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Why Did China Normalize Relations With The United States in 1972?

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In February of 1972, President Richard Nixon and Premiere Mao Tse-tung shocked the world announcing the formation of a normalized relationship between the People's Republic of China and the United States of America. Forged during a week-long visit by the American President to Peking, this relationship broke new ground for both nations. Following the communist takeover, diplomatic channels between the People's Republic of China and the United States came to an abrupt halt. During this period of Chinese isolationism, the United States actively expanded its sphere of influence in the Pacific attempting to reopen China, thwart the spread of communism, and boost its economy. When the seemingly impossible invitation arrived for an American visit into China, nobody expected its outcome to change the face of Sino-American relations so drastically.

Political experts around the globe scratched their heads attempting to ascertain China's motive for altering their foreign policy so suddenly. Even today, the rationale behind China's decision to normalize their relations with the United States still begs for an answer. Applying balance of threat theory to decaying Sino-Soviet relations offers an immediate solution to the puzzle. A more detailed solution can be found after applying hegemonic stability theory across the span of several decades. An introduction to China's historical background and a description of these theories is necessary before delving into their application to China's changing foreign policy with America. China normalized relations with the United States as a means of enhancing national security and hastening progress towards resuming their role as the dominant power in the Pacific.

Historic Chinese Foreign Policy

A state's historical experience is perhaps the most important factor in understanding a its motivations for making policy. The Chinese have the distinct privilege of being the oldest continuous civilization still in existence today.1 Although its people date back to the Neolithic age, the origins of Chinese civilization is commonly associated with the Shang Dynasty in 1500 B.C.2 Even more important than its longevity is the fact that the Chinese people themselves were isolated in their region. Topographic isolation provided by an ocean, mountain ranges, and barren wasteland kept the Chinese culture homogeneous and focused. Despite invasions by the Mongols and Japanese pirates, external intervention into Chinese culture are mere spots in the multiple millennia of China's history.

This isolation resulted in the Chinese people developing a magnified perception of self-righteousness in the world. Sinocentrism, as it is often called, refers to the Chinese belief that China is the undisputed center of civilization.3 This view of superiority was quite evident on the rare occasions when the Chinese did interact with external states. Foreign emissaries were forced to regard their admittance into China as a privilege. All diplomatic relations were executed in this fashion until the late nineteenth century.

After the British broke into China's economic system by introducing Opium, China was forced against its political will into international politics. In 1900, the United States brokered the Open Door Policy.4 This arrangement entailed equal trading access for America at Chinese ports and provided for the preservation of Chinese territorial integrity from encroachment. These expectations are still the objects of negotiation in contemporary diplomatic efforts between the United States and China.

In the mid-1930's, Japan invaded China in the preliminary stages of their quest for Pacific dominance. Despite the Open Door Policy's assertion for United States' aid in territorial integrity, America refrained from involvement until the bombing at Pearl Harbor several years later. This delay to act began to chill relations between China and the United States again. On the first of October, 1949, the communist party, that had built its strength during the war, seized control and declared Peking the capital of the People's Republic of China (P.R.C.) forcing the Chinese nationalists to flee the mainland to Taiwan.5

The United States refused to recognize the P.R.C. as the legitimate governing body of China. Diplomatic relations between China and the United States broke off with the bloody conflict on the Chinese border with North Korea. America's continued acknowledgment of the Taiwan nationalists as the legitimate Chinese government further angered the leadership of communist China. The abrupt halt in relations with the United States was met by a sudden growth in Sino-Soviet relations in terms of the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance.6

Despite the brevity of Sino-American relations, the United States remained committed to restoring them. Yet, for the next two decades, China resisted both sending and receiving diplomatic emissaries. In 1954, Premiere Mao Tse-tung referred to America as the "leader of the forces of global imperialism ... the most dangerous enemy of the people of the world."7 The alliance with the Soviet Union bought China the time necessary to begin restoring itself back to its pre-twentieth century stature. Drawn from this past history, the four basic elements that define China's worldview break down to its cultural ethnocentrism, resentment to foreign imperialism, marxist-leninist ideology, and focus on national security and self-interest.8

