Cementing US control

Mike Macnair spoke to Online Communist Forum on the 50th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s historic week-long visit to China

Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972 was celebrated as a radically unexpected turn in international affairs, but in fact it had definitely been prepared the year before by the visit of Henry Kissinger (then national security advisor) in July 1971 and by what was called the ‘ping pong diplomacy’ of April that year. In October 1971, the US did not mobilise to block the vote at the United Nations to transfer China’s UN security council seat from Taiwan to mainland China.1

The turn, indeed, was not as unexpected as it is commonly presented. To give an odd piece of evidence, in Emma Lathen’s detective novel Murder against the grain, published in 1967, a Wall Street bank, the ‘Sloan Guaranty Trust’, has been defrauded of just less than a million dollars by a scam involving forged Soviet shipping documents in relation to a recent trade agreement between the USA and the USSR. George C Lancer, the chairman of the board of the bank, hopes that he can pass off some of this loss onto the correspondent bank abroad; but he is telephoned by the US state department:

“My god!” remonstrated the long-distance line from Washington. “Do you want to play into the hands of the Chinese?”

Lancer, who occasionally wrote articles on international events for Foreign Affairs hastily denied the charge. Hadn’t he been one of the first to recommend exploitation of the Sino-Soviet rift?

Coincidentally in the October 1967 issue of Foreign Affairs, one Richard Nixon - not yet president - published an article which argued precisely for exploiting the Sino-Soviet rift, and, among other things, drawing the Chinese into the concert of nations - the ordinary conduct of international affairs.2

So, while the US Chinese turn signalled by Nixon’s 1972 visit certainly caught a substantial part of the left by surprise (and particularly those who had regarded the Chinese as being to the left of the Soviets), it clearly did not catch American foreign policy actors by surprise. It was not outside the range of thought of popular fiction writers in the United States.

What was the content of the deal made between the US and China, signalled by Nixon’s visit? We do not know an awful lot about what private agreements were made, but the public communiqué consists in substance of an ‘agreement to disagree’, which is still with us. The US view as of 1972 was - and indeed arguably still is - that China and Taiwan are one country with one legitimate government, which is the government in Taipei (the capital of Taiwan). In this view, the Chinese Communist Party administration in Beijing are rebels, who need to be dispersed, for the restoration of order under a Taipei-based government of the mainland. The Beijing point of view, on the other hand, is and has been ever since 1949 that Taiwan is a part of China, and there is one legitimate government, which is in Beijing.

So what was done in 1972 was to agree to disagree on this question. However, the recognition by both that China was one country enabled a series of further diplomatic steps. The US continues to arm Taiwan to the teeth and to subsidise it through economic preferences; but it avoids actually formally supporting Taiwan independence and is diplomatically silent about Taipei’s claim to be the legitimate government of mainland China. So the US, while never formally conceding full legitimacy of the Beijing government, nonetheless conceded enough legitimacy to ensure that Taiwan has been held in a degree of limbo for the last 50 years.

There were very substantial broader implications of the Chinese turn. The most obvious at the time was that the Chinese government backed the 1973 Pinochet coup in Chile. That was a moment at which leftists suddenly realised that the Communist Party of China (CPC) had gone over into an alliance with US imperialism. That in turn gave rise to a very substantial crisis of Maoist organisations. How people responded varied. One way was to replace Chinese-led Maoism with an Albanian version.

Secondly, when the Vietnamese intervened in 1978 against the Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia, the Chinese responded by invading northern Vietnam.

Thirdly, the open turn of the Chinese to a political rapprochement with the US had very substantial implications for Soviet military budgets; the implication was that the Soviet Union had to budget for deterrence on both the south and the west, against two nuclear-armed powers, the US and China. That is an important part of the process whereby the USSR spent a huge amount of money trying to keep up with the Americans on armaments.

