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The 1972 meeting between Mao Zedong and U.S. President Richard Nixon kicked off the process for normalizing relations between the U.S. and China and reshaped global politics. (Source photos by AP and Xinhua/Kyodo)
China up close

Analysis: Nixon visit anniversary will be a watershed moment

Will Xi commemorate the groundbreaking visit next February?

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

TOKYO -- The Summer Olympics in Tokyo officially kick off Friday, but the intersection of global sport and politics already is shifting to the 2022 Winter Games, set for Beijing in February.

Foreign policy experts have circled Feb. 21, 2022, on their calendars. The pivotal date, one day after the Winter Olympics conclude, marks the 50th anniversary of U.S. President Richard Nixon's arrival in Beijing and handshake with Mao Zedong in the Zhongnanhai, where Chinese leaders have their offices.

That date in 2022 will reveal how Chinese President Xi Jinping regards a historic decision made half a century ago by Mao, the leader whose rule Xi seeks to emulate.

If the U.S. and China intend to commemorate a summit that transformed the post-World War II international order, all preparations must be made prior to the Winter Olympics. And if no such political events are held, including a statement by Xi, then the inaction also would be striking.

Chinese President Xi Jinping talks with athletes and coaches while visiting the Capital Gymnasium in Beijing on Jan. 18.   © Xinhua/Kyodo

International tensions are heating up ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called in May for a "diplomatic boycott" of the Beijing Games, citing human rights issues in China, while the Senate passed a bill in June that includes a ban on federal spending for attendance by American government officials.

The European Union and the U.K. have joined the fray, each passing resolutions calling for diplomatic boycotts of the Winter Olympics if the human rights situation in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region does not improve.

When Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, the opening ceremony brought together more than 80 foreign leaders at the time, including U.S. President George W. Bush, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.

Despite initial moves toward a boycott of the opening ceremony due to the Tibetan unrest that broke out in March 2008, many foreign leaders ended up attending the event, hosted by Hu Jintao, then China's president.

Beijing has taken a proactive approach this time. Chinese media say Foreign Minister Wang Yi secured Russian President Vladimir Putin's attendance at the 2022 Winter Games when he met July 15 with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi attend a meeting in Tajikistan on July 14. Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly has committed to attending the Beijing Olympics in 2022.   © Reuters

For the Russian side, this was an opportunity to turn the tables. Symbolically, July 15 is the day in 1971 that Nixon issued a statement revealing that national security adviser Henry Kissinger secretly visited the People's Republic of China earlier in the month. Nixon also said that he himself would visit China the following year.

That diplomatic earthquake was nicknamed the "Nixon shock" in Japan, because the U.S. and China had no diplomatic ties back then.

The secret visit to China in 1971 by Henry Kissinger, left, then the U.S. national security adviser, paved the way for a rapprochement aimed at countering the Soviet Union. At right, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. (Photo by White House via CNP/Getty Images)

On the 50th anniversary of that historic day, the Russians offered the Chinese their best card: a Putin visit, despite the Olympics still being more than six months away.

The 1971 rapprochement between the U.S. and China was aimed at countering the Soviet Union. Half a century later, it is China and Russia that are drawing closer.

From a diplomatic viewpoint, China wants to stabilize relations with the U.S. in some way by the Nixon anniversary. The foundation of current U.S.-China relations dates to the Shanghai Communique issued when Nixon visited the country in February 1972. The U.S. acknowledged in the diplomatic document that "all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China."

While not disputing that Taiwan is a part of China under the "One China" policy, successive U.S. administrations have been firmly committed to Taiwan's security. Any shake-up in this foundation could revert U.S.-China relations to their aloof status from half a century ago.

But Washington appears to have intensified efforts to defend Taiwan recently. The consecutive landings of American military transport planes at Taipei's airport provide one such signal. A U.S. C-17 plane carrying a bipartisan congressional delegation touched down June 6, followed by a U.S. C-146A plane on July 15.

Those moves are intended to warn the Xi administration against taking actions to reunify Taiwan by force.

But Xi himself stressed, in a keynote speech at the July 1 ceremony marking the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party's establishment, that reunifying Taiwan with the mainland "is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment" of the party.

A U.S. Air Force C-17 transport aircraft landed at Taipei's airport June 6, carrying a bipartisan congressional delegation to Taiwan.   © AP

That this high-profile declaration came specifically from China's leader means that only Xi can make the decision to change course, should he ever opt for a more dovish foreign policy.

As a result, top diplomat Yang Jiechi's recent article praising "Xi Jinping's thought on diplomacy" in the July 3 edition of the party publication People's Daily has triggered various analyses of what he was trying to convey.

A member of the Communist Party's powerful Politburo, Yang oversees China's foreign affairs. He wrote that Chinese diplomacy has produced great achievements under Xi's hands-on command and efforts. It is unusual for the top diplomat to speak so openly and candidly.

By that logic, it suggests that China's long-running "wolf warrior diplomacy" and Yang's bluster in front of top American diplomats in Alaska in March were under Xi's auspices.

"While [Yang] seems to be praising Xi Jinping's diplomacy," said one source who has observed Chinese politics, the diplomat also is implying that the responsibility rests with Xi, and not him.

What Yang could be doing, meanwhile, is help Xi extend his reign at the Communist Party's next national congress in autumn 2022.

Top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi, center, spars with U.S. counterparts during talks in Alaska on March 18.   © Reuters

Some say that a certain degree of U.S.-China tensions will benefit Xi. If there is a growing chorus of calls within the party for Xi to stay in power as the only leader who can help China weather the storm, the president will easily get what he wants at the national congress.

Either way, Xi's foreign policy decisions will be made with an eye on domestic politics.

On July 9, Kissinger attended an event via video link marking the 50th anniversary of his own secret visit to China. He was joined by Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, who also gave a speech.

"The biggest challenge for the United States is not China but the United States itself," Wang said. "The U.S.-China policy should avoid turning into a vicious cycle of misjudgment and misguidance."

China continues to play hardball with Washington. Bilateral ties show no sign of improvement, partly due to the tough stance taken by U.S. President Joe Biden.

If anything offers relief for China, it is that the Tokyo Summer Olympics are being held, despite the pandemic troubles. If the Tokyo Games, already postponed by one year, had been canceled, international pressure could have mounted on China over the Winter Olympics.

The Beijing Winter Olympics, less than 200 days away, will serve as a litmus test for the future of U.S.-China relations and China's position in the international political arena. This test also involves relations between Japan and China, which next year celebrate the 50th anniversary of their normalization of diplomatic ties.

The first in-person summit between Biden and Xi is likely to be set before the Winter Olympics. Will American and Chinese leaders find some common ground there and elsewhere after ascertaining each other's red lines? Half a century after the Nixon shock, U.S.-China relations stand at a watershed.

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