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Asia Stream: The old and new Cold War

From Nixon's 1972 visit to Beijing condoning Russia's invasion of Ukraine, we investigate what went wrong in the U.S.-China relationship

NEW YORK -- Welcome to Nikkei Asia's podcast: Asia Stream.

Every week, Asia Stream tracks and analyzes the Indo-Pacific with a mix of interviews and original reporting by our correspondents from across the globe.

New episodes are recorded weekly and available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all other major platforms, and on our YouTube channel.


This week, we use the anniversary of Richard Nixon's famous 1972 trip to China to launch a discussion of how we got to this current moment in U.S.-China-Russia relations. How did a "honeymoon" period between China and the United States in the 1970s and '80s veer into chilly competition? And as Russia invades Ukraine and China stands by, we examine how the Sino-Soviet rivalry transformed into the current Sino-Russian partnership. The new great-power contest has its roots in the Cold War; is history doomed to repeat itself?

In this episode, we speak to Nikkei Asia contributor Richard McGregor of Australia's Lowy Institute about the history of relations between China, the U.S. and Russia, and about the emerging great-power struggle.

Asia Stream is hosted by Wajahat S. Khan, our digital editor and executive producer, and produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt.

Related to this episode:

Nixon in China, 50 years on, by Richard McGregor

INFOGRAPHIC: A handshake that changed the world: 50 years after Nixon's trip to China, by Nikkei staff writers

50 years after Nixon-Mao handshake, Asia preps for new world order, by Nikkei staff writers

U.S. engagement with China a 'strategic blunder': Mearsheimer, by Masahiro Okoshi

India and China stay on sidelines as Russia invades Ukraine, by Kiran Sharma and Ken Moriyasu


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WAJAHAT S. KHAN, HOST: Hello and welcome to Asia Stream -- where we track, report, and analyze the issues and interests of the world's largest region. I am Waj Khan, Nikkei Asia's digital editor, here in New York City. For today's episode, we had planned a deep dive into the history of U.S.-China relations. After all, it was 50 years ago, in February 1972, that American President Richard Nixon visited China, opening up relations with a communist, "People's Republic" to stalemate the Soviet Union, a country that China was threatened by, and which the U.S. was fighting a Cold War with. But then, just as we were wrapping up our story, the past became the present, and the present became the past. In the early hours of Thursday, Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. Oil prices soared, and stock markets dipped, and sanctions were announced, and the American president made it clear: Russia's Vladimir Putin, a man who he said wants to reestablish the Soviet Union has chosen this war. While Russia's policy of expansionism speaks for itself -- Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, annexed Crimea in 2014, and intervened in Syria in 2015 -- just as important as that, has been China's role in this latest conflict. As Western sanctions and criticism roll in, Beijing and Moscow move closer towards one another. China is also the only major power in the world that has not condemned Russia. Rather, it has challenged the very notion of calling its actions an invasion, and explained them as an outcome of Russia's legitimate security concerns. This is ironic, for Nixon's visit to "open up" China 50 years ago was precipitated by the Sino-Soviet split -- a difference of opinion and ideology between the two communist states. Today, the opposite is true between Moscow and Beijing, and a cause for reflection. Compared to the U.S., China was once weak, but no more. Today the Middle Kingdom has regained its footing. Once a potential partner to America, now it's a clear strategic rival. What happened in the 50 years since the birth of the U.S.-China ties, that today, at the onset of the largest military action in Europe since World War II, Moscow has Beijing's backing against the West -- when just five decades ago, Beijing had American support against Moscow? Listen on to learn how we got here. Our story starts with Nixon's groundbreaking trip in 1972, and ends with a transformed set of alliances and axes looming behind this crisis in Ukraine. It's quite the show. Get ready for understanding the most consequential rivalry of our time. You're listening to the sound of Asia, streaming in your ear. From Nikkei Asia, this is Asia Stream.

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KHAN: And now, Asia Stream correspondent Monica Hunter-Hart.