Finally, soon after 1972, China moved to agricultural decollectivisation and the legalisation of small-scale private industry. In the 1980s that was followed by more extensive privatisation and ‘economic reforms’. The US expected that a market economy would lead to ‘democratic government’ (meaning, as it now usually means for US state actors and the media, plutocratic government); and the 1989 Tiananmen Square events were expected to be the trigger. But in fact the Tiananmen movement was successfully repressed by the CPC and, although it did not retreat from ‘market reforms’, it insisted on retaining an all-powerful state.

There was a profound difference between China and Russia after 1989. In the USSR and much of eastern Europe in the 1990s we got ‘Chicago boys’ shock therapy and economic collapse. The Chinese refused to go down that road although it was pressed on them by US economic advisors; instead they insisted on following broadly a ‘Japanese’ path of a market economy - but one steered by the central state.

These events, beginning with the US’s and China’s 1971-72 turns, are thus an important stage in the process of getting to where we are now regarding US relations with both China and Russia; and regarding the general demoralisation and disorientation of the left and the generalised sense of failure.

What, then, is the background to this fundamental turn in world politics in 1971-72? There are, I think two sides to it. The first relates to the geopolitical doctrines of the US state about China. The second concerns the doctrine of socialism in one country, and its implications for the development of the Sino-Soviet split, which is what enabled Nixon’s turn and that of the Chinese leadership.

Open door

Let us begin with the US. The starting point is its ‘open door policy’ around 1900. Japan had just defeated China in the war of 1894-95 and as a result annexed Taiwan. China, though still a great empire, was thus seen as the ‘sick man of Asia’ (just as the Ottoman empire was seen as the ‘sick man of Europe’). The British had already acquired Hong Kong and its ‘new territories’; Germany in 1898 annexed Jiaozhou. The question was now posed: ‘How is China going to be cut up?’ There were negotiations at length between the various European powers about how to divide China into distinct spheres of influence - who would get the concessions to build railways here? Who would get the rights of access to Chinese agricultural produce there? Would Manchuria or Korea become Russian colonies or Japanese ones? And so on.

In this context the US ‘open door policy’ was that the state of China should be kept intact - but it should not have any right to impose protective tariffs or regulations, which would in any way impede free trade. Thus all the different European states and the US itself would have free access to Chinese markets.

This open door policy was not that of Britain in 1900 - but it had been British policy during the UK’s two ‘opium wars’ with China in 1839-42 and 1856-60, in order to force the Chinese government to accept the right of British drug traffickers to sell Indian opium into the Chinese market.

But it continued to be American policy all the way through to 1949, and it resulted in US hostility to the Japanese war on China from the mid-1930s: America began to back the Kuomintang (KMT) regime before the outbreak of war between the US and Japan: indeed, it was US sanctions against Japan, ‘justified’ by the China question, which triggered the Japanese decision for war with the US in 1941.

Arising out of this background, it has been US naval doctrine since the 1940s that unfettered access to the coastline of China is an essential US security interest. This implies that either China must be a subordinate ally of the US or the US will not recognise the right of China to significant territorial waters.

The second element of US geopolitics concerns the United States itself. Its leaders think of the US as the new Rome - specifically the new Roman Republic - and they tell stories of decline of the republic into the tyranny of the first emperor, Augustus. And they also think of themselves as the republic in their relations with foreign states. The Roman republic had socii (allies), which were very unambiguously subordinate; and everyone who was not among the socii was considered one of its hostes (enemies - also often referred to for ideological purposes as barbari or barbarians).

Allies who revolt therefore become hostes. Not just if they take up arms against Rome, but if they ‘get above themselves’ in one way or another, then either direct or indirect force will be used against them. A very late example was that of the Visigothic king, Alaric II, whose kingdom was in what is now south-western France, who issued a codification of the law in 506 CE. That was seen by the remaining empire (based in Constantinople) as a usurpation of the imperial prerogative of law-making. So the government of the emperor Anastasius encouraged the Franks, who lived in what is now northern France, to attack the Visigoths.

