World badly needs Nixon's courage and vision today
At the White House South Lawn ceremony on Feb 17, 1972, before his landmark trip to China, US President Richard Nixon said we must recognize that the two governments have had great differences.
"We will have differences in the future. But what we must do is to find a way to see that we can have differences without being enemies in war. If we can make progress toward that goal on this trip, the world will be a much safer world and the chance particularly for all of those young children over there to grow up in a world of peace will be infinitely greater," he said, pointing to young boys and girls at the ceremony. I was a young boy in Shanghai, where he first landed in China before proceeding to Beijing on his weeklong visit.
Indeed, it was "the week that changed the world" as Nixon said. The leaders of the two countries showed the courage and wisdom to reach out to each other after more than 22 years of extreme hostility, including fighting in the bloody war to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea (1950-53).
I remember the days when US imperialism was the No 1 enemy of China. But what ensued after Nixon's visit was decades of growing China-US engagement despite the two countries having far more differences then than they have today.
China's reform and opening-up, which were launched in the late 1970s, unleashed the huge potential of the Chinese people and economy. Reform and opening-up have helped lift more than 750 million people out of abject poverty, greatly raising the living standards of the Chinese people and making China the second-largest economy. As a result, China is playing a greater role on the global stage today.
The United States and many other Western countries have played a critical role in China's phenomenal achievements, while China's all-round growth has greatly benefited the US and the rest of the world. Also, China has been a major engine for global economic growth, and played a key stabilizing role during the global financial crisis. And Chinese talents have contributed to scientific and technological breakthroughs in the US.
The dozens of China experts I have interviewed in the US, including some frequent critics of China, all spoke favorably of Nixon's engagement policy as well as China's progress. They said it was win-win cooperation between the two countries rather than the US doing China a favor or Nixon starting a failed policy. That's also why Republican and Democrat presidents before Donald Trump had continued Nixon's policy to expand cooperation with China while properly handling their differences, some of which may not be resolved for a long time.
While Nixon's visit may have signaled the beginning of the end of the Cold War, Trump reversed the time-tested US policy on China, which incumbent President Joe Biden continues to a large extent, with the aim of isolating China, which risks triggering a new Cold War.
No one wants to relive another Cold War that will further divide the world and leave everyone worse off due to the lack of cooperation.
Despite its many challenges, China today is far more open than it was in 1972. For example, China has applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade deal initiated by former US president Barack Obama and former vice-president Biden as the Trans-Pacific Partnership but ditched by Trump and revived by Japan and some other Asia-Pacific economies in a new avatar.
The world today needs more cooperation to tackle challenges such as climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and nuclear proliferation, and improve global governance. But without close China-US cooperation, such challenges can't be effectively dealt with, and the chances of young children living in a safer, better world won't be enhanced.
That's why global leaders, especially those in Washington, must show the courage and vision that Nixon did 50 years ago this week when he embarked on the historic trip to China.
The author is chief of China Daily EU Bureau based in Brussels.
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