Balance of Threat Theory

Balance of threat theory originated during the Cold War by Steven M. Walt, a student at Berkeley.9 Designed to fill in gaps left by Kenneth Waltz's balance of power theory, it enhances its predecessor by addressing a state's actions in terms of thwarting aggressive intentions. The previous theory implied that states would continually balance against all fluctuations of power. For example, if a state realized another state was becoming more powerful either economically, militarily, or technologically, then it would establish alliances to ensure the collective power was equal to the opposition's power. Walt's modification focuses on the balancing behavior towards threat only. In contrast to the old theory, if a state realized another state was becoming more powerful to some degree, then it would not necessarily take action to counterbalance. On the contrary, if the state perceived the opposition was becoming increasingly aggressive or more capable of projecting aggressive intentions, then it would seek to establish alliances to prevent invasion from befalling the state. The paramount assumption towards either theory requires that security and peace are the motivating factors behind the balancing politics.10

This theory is best understood when related to the term equilibrium. By definition, equilibrium is "a condition in which all acting influences are canceled by others, resulting in a stable, balanced, or unchanging system."11 From this definition, it is easy to comprehend the principle behind why foreign states interact with one another. Alliances are used as a means to counter threats. It is a preventative form of international politics to keep aggressive states from becoming too powerful relative to any given alliance. Although balance of threat theory does not attempt to maintain a static system, it does describe an arena wherein states neutralize moves by other states by trying to decrease their relative force projecting capability.

Balance of threat can be clarified into two general schools of thought. Threat can be balanced by aligning with the aggressor or against the aggressor. The former type is referred to as bandwagoning. By aligning a state with the threat, it buys safety from being aggressed upon. However, such alignments often render a state subservient to their former threat. Bandwagoning behavior typically takes place when a state is drastically weaker than its threat or no alternative alliances can be formed.12 On the other hand, and the most often seen case, a state will align itself with states that share a common threat. This behavior is called balancing. This form often takes place during peacetime or in the very early stages of war.13

Most political scientists argue that international relations include, at a minimum, some form of balancing behavior. "Wherever a more or less fixed set of rival power relationships between two or more states is in existence, a core for a balance of power system exists."14 A threat can be balanced by acquiring allies, expanding territory, establishing buffer zones, or undermining the enemy's strength.15 If China perceives a growing threat from the Soviet Union, then it will balance against that threat by forming alliances with states opposing the same threat. To prove this hypothesis, it will be shown that the Chinese did face a growing threat from the Soviet Union during the 1960's. Balance of threat principles are evident in China's formation of an alliance with the United States. Forthcoming analysis will demonstrate how the Chinese used America's might as a counter force to put the Soviet threat at bay.

Hegemonic Stability Theory

Introduced to political scientists in the 1970's by Charles Kindleberger, hegemonic stability theory attempts to explain a state's actions as a result of economics.16 Hegemony, by definition, describes a condition where one state dominates and uses its might to influence others.17 A hegemon, therefore, is the dominant state. As a descriptive theory, it does not dictate how a set of countries will interact, but describes how those countries do interact.

Hegemonic stability theory requires the economic hegemon "is both able and willing to establish and maintain the norms and rules of a liberal economic order."18 Although a hegemon is not necessary for an international economy to progress, it is necessary to maximize productivity in a free market. The hegemon state must have a large and expanding economy, dominate in both the technological and economic sectors, and be able to support its political will via military force projection.19 These factors in mind, the hegemon is expected to use its clout to establish an open and free market. Such an international market, where there is no discrimination between trading states, is fundamental for establishing a liberal economic order.

A negative side effect of hegemonic stability theory is the free rider problem.20 In order for an open and free market to be established, the hegemon state must "guarantee provision of the collective goods of an open trading system and stable currency."21 These guarantees are made by the hegemon's avoidance of tariffs and trade limitations on its own imports and exports. Knowing that the hegemon will act in this manner, states with struggling economies will often erect barriers on trade and exploit the good-will of the hegemon's trading practices. Inherent to the theory, when the open markets are finally established, all participating countries experience dramatic economic benefits. This transformation of the international economy reduces the hegemon's share of further.22

If China perceives a foreign hegemon reaping economic rewards in its region, then it will exploit that state's economic practices for its own gain and attempt to displace the hegemon. To prove this hypothesis, it will be shown not only did China desperately want to modernize its economic and technological sectors but that it sought to become the sole dominant power in the Pacific. It will be shown that China's modernization program did benefit from exploiting the hegemonic good will in the Pacific and has forced a change of power in the region. The following analysis will demonstrate China's establishment of relations with the United States as a means of improving themselves and weakening the American presence in the Pacific.