HUNTER-HART: Thank you, Waj. Today we're going through the history of how we got to this moment. And to help tell this story, we've brought in Richard McGregor, Senior Fellow for East Asia at Australia's Lowy Institute, a former Beijing and Washington bureau chief for the Financial Times and the author of numerous books on East Asia. Last week, he wrote a story for Nikkei Asia covering 50 years of U.S.-China ties. Richard, thanks for being with us.


HUNTER-HART: So, let's set the scene for listeners. 50 years ago, it was 1972, and the U.S.-China relationship was not friendly. In fact, there barely was a relationship -- the U.S. had frozen diplomatic relations with China when the Communist Party took over in 1949 after the successful communist revolution.

CASTLE NEWS PARADE VOICE: The end of all chance of democratic freedom approaches. The Red Army is at the gates.

(Sound of PRC anthem)

HUNTER-HART: Fast-forward about two decades later, and the American government is trying to at least begin to open relations back up. Tell us about that.

MCGREGOR: Yes, the whole story, the opening is being retold many times, but it's still wonderful and incredible. You know, Nixon, of course, was the real, you know, foreign policy visionary on China. He was, certainly knew a lot more and was much more familiar with Asia than Kissinger was. And he'd been plotting I really think since about 1968, about how to open relations with China, without, of course, undermining his conservative basis home, which was very sentimental about Taiwan, and of course, very anti-communist.

PSA VOICE: What we oppose fundamentally, is the aggressive nature of the communist state. Its unceasing effort to expand whatever it can, to grow bigger, to take over, to supplant. This deadly impulse toward aggression, we oppose as a continual threat to peace.

MCGREGOR: They finally managed to pull it off when Kissinger, all in secret, slipped away from a trip to Pakistan. He feigned an illness, I think he was hustled into a sort of, into the back of a sort of, not limousine, but sort of, I think, VW Beetle, somebody told me, and flying in secret to China, where he met with Zhou Enlai, the premiere, and also Chairman Mao, for you know, a really expansive several days of meetings. And the secret didn't, his trip didn't leak at all until President Nixon went on television and announced it when Kissinger was on his way back.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I sent Dr. Kissinger, my assistant for national security affairs, to Peking.

MCGREGOR: So, quite a remarkable series of events, and Kissinger's trip set the foundation for Nixon's trip the following year in February 1972.

NIXON: All nations will gain from a reduction of tensions and a better relationship between the United States and the People's Republic of China. It is in this spirit that I will undertake what I deeply hope will become a journey for peace.

MCGREGOR: Of course, the Nixon trip played out very much in public, he had a massive press entourage with him, who, like Nixon himself, were really all going to China for the very first time. So it was exciting, secretive, exotic, dramatic, in both a sort of new sense, and also in a geopolitical sense, all to discover. And the Chinese, of course, are terrific at using the drama of the moment, using the moment of access to the greatest advantage. So I think everybody was wowed by the trip.

NIXON: The primary goal of this trip was to reestablish communication with the People's Republic of China after a generation of hostility. We achieved that goal.

HUNTER-HART: There were a number of important outcomes from that visit. One, it further isolated the USSR in the middle of the Cold War. Two, it was an important step in the PRC's opening itself up diplomatically to the world, although it should be said that it had already started to do that. Three, and this is a bit less concrete, but it was a signal that the U.S. was beginning to appreciate Beijing's power, and take it seriously. Nixon reportedly sensed that China was on the rise. And four, of course, the famous document on Taiwan that Kissinger helped draft and often speaks about. It enshrined the United States' "One China" policy.

KISSINGER: The United States acknowledged that the Chinese people consider Taiwan a part of China and that there was only one China and that we would not challenge that proposition.

HUNTER-HART: Even though the U.S. acknowledged this belief of China's, it didn't take an official stance on Taiwanese sovereignty. This intentional ambiguity made it easier for the U.S. to have relations with both governments.

NIXON: We have been here a week. This was the week that changed the world.

