US-China, Nixon to Trump: End of a delusion?

Nixon called it the Week that Changed the World. July 2020 makes it 49 years, nearly half a century, since the fertilisation of a delusive idea which rested on a parade of fallacies and follies. On June 30, 1971, US President Richard Nixon told Patrick McConaughy, US Ambassador to Taiwan: “Either physically or philosophically, we don’t do that to our friends.”

Nixon was conveying an assurance of continued friendship with Taiwan in the context of the forthcoming meeting between US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.  

Ten days later, Kissinger told Zhou-Enlai that “we have ended the Taiwan Strait Patrol, removed a squadron of air tankers from Taiwan” and cut our military advisory group by 20 per cent”.

By the end of July 1971, Kissinger and Nixon accomplished what can only be described as the diplomatic version of throwing a ‘friend’ under the bus. By November 1971, Taiwan was out of the UN, a nation without membership on world forum.

The clock has turned. This week, US President sent US Health Secretary Alex Azar to Taiwan, the highest ranking official in over 40 years to do so.  On Friday, Trump, in an effort to make China the central villain in his bid for re-election, announced a series of measures.

The US placed sanctions on 11 Chinese officials and allies in Hong Kong, including HK chief executive . Trump also passed an executive order prohibiting US companies and residents from doing any business with Chinese owned TikTok and WeChat apps, setting a 45-day deadline. Even as Wall Street speculates on possible consequences on US tech giants, it is ineluctable that the delusion engineered under Nixon is unravelling TikTok…tick-tock. 

The hypothesis, evangelised by Nixon and executed by Kissinger, was to wean China away to split the communist bloc led by Soviet Union. Fact is bloc was united only in fear. China’s biggest fear was dismemberment. Zhou Enlai told Kissinger: “The worst would be that China would be carved up once again.

You could unite, with the USSR occupying all areas north of the Yellow River, and you occupying all the areas south of the Yangtze River, and the eastern section between these two rivers could be left to Japan.” Nixon’s idea was conceived in 1967 when as a candidate he wrote “we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates, and threaten its neighbors.”

Nearly half a century later, the US is accusing China of interfering in its election, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo believes “General Secretary Xi Jinping is a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology” with “designs for hegemony”, and irony of ironies National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien says the Chinese President “Xi Jinping sees himself as Josef Stalin’s successor”. What is most remarkable about the saga is the means used by Nixon and his team.

The world’s oldest democracy erected on the principles of ‘life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’ chose to hug China, a totalitarian state under Mao notorious for mass surveillance, repression and human rights abuses, with the help of Pakistan’s military dictator Yahya Khan and the infamous tyrant Nicolae Ceauescu of Romania. 

Indo-US relations are riveted in contextual autism. The American establishment frequently refers to India’s ties with Soviet Union. What it fails to comprehend is that it was the US-China détente which pushed India into the arms of the Soviet Friendship Treaty.

Alexei Kosygin had offered the treaty in September 1969 but Indira Gandhi had set it aside till August 9, 1971 when Kissinger revealed the contours of the new Troika and Nixon’s brazen bias. For five decades, the US promoted China’s cause, opened up trade and even shepherded its entry into the WTO. Chinese exports to the US rose from USD 3.5 billion in 1985 to USD 557 billion in 2019.

As the factory of the world, it boasts of USD 2.5 trillion in exports and a GDP of over USD 15 trillion. For all the hectoring by US regimes about human rights and democracy, its own companies have ensured a Chinese wall between profit motive and politics. China, meanwhile, leveraged its economic muscle to lure subscription to its ambitions.

How it does is best illustrated by this analogy. Every year, Chinese trawlers hunt an endangered species of sharks off the Galapagos Islands. Technically, the islands are within the Ecuadorian waters. The Chinese vessels use bait to lure the endangered sharks out of Ecuadorian waters into international waters and catch them.

The uniquely bipartisan awakening in the Trump era is triggered by the rise of debt, deficit and inequality — and what seems to be the hijacking of jobs and growth. In its engagement with China, the US exported its savings, investments, technology and jobs. US FDI stock into China is currently at over USD 115 billion and owns over USD 1.1 trillion of US Treasury bonds.

It is now trying to cobble new alliances — whether on 5G, supply chains or security. The serenade of India with the new hit number, ‘love me love my Quad’ is part of the new symphony. India must and will choose the tune to tango to.

It is true that context is critical for policy and politics. So is legacy and history. The road to redemption is a long hard trek. 

(The writer is author of Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and  Accidental India and can be contacted at shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com)

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