Tag Archives: Zhou Enlai

Nixon in China Part One: Keeping Japan in Line

This is the first of two posts in which I will outline some historical context on U.S.–China–Japan relations surrounding Nixon’s 1972 China visit. This material is all drawn from Margaret MacMillan’s Nixon and Mao, which I recently finished reading. (Page citations are included.) The book was full of engaging reconstructions of the diplomatic maneuvers and rhetorical subtleties of the visit and the extensive preparations. Its only weakness is the sometimes elementary background information that is interspersed throughout.

Nixon, in conversations with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai,* tried to make the case that U.S. involvement in Asia was good for China. Its ability to keep Japan in check was a primary reason, along with balancing India and of course the Soviet Union. If the United States withdrew from providing Japan with security, he argued, Japan may rearm, which would be disagreeable to China and the rest of Asia. He said the United States could keep Japan under control.

“But,” Nixon warned Zhou solemnly, “if the U.S. is gone from Asia, gone from Japan, our protests, no matter how loud, would be like—to use the Prime Minister [Zhou]’s phrase—firing an empty cannon; we would have no rallying effect because fifteen thousand miles away is just too far to be heard.”

In response, Zhou paid little attention to the suggestion that having American troops in Asia helped China. Indeed, he pointed out, their presence in Indochina was only helping the Soviets increase their influence there. (236)

Meanwhile, Zhou had brought up the suffering Japan had caused China in the past with Kissinger frequently in the 1971 talks leading up to Nixon’s visit. Noting Japan’s developing market and appetite for raw materials and markets abroad, Zhou told Nixon, “Expanding in such a great way as they are towards foreign lands, the inevitable result will be military expansion.” (238) Quoting directly from MacMillan:

The Americans, Zhou charged, had been careless in helping Japan rebuild after the Second World War: “You helped Japan fatten herself, and now she is a very heavy burden on you.” It had also been a mistake to receive the Japanese emperor in the Unite States; as Zhou had said earlier to Kissinger, he remained the basis on which a renewed Japanese militarism could be built. … Although the Chinese wanted the United States to reduce its forces in Asia, Zhou in his talks with Kissinger and now with Nixon repeated expressed concern that Japan would move its troops into countries such as Taiwan and South Korea to fill the vacuum. (238–9)

I may just have missed it, but the emperor seems to have fallen out of the debate over Japanese rearmament these days. Much of the rest of the sentiments seem to resonate quite a bit 35 years down the line.

*I use the Pinyin spelling. Macmillan uses Wade-Giles. I have changed her renderings for my style.

Next time: Japan’s reactions to the Nixon visit.