The US thinks of itself in the same sort of terms: its allies are very definitely subordinate, and periodically it is necessary to remind them of their subordination. One of the things the present war in Ukraine is doing is reminding the US’s European allies of this. After all, everyone who is not a subordinate ally is an enemy.

The American empire controls the centre, while both allies and enemies are on the periphery. In other words, the US inherently has the initiative, while in order to regain some initiative both allies and enemies would have to combine against the imperial centre. Now this is a slightly odd thing to say, because the ‘centre’ here is the sea: both the ‘centre’ and the periphery relate to the international trading system.

US and other writers have made heavy use of the geopolitics of Halford Mackinder. He argued precisely from the point of view that somebody who controls the centre controls the periphery by virtue of inherently having the initiative and interior lines of communication. Mackinder on this basis argued:

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
who rules the World-Island commands the world.3

Here “the Heartland” means the area between Ukraine and central Asia, and “the World-Island” is Eurasia.

In fact Mackinder’s idea was false, because - as I have said above - the ‘centre’ is actually the centre of trade and communications, and the periphery also relates to that. It is this communications centrality which yields control and initiative. When Mackinder was writing, it could be imagined that the invention of the railway and the telegraph allowed land communication to become central, so that Ukraine through central Asia would become the ‘pivot’, as he put it. But in reality, the scale on which sea transport can operate is massively higher than road or even rail transport (let alone air transport). So the sea remains the centre of trade and communications and the ‘heartland’ is the periphery.

The US controls the centre - the sea - by virtue of its naval dominance and its dominance of the international trading structure. This has the consequence that it is not a choice which is available to people who wish to oppose the US as to how and when to do so. The US, because it controls the centre and holds the initiative, gets to choose when and how to launch wars.

The geopolitics of the US in relation to China therefore meant that historically the US wants China intact as a state, but with open trade. But the underlying idea is that the US should retain geopolitical control through its naval and aerospace supremacy and control of the international trading system (just as was the case for Britain before 1914).

In Nixon’s China turn, the US’s claims for Taipei (and, more abstractly, making China a semi-colony) were temporarily subordinated to the higher geopolitical imperative of restoring US dominance over the USSR and defeating the ‘colonial revolutionary’ movements which had handled the US and its socii rather roughly in Cuba, Vietnam, South Yemen and Portugal’s African colonies. What made it possible was the Sino-Soviet split.


Where did the Sino-Soviet split come from? Again, we have to actually go back to the late 19th century, when there are two interconnected developments. One is the emergence of Bonapartist nationalism as a mode of escape from British control for some subordinated countries; the second is the emergence within the Second International of the ideas of socialism in one country and national roads to socialism.

Regarding the first point, successively France, the US and Germany attempted to escape from British control. In France it entailed the overthrow of the parliamentary monarchy of Louis Philippe - at first in a revolutionary crisis, but then the 1851 creation of the Bonapartist regime. This escapes from British control because the parliamentary, rule-of-law regimes as such yield to the dictatorship of capital in its monetary form: the sale and denial of justice through the free market in legal services; the routine bribery of politicians; the essentially corrupt character of advertising-funded media oligopolies; and the free movement of capital through financial markets. And monetary power is at root that of the world-dominant capital. In the US, for example, the rule-of-law regime gave veto power to the southern states, whose economy was tied to Britain through their character as colonial, extractive economies, feeding British industry with raw materials.

In the US what happened in 1861-65 was a completion of the war of independence: northern US capital mobilised itself and the northern working class to defeat the slaveocracy and thereby break free from the chains of economic dependence on Britain. In France and Germany, what happened was that the creation of a state with a strong executive, high levels of credentialism and ‘equality of opportunity’, and artificial preservation of the peasantry, created a social bloc around nationalism - which in France was expressed as Louis Bonaparte’s principe des nationalités and in Germany as German unification and the Second Reich. The resulting states were capable of standing outside and to some extent against British power.