During the 1950's, the P.R.C. and the Soviet Union paralleled one another's growth through mutual contact and ideology. Relations between both countries raised fears to the western powers about the spread of communism and a growing military threat in Asia. During this period, the Chinese boasted the second largest ground force in the world, the greatest naval strength in the Asian Pacific, and an Air Force supplemented by Soviet hardware.23 Although not a nuclear power, China publicly declared its intention to acquire such an arsenal.24

Politics began to change during the 1960's. The Soviet Union began deviating from the basic principles of Leninism causing a rift to begin forming in the Sino-Soviet relationship. Problems began to arise in 1963 over a border dispute as China argued they were losing territory through unequal treaties with Russia.25 In 1968, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in a move perceived by the Chinese as social imperialism.26 The aggressive actions by the Soviets towards satellite states whose communist practices differed from Moscow's policy raised alarms in China. Chinese fears of Soviet invasion were justified in March of 1969 when the border disputes broke out in bloody conflict.27 The growing threat from the Soviet Union continued to escalate and peaked with threats of nuclear strikes against Peking.28

Limited Choices

China clearly faced aggressive threats from the Soviet Union. Only three options were available to relieve the situation. First, China could alter their own communist system to conform to Moscow's will. Second, China could build itself up to repel an invasion. Third, China could align itself with an outside third party to counter the Soviet threat. Given China's sinocentric tendencies, the first option was inconceivable. Rebuilding China to become a major power was already a goal, however progress was not rapid enough to provide security from the mobilizing Russians. China had no choice but to align externally to balance against the looming threat.

Selecting The United States

Despite China's reluctance to align with the United States, they extended an invitation to the American ping pong team playing exhibition games in Japan.29 America's slow withdrawal from Vietnam eased Chinese misgivings about potential imperialist intentions by the United States. This initial invitation opened the door for a secret visit by Henry Kissinger, America's national security advisor, to plan a meeting between China's Premier and America's President.30 Three months later, President Richard Nixon met with Premiere Mao Tse-tung for an historic week-long summit. The Shanghai Communique was the result of their efforts, a document establishing diplomatic relations between the United States and China for the first time since the communist takeover.

China's selection of the United States as a partner for an alliance rather than another nation was a carefully planned decision. The most obvious selections for immediate threat balancing are nearby neighbors. These countries have a vested interest in the security of their local neighborhood and would therefore readily supply military force if needed. However, America's foreign policy regarding the region was designed to prevent any nation from rising to power again, thus, rendering local alliances too weak for countering the Soviets. America's military force projection was not the only reason China chose to side with the United States. The Chinese knew America would jump at the opportunity to gain an ally against the Soviet Union. The fact that America wanted an entrance into China's economy was no secret either. By carefully planning their presentation, China stood to gain everything they wanted from the United States without having to make significant concessions the opposite way.

America's presence in the Asian Pacific existed as a result of numerous pacts and treaties signed with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.31 Ironically, these forces were focused primarily at deterring aggressive actions from China. Despite having minimal ground forces deployed, the United States relied on the Seventh Fleet's air and naval forces utilizing conventional and nuclear arsenals to maintain security.32 The Pacific arm of the United States represented a sizable military force, particularly for the Russians. With their attention directly solely at containing the Soviet Union now rather than China, Russian planners were reluctant to continue pursuing invasive maneuvers into Chinese territory. By aligning with the United States, the Chinese were safely protected by the American nuclear blanket, a position that swiftly shifted the balance of threat against the Soviet Union.

Clearly, the United States was the eminent hegemon in the Pacific during the latter half of the twentieth century. Hegemonic stability theory requires that the dominant power practice open market policies for an economic system to thrive. A direct turnabout from the Smoot-Hawley tariffs, which helped spin the world into depression during the 1930's, America conceived the Marshall Plan following World War II for redeveloping the shattered nations of Europe.33 Despite its obvious focus on Europe, the Marshall Plan's effects were seen globally in America's economic practices. America's heavy spending, investment, and trading "helped create the conditions necessary for the steady economic growth experienced by the industrial countries up to the 1970's and the rapid development of countries such as Japan and South Korea."34

With its Asian neighbors' economies flourishing and the Soviet Union's war machine growing stronger, China's economy was quickly falling behind the global pace. Chinese pride would not allow their country to become second rate to their foreign counterparts. In an attempt to boost the economy without subordinating themselves to more advanced nations, China championed trade with surrounding third world countries. However, these countries were unable to create enough trading volume for China to regain any form of economic stature. The Chinese realized maintaining an Asian presence would require interacting with the West for rapid development of military strength, technological innovation, and industrial capacity.35

Signed by President Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai, conditions embedded into the Shanghai Communique left the door open for China to take advantage of America's hegemonic practices. The document contained provisions for opening channels between the Chinese and Americans for exchanging science, technology, culture, sports, and literature via ambassadors and visits.36 At this point in time, China did not have any innovations to offer the United States while they stood to leap forward by generations in direct application of Western science to Eastern industry.

