In February 1972 Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China (PRC), meeting Chairman Mao Zedong in addition to a slew of other political figures within the notoriously secretive communist regime.
Nixon called it the ‘week that changed the world’ and whilst one might attribute some hubris to this statement it is probably an accurate portrayal of a monumental turning point in history.
Ravaged by a fervent personality cult surrounding Chairman Mao – which blinded followers to his destructive policies such as the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’ – China found itself in isolation. Nixon’s visit opened up the possibility of a rapprochement with the Western world and the economic benefits this would ultimately bring to a country with a massive population and a burgeoning industrial base.
Since the Communists had won the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and forced Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang to flee the mainland for Taiwan, the USA and its allies had refused to recognise the PRC. Instead, it was the Republic of China (ROC) that was acknowledged by Washington as the rightful ruler over the mainland, a stance formalised by President Dwight Eisenhower’s visit to Taipei in 1960.
The shock prompted by Nixon’s visit a dozen years later – announced live on television the previous year – was therefore understandable. However, the machinations of Henry Kissinger and the PRC’s Premier Zhou Enlai had laid the foundations for the trip, which would serve to drive a further wedge between the PRC and its disappointed former patron, the Soviet Union.
How much of an impact the meeting had on the West’s ultimate victory in the Cold War is debatable but no doubt Nixon’s ‘opening up’ of China – in a diplomatic sense – reduced tensions with a potential enemy. By subsequently officially recognising the PRC as the legitimate and sole rulers of China, the USA sowed the seeds for Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the years after Mao’s death.
The impact of Deng’s policies are less debatable, for they enabled China to become the world’s second largest economy, strengthened the mandate of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – now under the firm control of Xi Jinping – and made the PRC a major geopolitical player across the globe. A world without a US-Chinese bilateral relationship is now unthinkable, not to mention undesirable.
Don’t expect President Donald Trump’s slated meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to have such a positive impact. Indeed, will it have any major impact? Though the announcement of the summit was equally, if not more surprising, than the revelation of Nixon’s China jaunt, neither Trump nor Kim act with a level of subtlety or concession that allow for meaningful engagement.
Perhaps the level of bellicosity and brutal honesty at which these two ‘madmen’ operate is the only reason the meeting is happening in the first place. One would hope that senior diplomats and military figures within each administration will be present to temper their leaders’ excessive tendencies, for the opportunities abounding are unprecedented.
Alas, Trump listens and answers to nobody but himself, whilst the Kim dynasty has fostered a personality cult comparable to the darkest days of Mao. To challenge Kim’s instincts goes against a human’s natural tendency for self-preservation.
Realistically, the harsher sanctions being imposed on North Korea are taking hold. Yet as long as the upper echelons of the regime remain ensconced in luxury, and the military that girdles it stays onside, significant change is unlikely. The Kims have shown their willingness to allow their people to starve, confident that any popular uprising would either be suppressed by the military or, if necessary, by China, which has no desire to see chaos on its borderlands.
A nuclear arsenal remains the only effective means to ensure the security and longevity of the Kim dynasty. Nothing President Trump says or does – and we wait with bated breath to see what on earth he will decide to do at the summit – is likely to change matters for the better. North Korea does not have the same potential to break out of its shell as the PRC had at the time of Nixon’s visit, nor does it have the inclination.
Sadly, the chance to destroy the nascent nuclear regime of North Korea has been missed by previous administrations. Trump can’t be blamed for that. Conned by the machinations of Kim Jong-Il in the 1990s, undermined by Chinese companies and banks that continue to siphon resources to the hermit state, and unable to break the failsafe that Beijing offers the North Korean regime, nuclear tensions in Northeast Asia are here to stay.