So the idea of obtaining national autonomy through a strong state regime enables the partial exclusion of the normal methods by which money controls politics in a rule-of-law regime - normally the monetary power of the lead capitalist state (at that time Britain) controls politics.

Secondly, as already noted, there was the development of the idea of socialism in one country. This is not an invention of Joseph Stalin or anybody else in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the 1920s. It goes back probably to Georg von Vollmar’s 1878 book Der isolierte sozialistische Staat (‘the isolated socialist state’), but certainly to Karl Kautsky’s arguments in his book introducing the Erfurt programme (abridged translation in English as The class struggle). Kautsky argues there that socialism will result in a reduction of international trade and increased autarkic economic development of nation-states. He similarly argued the centrality of the nation-state in his article, ‘Nationality and internationality’, which Ben Lewis translated some years ago in Critique - this was Kautsky’s contribution to the debate on the national question in the 1900s in the Second International.

So the idea of socialism in one country was already present in the ideas of the Second International. The Third International started with an internationalist gamble: October 1917 was a gamble on the victory of the revolution in Europe. But neither the Germans nor the Austrians delivered, and while the Hungarians did arrive they were defeated, and so on.

Comintern as a result shifted towards an orientation designed to raise the nationalist sentiments of the oppressed colonial countries against the imperialist centres. It was a perfectly reasonable strategic choice that made particular sense because the victor powers in the World War I - Britain, France and the US - all invaded Russia in order to overthrow the Bolshevik regime and continued their intervention operations against the Bolsheviks through the civil war down to 1921. Even after that the British and French imposed economic sanctions on the Bolshevik regime, which were not lifted. So it looked like a reasonable strategic bet to promote anti-imperialist struggles and in particular nationalism in the oppressed colonial countries. That was the policy adopted at the Second Congress of Comintern in 1920. Even after the dissolution of Comintern in 1943 it remained a central feature of Soviet policy, all the way down to the point at which the US managed from 1978 and after to exploit it in order to trip the USSR up in Afghanistan.

Alongside this is the question: why did the Reds win the Russian civil war? The answer is not just because they held the arms factories and the centre, and had the support of the working class; or that they got the peasantry onside (the most fundamental points). It is also that the Reds won over a really quite substantial section of the professional middle classes. And they did so because they offered the restoration of Russian national power, against the humiliation represented by successive invasions by Germany and (in the intervention) by the Entente powers.

Indeed, the nature of the civil war and intervention in a sense forced the Reds to act as ‘Great Russians’. The Bolsheviks began with a radical self-determination policy, but all the various nationalities to whom self-determination was granted promptly went over to the imperialists: the Ukrainians, Georgians, Finns and Baltics to the side of the German occupying power in 1917-18; and to them and most of the rest to the Entente powers during the intervention in the civil war. In order to survive without revolution in the west, it was necessary for the Red Army to reconquer most of the territory of the former tsarist empire. There was no other choice, except to surrender and accept the partitioning of the territory into a series of semi-colonies and colonies.

But then the consequence, which very much concerned Lenin in the last period of his life, was Great Russian chauvinism among Russian communists. The attempt to counter this produced what Terry Martin called The affirmative action empire in his 2001 book on Soviet nationalities policy: the USSR actively promoted nationalism.

The Comintern policy of encouraging nationalism against the imperial powers did in fact yield explosive growth of communist parties in very many colonial and semi-colonial countries, including and most spectacularly in China. I do not propose to discuss the history of the Chinese revolution at length: its outcome, through tortuous paths, is that the CPC took power in 1949.

The actual attitude of the USSR to this is not entirely clear, and the ‘Chinese version’ is that they acted alone or against Soviet opposition. This is questionable at least, because the USSR could have cut off the supply of arms to the Chinese red army. At the end of the World War II Moscow set out to achieve a glacis around the Soviet Union of neutralised countries with friendly (but bourgeois or feudal) governments. That was not acceptable to the US, for the obvious reasons which I have discussed already in relation to US geopolitics. Just as the US wanted free access to the coastline of China, it also insisted that it was an essential security interest of the US that it should have naval access to the Danube.