MCGREGOR: Nixon, I think, whatever his domestic failings, was a pretty clever foreign policy thinker. I'm not sure he got entirely swept up in the drama, but probably even for him he did a little bit as well. And that's why people now look back on that trip, not just as a triumph, but they wonder, you know, did the U.S. give too much away, particularly on Taiwan? Not that the trip was a mistake. Nobody would ever say that. But you know, people look back with hindsight, and look at the deals struck during those meetings there and are much more critical of them these days.

HUNTER-HART: True. That document drafted by Kissinger set the stage for the U.S. officially changing its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the mainland in 1979. That did come with some backlash, of course -- that year, the U.S. Congress also passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which set the stage for an unofficial but strong relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan.

CONGRESSIONAL TESTIMONY: For no purpose under U.S. law will Taiwan be considered a part of any communist country. [...] Taiwan shall have all the attributes of sovereignty.

HUNTER-HART: So, Richard, you've said that this trip launched a honeymoon period between the U.S. and China that lasted almost two decades, pretty much until the Tiananmen Square massacre. Tell us about this honeymoon era. If you were an American citizen at that time, how did you most likely view China? And if you were a Chinese citizen, how did you see the U.S.?

MCGREGOR: I think both of them had relatively sort of romantic or romanticized, romanticized visions of each other. Of course, there's a commercial aspect, in the case of China, a giant untapped market, and the like, but I think people were willing to give the political system the benefit of the doubt. I think they realized China had been carved up by Western imperialist powers over the centuries. And so there was some sort of sense of guilt around that, not so much in the States, but in other places. On the other hand, of course, for China, the U.S. was a wealthy El Dorado. A place to be emulated, in many respects. That's not the case now, but it was then.

HUNTER-HART: Then what happened in 1989?

MCGREGOR: Look at many countries, that's when perceptions of China started to change, after the military crackdown on protesters in Beijing, and in fact, many other cities.

NEWSREEL 1: The brutal assault by an estimated 30,000 Chinese troops ended at Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, where thousands of students had been staging a sit-in for democracy for the past three weeks.

NEWSREEL 2: From Tiananmen Square, the sound of gunfire sounded like a battle, but it was one sided.

NEWSREEL 3: The soldiers showed no mercy in opening fire indiscriminately into the crowds. Unofficial accounts say the death toll exceeded 7,000.

HUNTER-HART: Now, I know the U.S. did criticize China at the time, but that some thought its response was too muted. Then-President George H. W. Bush enacted some sanctions, like suspending military sales, but his rhetoric also indicated that he wanted to, to some extent, look the other way. Or as he put it, "look beyond the moment."

PRESIDENT GEORGE H. W. BUSH: Now is the time to look beyond the moment to important and enduring aspects of this vital relationship for the United States. Indeed, the budding of democracy which we have seen in recent weeks owes much to the relationship we have developed since 1972. And it's important at this time to act in a way that will encourage the further development and deepening of the positive elements of that relationship and the process of democratization. It would be a tragedy for all if China were to pull back to its pre-1972 era of isolation and repression.

MCGREGOR: 1989 was when we saw the political system, once again, in its raw, coercive power. And I think that really stripped the illusions away from many people. You know, both China's ambitions and its political system started to come to the fore, again, in the '90s. Taiwan, in particular, comes back in the mid-'90s, when there was presidential elections. Taiwan became democratic. And the Chinese started shelling the waters near the islands, and the Americans under Bill Clinton sent in aircraft carriers in response. So I think the geopolitics returned after 1989. The systemic differences returned, the skeptics in both countries about whether they could work, really work, really get on.

HUNTER-HART: During this period, there was turmoil within China, juxtaposed with a pretty powerful U.S., which had won the Cold War against the USSR, and had at this point stationed its military all across the globe. So the powers were still not, at this time, on equal footing. Beijing did aim to sort of blunt American influence in various parts of the world, but the rivalry was more in the shadows. But then, the Chinese economy starts to really grow. It picks up pace in the '90s, and even more so after 2001, when Beijing joins the World Trade Organization. The PRC brought an estimated 800 million people out of poverty, and on average, doubled its GDP every eight years. The growth of the Chinese economy is one of the most important global stories from the past few decades.