Mao Tse-tung died amidst the Cultural Revolution taking place in China during the 1970's. Although progress towards modernization and Pacific dominance was made, it was not enough to consider China a viable threat to American hegemony. Within one month of his death, the communist party tightened down restrictions on the population for the sole purpose of modernizing China by the end of the century. Contrary to an historic precedent for isolationism, analysts predict China's "determination to modernize its civilian economy and its armed forces suggest that, for good or ill, China will play an increasingly active role in international and regional affairs in the decades to come."37

Effects of Normalization

China has grown stronger economically, technically, and militarily ever since relations with the United Sates were established. The processes of modernization and hegemon displacement are only beginning to reveal themselves thirty years later. China has slowly exploited America's desire for economic access as a tool for building their power. Summarizing three decades of Chinese behavior, General Mi Zhenyu said, "For a relatively long time it will be absolutely necessary that we quietly nurse our sense of vengeance. We must conceal our abilities and bide our time."38

For twenty years, China quietly built its power in the East by gradually lulling its trading partners into believing they were Westernizing. During this period, China continued to slowly open its economy to the United States in exchange for technology or export privileges. These openings were accompanied by high tariffs leading to a $60 billion trade deficit for the United States. Little concessions by the Chinese were always made in exchange for larger ones by the United States. Ultimately, America finally recognized the P.R.C. as the legitimate Chinese government by President Carter. Such disciplined patience characterizes the Chinese rise to power. Waiting for Hong Kong proved a simple means of boosting an already booming economy without having to make any concessions of good faith. Access to the West also gave the Chinese a foothold to acquire Western technology through the education system and basic espionage.

China achieved its modernization goal by the turn of the century as planned. Hegemonic stability theory predicts that the reigning hegemon will collapse if its policies are free-ridden. The American military machine has slowly drawn down its Asian presence. This is the result of a vanquished Soviet Union and deals with China to relax human rights violations and pressure on Taiwan. Now China's military force projection has caused many Asian countries to become "uneasy that China may want to resume the imperial status it had in earlier centuries."39 It is evident China is assuming the role of military hegemon in the Pacific.

The final factor denoting hegemonic capability is a bustling economy. China's industry receives so much direct investment, they have been able to resist conceding demands of the World Trade Organizations open market policies for thirteen years.40 So much Western cash flows into Chinese telecommunications, infrastructure, power plants, and transportation that foreign exchange reserves are reported to contain over $100 billion.41 Furthermore, China boasts an 8% annual GDP growth rate. Admittance into the World Trade Organization in November 1999 completes China's economic picture. Expectations by the World Bank indicate China may control 10% of global trading and further boost GDP growth by 1% annually.42 Once again, China stands only to lose by lowering tariffs and importing agricultural products but gains world access for exporting technology goods.

Hegemonic stability theory predicts the hegemon will be plagued by free riders. The hegemon will eventually collapse from an inability to maintain its open markets against exploitation and progress by the nations with whom it trades. China took advantage of the American desire to access its markets as a means of enhancing itself. It maintained a trade imbalance for three decades to modernize itself at the expense of the hegemon. During this period, it obtained the ability to back its political will via military force projection. China successfully displaced the United States as the local Pacific hegemon in the span of thirty years.

Arguments can be made against both balance of threat and hegemonic stability theories as reasons for normalized relations with the United States. A border dispute over barren land could have been settled through compromise. This would conflict with thousands of years of Chinese resentment toward invasion. China's enormous and improving army could easily have countered the Soviet Union by the 1980's. Although equal in size, China still lacked the nuclear deterrence of mutually assured destruction. Balance of threat was clearly a significant factor in the Chinese decision.

Applying hegemonic stability theory requires a higher level of abstraction. It is possible that China's recent admittance into the World Trade Organization can be viewed as relaxation of a tight command economy. Given its history for relative decision making, China still stands to reap greater benefits than other nations involved. China's military force projection is often criticized as weak and archaic. Despite its aging hardware, the state continues to acquire modern technology via illicit means, boasts the largest ground force in the world, and has surrounding states worried about imperialism. China obviously realized the situation when the United States prescribed to Kindleberger's global economic theory and took full advantage of its loopholes.


