Document of the Week: Pompeo Buries U.S.-China Engagement Policy

A glimpse back at the beginning. Nixon and Kissinger’s vision of friendship with China is being put to rest by Trump administration.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Chinese communist leader Chairman Mao Zedong shakes hands with U.S. President Richard Nixon in Beijing during Nixon’s visit to China on Feb. 21, 1972.
Chinese communist leader Chairman Mao Zedong shakes hands with U.S. President Richard Nixon in Beijing during Nixon’s visit to China on Feb. 21, 1972.
Chinese communist leader Chairman Mao Zedong shakes hands with U.S. President Richard Nixon in Beijing during Nixon’s visit to China on Feb. 21, 1972. Keystone/Getty Images

The U.S. policy of engagement with China began 50 years ago. Today, the Trump administration is driving the nail into its coffin.

In a series of scorching anti-China speeches by top U.S. cabinet members and via the closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston amid espionage charges, Washington made it clear that relations are long overdue for a wholesale makeover. In an important speech on Thursday at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in California, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that engagement with China, the work of then-President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, may have been well intentioned, but naive.

“President Reagan said that he dealt with the Soviet Union on the basis of ‘trust but verify,’” Pompeo said. “When it comes to the [Chinese Communist Party], I say we must distrust and verify.’”

The U.S. policy of engagement with China began 50 years ago. Today, the Trump administration is driving the nail into its coffin.

In a series of scorching anti-China speeches by top U.S. cabinet members and via the closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston amid espionage charges, Washington made it clear that relations are long overdue for a wholesale makeover. In an important speech on Thursday at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in California, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that engagement with China, the work of then-President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, may have been well intentioned, but naive.

“President Reagan said that he dealt with the Soviet Union on the basis of ‘trust but verify,’” Pompeo said. “When it comes to the [Chinese Communist Party], I say we must distrust and verify.’”

As part of our Document of the Week series, Foreign Policy is posting a transcript of the historic February 1972 meeting Nixon and Kissinger held with China’s Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai. That meeting in Mao’s residence opened the door to decades of direct diplomatic, political, and economic relations with the West, which Pompeo said “has not brought the kind of change inside of China that President Nixon had hoped to induce.”

Nixon himself saw the need for trust in the relationship, but he felt that it was vital to prove to his Chinese counterparts, Mao and Zhou, that he could be a trustworthy counterpart. Nixon was keen to draw China out of the Soviet orbit, telling Mao that the Soviet Union had more forces deployed along the border with China than it did on the border with Europe. “Since you do not know me, you shouldn’t trust me,” Nixon said in a declassified transcript of his first historic meeting with China’s leaders in Beijing. “You will find I never say something I cannot do. And I always will do more than I can say.”

The icebreaking meeting, which took place in Mao’s residence, included exchanges of mutual flattery—Mao assured Nixon his Six Crises was “not a bad book,” while Nixon said Mao’s writings had “changed the world.” Mao told Nixon that he had favored his victory in the 1968 election against Hubert Humphrey. “I like rightists,” the communist leader said. “People say you are rightists, that the Republican Party is to the right.”

Nixon responded that the party’s tough anti-communist credentials in the United States placed it in a better position to take bold foreign-policy steps: “Those on the right can do what those on the left talk about.” Kissinger accused American leftists of being pro-Soviets who would strive to prevent a Chinese detente.

Mao mostly tried to steer Nixon and Kissinger away from U.S. politics and American geopolitical challenges in the Pacific, pressing instead on the question of whether China faced a greater military threat from the United States than the Soviet Union.

“I think you know the United States has no territorial designs on China. We know China doesn’t want to dominate the United States,” Nixon said. “Therefore, we can find common ground, despite our differences, to build a world structure in which both can be safe to develop in our own way on our own roads.”

Mao, who claimed he was feeling ill, said he’d prefer to leave it to his premier to hammer out the details of U.S. and Chinese relations. But before he said goodbye, Nixon affirmed that all parties present would be discreet about the content of their discussions: “The Chairman can be sure that whatever we discuss, or whatever I and the Prime Minister discuss, nothing goes beyond the room.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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