NEWSREEL 1: Over the last 40 years, China has been transformed out of all recognition.

NEWSREEL 2: From a war battered and poverty stricken nation on the verge of collapse, to a leading industrial powerhouse.

HUNTER-HART: Now we're approaching the present day, and the weakening of the United States' power. So talk to us about the key milestones of 2008, and 2016, and what's been happening until now.

MCGREGOR: I think there's no doubt that Chinese confidence is rising. There's the popular phrase in China at the moment, "The East is rising, the West is declining." And of course, that means China and the U.S. Chinese confidence, I think, has come in waves. It starts as you say, in 2008, that's when we had the global financial crisis.

NEWSREEL 1: Lehman Brothers is going bankrupt.

THEN-CANDIDATE BARACK OBAMA: We are in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

MCGREGOR: The U.S. had sort of set itself up as a, an advisor to China, to teach it how to manage risk and its financial system. And I think the Chinese saw what happened in the financial crisis, and they said, "No, thanks, America, no more advice about how to run our banks and the like. We'll do it ourselves." So that was the first big sort of vote of confidence for the Chinese in their system, because they came out of that crisis much more quickly than the U.S. Then you get a second wave of Chinese confidence with the election of Mr. Trump in 2016. Because that, for the Chinese, was a display of how U.S. democracy didn't work, whereas their system did.

FOX ANNOUNCER: Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States.

THEN-CANDIDATE DONALD TRUMP: We can't continue to allow China to rape our country, and that's what they're doing. It's the greatest theft in the history of the world.

MCGREGOR: Now I think, Mr. Trump, destabilized the Chinese in some respects, after that, but nonetheless, I think it was, Trump was much more destabilizing for the United States. And I think paradoxically enough, we get a third wave of confidence, with COVID-19. Notwithstanding the fact that it came from China in the first place, the Chinese think they managed it well, and the U.S. and other democracies didn't. And so that's where we get to these days. China is richer, it has a stronger military, probably stronger than it's had in a couple of centuries. Rather, it's relative to other countries. It's more confident, it's more assertive and the like, whereas they look at the trends in the United States, and they mostly see them going in the opposite direction, in other words, going south. So you have a sort of rattled America and a confident China. That's at least from Beijing's perspective.

HUNTER-HART: And you have the most powerful Chinese leader in a generation, Xi Jinping, at the helm. You've said that he embodies a more assertive China. Now, Xi seems to be experiencing a honeymoon these days with a different partner -- his neighbor to the north, President Vladimir Putin of Russia. China is even taking a hands-off approach when it comes to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, emphasizing that Russia has, quote, "legitimate concerns" about security. So, what's going on there? Because, to return to the '70s and '80s for a moment, there was a time when the U.S.' wooing of Beijing did succeed in keeping China and the USSR, two communist powers, isolated from each other during a key period of the Cold War. What was going on between the Chinese and the Soviets at that time, and how did it change?

MCGREGOR: The Sino-Soviet split had really happened, or been cemented around 1959, 1960, 1961. The breach between the Soviet Union and China over many issues, over trust issues, in particular, over leadership -- it's a struggle for the leadership of global communism, or socialism, if you like -- there was a lack of respect for the leadership on both sides. Khrushchev and Mao did not like each other, and the like, so that that was a really big deal. And it took a long time for Western nations to really understand that, and of course, in the case of the U.S., to exploit it. And it took a long, long time for China and the Soviet Union, now Russia, to patch up their their difficulties. Gorbachev visited Beijing in 1989, and I think gradually, the two sides learned how to work together again.