Normalizing relations with the United States in 1972 was not a diplomatic gesture of good faith by the Chinese. Instead, it was a calculated decision to ensure China's territorial integrity from Soviet invasion and to exploit America's economy. China successfully countered a Soviet threat by hiding beneath the nuclear umbrella of the United States. Although balance of threat explains the immediate nature for establishing the Shanghai Communique, hegemonic stability theory best explains the long-term nature of Sino-American politics. The modernization process experienced dramatic acceleration from free riding on America's open market policies. Careful concessions slowly doled out over time resulted in political recognition, enormous exports, global resources, and technology information. Today, the People's Republic of China's intentions and goals for the new millennium remain unclear. Relations with the Chinese are complex and cannot be taken at face value. In both historic and contemporary affairs, China's leadership interacts with foreign states on a basis of privilege and need only.43, 44


  1. Robert L. Worden, China: A Country Study (Federal Research Division: US Government, 1988), 473.
  2. John P. McKay, A History Of World Societies (Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, 1999), 86.
  3. Worden, 475.
  4. Thomas Draper, Emerging China (H.W. Wilson Company: New York, 1980), 17.
  5. Harold C. Hinton, The People's Republic Of China: A Handbook (Westview Press: Colorado, 1979), 66.
  6. Worden, 40.
  7. Ibid., 19.
  8. Draper, 15.
  9. Robert Keohane & Joseph Nye, Understanding International Relations, ed. Daniel Kaufman et al (McGraw-Hill Companies: New York, 1999), 256.
  10. Vernon Van Dyke, International Politics (Appleton Century Crafts: University of Iowa, 1966), 221.
  11. The American Heritage College Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, 1997), 464.
  12. Stephen M. Walt, "Explaining Alliance Formation," Understanding International Relations, ed. Daniel Kaufman et al (McGraw-Hill Companies: New York, 1999), 266.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Frederick H. Hartman, The Relations of Nations (MacMillon Company: New York, 1967), 316.
  15. Ibid., 320.
  16. Helen Milner, "International Political Economy: Beyond Hegemonic Stability," Foreign Policy, no. 110 (Spring 1998): 113.
  17. The American Heritage College Dictionary, 629.
  18. Robert Gilpin, "The Theory of Hegemonic Stability,"
  19. Understanding International Relations, ed. Daniel Kaufman et al (McGraw-Hill Companies: New York, 1999), 447.
  20. Vincent Ferraro, "Notes On Hegemonic Stability Theory" [On-Line] (accessed 14 November 1999); available from; Internet; homepage: Vincent Ferraro, Resources For The Study of International Relations And Foreign Policy [On-Line]; available from; Internet.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Gilpin, 449.
  23. Ibid., 452.
  24. A. Doak Barnett, Communist China And Asia: Challenge to American Policy (Harper & Brothers: Council On Foreign Relations, 1960), 110.
  25. Ibid., 111.
  26. Worden, 490. Ibid.
  27. Draper, 19.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid., 20.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Barnett, 122.
  32. Ibid., 124.
  33. "Featured Document: The Marshall Plan," [On-Line] (accessed 16 November 1999), available from; Internet; Homepage: National Archives and Records Administration Home Page [On-Line], available from; Internet.
  34. Milner, 115.
  35. Hinton, 493.
  36. Draper, 21.
  37. Ibid., 68.
  38. Richard Bernstein, "The Coming Conflict With America," Foreign Affairs, no. 76 (March / April 1997): 20.
  39. Ibid., 21.
  40. David E. Sanger, "Study Shows Rising Investment in China and Mexico." New York Times (March 24, 1997) [On-Line] (accessed 14 November 1999), available from; Internet; Homepage: Vincent Ferraro, Resources For The Study of International Relations And Foreign Policy [On-Line]; available from; Internet.
  41. Ibid.
  42. John Pomfret, "China's Bold Leap Into World Markets" Washington Post (November 16, 1999) [On-Line] (accessed 16 November 1999), available from; Internet; Homepage: The Washington Post [On-Line]; available from; Internet.
  43. Selected Exact Extracts From - "China Facts," Through Alternative Lenses: Current Debates in International Relations, ed. Daniel Kaufman et al (McGraw-Hill Companies: New York, 1999), 77-85.
  44. Worden, XXX.


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