This demand produced in 1947-48 a turn on the part of the Stalin leadership in the USSR, which broke with the policy of preserving forms of bourgeois rule with friendly but neutral governments, and instead either themselves directly Sovietised these countries (eg. Poland, Hungary) or let loose the local Communist Party to do so (eg, Czechoslovakia). In this context, it looks as though the US’s demand for military access to the Soviet Union’s borders led Stalin also to let loose the CPC in China. As a result, the Kuomintang regime collapsed, and its supporters on the mainland - to the tune of 1.5 million people - fled to Taiwan.

The basis upon which these developments occurred was nationalism - in the form of both the national struggle against the imperialist powers, and of Russia’s ‘Great patriotic war’ (1941-45); and also under the banner of socialism in one country and peaceful coexistence as a global general framework, positing that the capitalist class is to be overthrown state by state, not as a global phenomenon.

Sino-Soviet split

But then the consequence of this is that it involves very substantial tension between the interests and ideas of the leaderships of all the different individual ‘communist’ regimes. This kicks off first with the Yugoslavs, who refused to play ball with the Moscow government’s particular demands in late 1948, and started from the same date to seek assistance from the US. Throughout the period there were also tensions which exploded at different points in time between the Soviet Union and the various satellite states - indeed, tensions within the Soviet Union between its constituent republics.

The idea of socialism in one country and peaceful coexistence carries with it the idea of economic autarkic development - and the idea that within the framework of peaceful coexistence it should be possible for individual socialist states to manoeuvre as between ‘western countries’ (not, usually, recognised as a US world-empire and its vassal-states) and the USSR or other ‘socialist’ countries. It is in this context that the Sino-Soviet split emerges.

I recently read an academic article which argues persuasively that what triggered the Sino-Soviet split was the supremacy of the US in nuclear weapons delivery in the 1950s; which meant that the consequence of the Chinese not having nuclear weapons was a serious problem for Chinese national autonomy (remember that MacArthur proposed to drop the bomb on China in order to win the Korean war in 1950). But at the same time, conversely, Amardeep Athmal argues, the USSR under Khrushchev decided it needed to pursue détente towards the US, producing the ‘deStalinisation’ turn.4

As part of that turn, the Soviets began to squeeze the Chinese in relation to technical assistance. The Chinese, meanwhile, hung on to the idea of ‘Stalin, the great leader’ and so on. Indeed, as the USSR was ‘deStalinising’, the Chinese were engaged in their first five-year plan project and collectivisation of agriculture.

Then in 1958 the Chinese embarked on the ‘Great Leap Forward’ - in effect a more extreme version of Stalin’s voluntarist five-year plan and forced collectivisation in Russia. It had worse consequences in terms of economic dislocation and deaths by famine than what resulted in the USSR.

Immediately after deciding to abandon the ‘Great Leap Forward’, the Chinese leadership embarked on a war with India over the question of borders. This exacerbated the antagonism between China and the USSR, because the Soviet Union for its own geostrategic reasons had been pursuing an alliance with the Congress government in India, and they chose to side with India against China. That is a sharp turning point, because it is one thing to have disputes about how much economic assistance is going from the Soviet Union to China (indeed, at one point seven percent of Soviet GDP was being spent on that); equally, it is one thing to have loud polemics about deStalinisation, which the Chinese denounced as revisionist and so on. But it is another thing altogether to be on opposite sides in relation to a shooting war, even a relatively minor one.