NEWS ANNOUNCER: Good evening. We begin tonight in China. Today, Mikhail Gorbachev became the first Soviet leader in 30 years to sit down with the leaders of China. Together they agreed to normalize the relationship between the two largest communist countries in the world.

MCGREGOR: Until we got to the 21st century, when when they started to work together extremely closely, first under Hu Jintao, now under Xi Jinping and Mr. Putin. And so that's the great irony of the 50th anniversary, of course, is that a trip which sought to exploit the difference between China and Russia, then the Soviet Union, 50 years later, the shoe is on the other foot. China and Russia are now combined to push back against the United States.

HUNTER-HART: Right, and we saw that in full force at the Russia-China summit that happened during the Olympics.

NEWS ANNOUNCER: Few global leaders have gone to Beijing to be at the opening, but the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is there. This morning he held a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, who gave his support to Russia security and foreign policy aims.

HUNTER-HART: And we're seeing it in action now, as Russia attacks Ukraine. On Thursday, a spokesperson for China's foreign ministry refused to call it an "invasion" when asked about it at a press conference.

HUA CHUNYING: You're using a typical Western media questioning method of using the word "invasion."

HUNTER-HART: But she did accuse the U.S. of, quote, "fueling the flame." Richard, what is it that draws the leaders of Russia and China together?

MCGREGOR: Xi, I think, and Putin, are very like-minded characters. They respect strength. They respect each other's dictatorships, if you like. But beyond that, they see great advantage and the problems that they both have with the United States in combining to push back against Washington. Of course, the U.S. has, in some respects, encouraged this. In the 19 -- 2017 National Security Outlook document, the first issued by the Trump administration, they named China and Russia together as, jointly as revisionist powers, and literally a few weeks later, the head of the Chinese military went to Moscow to be photographed alongside his Russian counterpart to make the point, you know, you're going to sort of put us together as revisionist powers, then frankly, we're going to be that and work against you. Now they've got a great deal in common, Russia as a energy exporter, and an arms exporter. And of course, China as a great trading partner, a great political partner.

HUNTER-HART: Right, and now an even more important financial partner, given the sanctions issued against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. China is the only major power that hasn't condemned Putin's actions there. It certainly seems like we're entering a new era of renewed great power competition, with Russia and China teaming up to counter the U.S. And the situation in Ukraine will probably be something of a proving ground for that relationship's efficacy. There are so many implications for the future around this -- China's muted response could be meant to encourage Russia to be similarly passive in the event of an invasion of Taiwan, for example. But let's come back to the present to close. Richard, give us a snapshot of the moment we are at right now in U.S.-China relations.

MCGREGOR: Well, I think we're at the moment right now where both sides are sizing, sizing each other up anew. They're both looking for weaknesses in the other system that they can exploit. They're both looking for leverage that they can exploit. I think that's particularly the case on the U.S. side, I think the U.S., the Washington really thinks they're late to this game, that they took their eye off the ball and gave too much away to China. So I think in, as far as the U.S. is concerned, they're not going to leave any options off the table. So we can expect the U.S. to be very tough, I would say, in coming years against China, because they think they're playing catch up.

HUNTER-HART: Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia. Richard, thanks for your time, we appreciate it.

MCGREGOR: Thank you.

KHAN: Asia Stream correspondent Monica Hunter-Hart and Nikkei Asia contributor Richard McGregor. On Thursday, as Russian troops continued a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden addressed the media and announced fresh sanctions against Moscow. When asked if the U.S. was urging China to help isolate Russia, Biden said he was not prepared to comment on that yet. That's it for Asia Stream this week.

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KHAN: As always, I encourage you to head to Nikkei Asia at for more in-depth coverage of the U.S.-China relations, and all things related to Asia. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share, subscribe and leave us a review -- and hopefully, a five-star rating! And a reminder that Nikkei Asia is currently offering an exclusive discount for our podcast listeners: just type in the code ASIASTREAM, all caps, no spaces, at checkout when you visit This episode was produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt. I'm your host, Waj Khan. Let's cross streams next week.

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