane Perlez’s colleagues in the Beijing bureau of The New York Times; Chas Freeman; Fredrik Logevall, Harvard University; Amb. Winston Lord; Patrick Tyler, journalist and author; and author James Mann.

The Great Wager is funded in part by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

The Great Wager series collage artwork is created by WBUR. Images used are from, and www.istock.comPhoto credits: mphillips007/ Ensup / bndart / traveler1116 / sinopics / andDraw / Kateywhat. The Color Archives / Shim Harno / 360b / INTERFOTO. National Archives: 194412 / 194759

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