The next step was the 1966 launch of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China, which rapidly spun out of control, and the Chinese People’s Liberation army was introduced into politics on a big scale in order to regain control. After the second failure of this voluntaristic, ultra-leftist economic policy there was a ‘World War II’ policy: in this case there was conflict between China and the USSR in 1969 (on a small scale once more). There are different stories of how this war started from the Soviet and the Chinese side, but the predominant view is that this was Chinese aggression - though not wholly unprovoked, since the USSR had decided to claim back tsarist imperial borders, which had extended slightly beyond the normal legalities of the fixing of borders under international law.

Nonetheless, the Chinese seem to have started the military action; and the probable explanation of their doing so lies in two motives: first, that the Chinese leadership needed a distraction from the failure of the ‘Cultural Revolution’; and, second - and perhaps equally significant - that China was signalling to the US that there was a real antagonism with the USSR, not just superficial, polemical exchanges of one sort and another, covering an underlying alliance (as, for example, Zbigniew Brzezinski argued well after the Sino-Soviet split was obvious to everyone else).

We now arrive where we began: the ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ and Kissinger in 1971, and Nixon in 1972, when China changed sides and became allies of the US against the USSR in geopolitics.

As I said at the beginning, there is an issue which is outstanding: the US’s geopolitics towards China, apart from the need for a big lever to pull down the USSR. The US’s underlying position was that China should be a semi-colony with an open market controlled by US finance. That was the meaning of the ‘open door’ policy. US doctrine and national security required free naval access to the coastline of China. That was the meaning, in fact, of the very extensive anti-China propaganda in the recent period.

And, in fact, I think that is probably also at the end of the day the long-term goal of the Ukraine war: the end game of Brzezinski’s Grand chessboard, in which the Russian republic is to be broken up into component parts; and after that even the Russian-language part of it to be partitioned in some way to create, among other things, a Siberian Republic. This achievement would complete the encirclement of China.

Lying behind that is the need of the US to take back from the Chinese the amount of development they have been permitted - or at least to aggressively encircle China, in the same way that the British through the Entente and the promotion of Serbian nationalism aggressively encircled Germany in the early 20th century. That means that the Taiwan question and the unresolved issues resulting from the ‘agreement to disagree’ in the Nixon-Mao meetings in 1972 are now live once more - issues even of potential war.

The other side of this coin is, what about socialism in one country? And the answer is that it failed, precisely because what it produced was competition between the leaderships of the various different ‘socialist’ countries vying for the favour of the USA.

The Maoists were quite correct to say that the Sino-Soviet split was driven in the first place by Khrushchev conciliating the US - even if this was sensible, given that the US had absolute superiority in nuclear weapons delivery (this shifted later, but ‘mutual assured destruction’ only really arrived in the late 60s-early70s). Nonetheless, the Russian leaders were prepared to sacrifice the Chinese by cutting back on the aid they were providing, partly in connection with the need for conciliation with the US.

Conversely, the Chinese then embarked on socialism in one country on the basis of Chinese resources alone without external support. That is what the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’ were all about. But they failed, because in reality industrial development can never occur on the basis of the resources of one country alone, which means that socialist development in a single country is completely illusory.

The Sino-Soviet split and the Chinese turn in 1971-72 demonstrated the ability of the US to manoeuvre between the USSR and China. It turned out that ‘peaceful coexistence’ is no longer an option, and it is not the case that the ‘socialist countries’ can manoeuvre between the rival imperialist powers. Rather, imperialism is led by one hegemonic centre - whether Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries or the US in the later 20th and 21st. That one centre is able to manoeuvre between the rival nationalists of the ‘socialist countries’ in order to defeat them.

That, it seems to me, is the underlying fundamental lesson of Nixon in China 50 years ago.


  1. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China_and_the_United_Nations.↩︎

  2. ‘Asia after Viet Nam’.↩︎

  3. Mackinder’s Democratic ideals and reality (London 1919) - quoted here from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Geographical_Pivot_of_History.↩︎

  4. A Athmal, ‘The United States and the Sino-Soviet split: the key role of nuclear superiority’ Journal of Slavic Military Studies Vol 17 (2004), pp271-97.↩︎