Clairvoyant on China
Jude Wanniski
June 29, 2001


Memo To: Supply-Side Students
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Clairvoyant on China

There are plenty of things I’ve written over the years that look good today, and many that do not look so hot, but here is one I think was absolutely sensational. It was written as an op-ed for The National Observer on February 3, 1969, only a few days after Richard Nixon was inaugurated as President for his first term. I was a 32-year old Washington columnist for the Dow-Jones weekly and was at Nixon’s first press conference, where it dawned on me that Nixon was going to have an initiative to open up relations with Communist China. I was ahead of the national press corps by miles with “Is This the Turning Point in Sino-American Relations?” I’d become a Nixon watcher in my youth, first hating him, then admiring him. In 1964, when I worked for the Las Vegas Review Journal, I wrote a column predicting he would be the GOP presidential nominee in 1968, when the idea seemed laughable to everyone at the time. In the fall of 1967, he wrote a lengthy essay, “Asia After Vietnam” for Foreign Affairs that impressed me enormously, as there was nobody in the political universe who seemed to be thinking that far ahead. Here is what I wrote at the time:

American and Red Chinese diplomats will get together in Warsaw on Feb. 20, the first diplomatic contact between the two countries in more than a year. The previous 134 meetings, dating back to 1955, produced few significant agreements, but now, with China at the end of its most turbulent Cultural Revolution, the most hopeful China watchers in Washington believe the coming talks may herald a promising turn in Sino-American relations.

The reasoning that supports such optimism is nine parts wishful thinking and only one part sound conjecture. The most wishful assumption goes something like this: Any turn in U.S.-Chinese relations must be initiated from the White House. President Nixon, with gilt-edged anti-Communist credentials and the confidence of the conservative community, is in a position to initiate a conciliatory policy toward Peking without risking the wrath of the right wing.

It's Up to Peking

This logic is appealing but it is really not worth very much. Mr. Nixon does enjoy a more favorable position than would a Democratic President when it comes to explaining a new deal with China to the American people. But he has this advantage only if such a deal is plausible. That depends not so much on Mr. Nixon as on Peking's willingness to deal.

Mr. Nixon could hardly have been more precise or more generous than he was last week in stating his view of China policy and the Warsaw talks: "We look forward to that meeting. We will be interested to see what the Chinese Communist representatives may have to say at that meeting, whether any changes of attitude on their part on major substantive issues may have occurred. Until some changes occur on their side, however, I see no immediate prospect of any change in our policy."

He opposes Communist China's admission to the United Nations, but his opposition is not unalterable. It is entirely within Peking's power to neutralize his objections with words alone, not deeds. First, says Mr. Nixon, Communist China has shown no interest in becoming a U.N. member; second, it hasn't indicated any intent to abide by the principles of the U.N. charter; third, it continues to insist that the republic of China (Taiwan) be expelled from the U.N.

A Pledge Would Suffice

Significantly, Mr. Nixon did not suggest that Peking be barred from the U.N. because it is unworthy and should first prove itself, through its actions, to be a stable and responsible nation. As unlikely as it would be, Peking presumably could pledge to abide by the U.N. charter and accept the company of Taiwan, and the United States would sanction its membership.

If Peking, hypothetically, were to meet these conditions, President Nixon's task of selling a new China policy to his constituency and to Congress would not be formidable. Largely as a result of the hearings called by chairman J.W. Fulbright of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1967, public and congressional antipathy toward China has softened.

It is almost part of the conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill that Peking's bark is much worse than its bite -- indeed, that it has been showing more responsibility in the conduct of its foreign affairs than has the Soviet Union. It did not intervene with troops in Korea until its border was threatened, and has since withdrawn from North Korea itself. Its border skirmishes with India and the absorption of Tibet are debatable acts of aggression, since China's historical claim to the territories in question were made by Chiang Kai-shek as well. And China has not intervened in Vietnam in force, although it continues to supply Hanoi (as Moscow does).

Peking's muted condemnation of the Soviet Union for the invasion of Czechoslovakia also had its effect on Capitol Hill. Whatever its reasons for chewing on Moscow, Peking at least seems responsible in doing so. Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, a power among Southern conservatives -- those who could be expected to lead any fight against a softening of China policy -- stunned Washington liberals on Dec. 31 when he suggested just such a change.

An Exchange of Ministers

He continues to oppose China's admission to the U.N., "but I think it would be a step for the welfare of this country and the world if we could have some kind of intercourse or exchange with them on some kind of level, even if it was just a minister to China and they had one here."

In his appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a key Nixon appointee went a step further. U. Alexis Johnson, named Undersecretary of State for political affairs, said he would personally favor China's admission to the U.N. if Peking did not insist on Taiwan's expulsion. His position presumes that if China wanted membership, it would also pledge support of the U.N. charter.

This combination of official and unofficial gestures toward Peking is about as far as President Nixon can go without getting some sign of interest from Peking itself. The only official sign received from Peking thus far is the Nov. 26 invitation to resume the Warsaw dialog.

The invitation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Peking would appear surly and vituperative, but it is really unusually mild. It allows that "the two sides might as well meet on Feb. 20, next year. By that time the new United States President will have been in office for a month, and the United States side will probably be able to make up its mind."

For the first time since 1964, Peking offers to discuss five points of "peaceful coexistence" if Mr. Nixon "makes up his mind" to get out of Asia -- Taiwan and Vietnam included.

"We can't really bring ourselves to get optimistic about this kind of statement," says a State Department expert on China. "To do so is the most hypothetical kind of owl-entrail reading." Professional China watchers in Washington and Hong Kong find recent Peking press attacks on President Nixon and the United States far from encouraging.

Nevertheless, China specialists can't help but conjecture about Peking's next "logical" move in its international chess game with Moscow. The guessing is that Mao will see the logic of lessening tensions with the United States as the Vietnam War moves toward negotiated resolution.

Charles W. Yost, who is now Mr. Nixon's ambassador to the U.N., late last year revived a theory in support of this notion. Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, Mr. Yost recalled that Prof. C. P. Fitzgerald, a China scholar, argued in 1963 that there is a continuity between traditional Chinese foreign policy and that of the current regime. "According to Fitzgerald, one of the central principles of traditional policy was contained in 'the axiom that it is unwise and dangerous to quarrel at the same time with the power which dominates the northern borderlands and the power which rules the Pacific Ocean.'" Mr. Yost questions whether these traditional strains are being felt now in Peking, which has on the one hand 4,000 miles of hostile border with the Soviet Union, and on the other a far less threatening U.S. presence in the Pacific.

Allies Have Fears

The Soviet Union, naturally, is suspicious of this talk of improvements in Sino-American relations; so, too, are U.S. allies in the Pacific. They worry about what new global coalitions may be forming, who will be in, who will be out. In his statement last week, President Nixon had to be sure these worries would be minimized. Changes in global alignments shouldn't take place suddenly, dramatically, if that can be helped. Better an orderly precise movement, for all the powers to be certain that there is nothing up the sleeve.

For this reason, the Nixon statement -- firm and precise, but without a nuance of hostility -- could not have been more correct. It corresponds to Mr. Nixon's measured campaign thoughts on China policy, when he suggested: "For the long run, it means pulling China back into the world community -- but as a great and progressing nation, not as the epicenter or world revolution." For the long run, Warsaw might bring the first small step.