INFA Column


Prof. M.L. Sondhi

October 30, 1975

(Prof. M.L. Sondhi of Jawaharlal Nehru University analyses the difficulties in setting the stage for US President Ford’s visit to China in the context of the succession struggle in Peking.)

One cannot avoid the suspicion that the Chinese demand during the top  level discussion between Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Dr. Kissinger for a more aggressive strategy on the part of the USA was not just a step in the manoeuvering which is required in the balance of power game between the USA, China and the Soviet Union.  Indeed, it is not too far fetched to suggest that Mr. Mao Tse-tung expressed his concern over the exacerbated tensions with the Soviet Union in the context of the special circumstances which may arise when his own leading and guiding influence may not be available to the Chinese leadership.

The fact that the Chinese are seeking insurance for future difficulties with the Soviet Union is patently clear although there is a mixture of objective and subjective factors at work; Peking’s sharp criticism of the USA over the question of the Tibetan Bureau in New York and the visit of the Tibetan Song and Dance Troupe merits close examination.  It has been supposed by some that instead of alluding directly to the Taiwan issue, the Chinese brought up the Tibetan question in order to create a moderating effect over the divergence in interests and goals over Taiwan.  In point of fact Tibet is neither a symbol of national integration nor a source of prestige in Asian politics and could hardly provide the starting point for Chinese moral and political capabilities in the context of super power politics.  It could hardly be a Chinese objective of publicity in the USA to highlight the dilemmas of a totalitarian system.

The blunt opposition to the American eagerness for détente with the Soviet Union and the spasm of concern over US interference in Tibet are to my mind examples of “dissonance” which would not have been possible if the pragmatic Chou En-lai was playing the paramount role in activising foreign policy with the USA.  The rift between Chou’s pragmatism and the substantive shift towards new tensions between Maoism and rationality makes it a very different climb to the summit for President Ford than it was for Mr. Nixon.  This point invites the following brief observations:

  1.  In the context of the succession struggle in Peking, the asymmetry characterising China’s super-power relations has deepend.  The Chinese side was therefore interested in knowing whether it could transform the Sino-American rapprochement into a tool of security policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.  Dr. Kissinger’s view is that “The USA will resist hegemony but the USA will also make every effort to avoid needless confrontations when it can do so without threatening the security of third countries” cannot help the Chinese leadership if it is faced with a crisis of major proportions in the future.  The “traditional” balance of power politics in fact requires “confrontation” which are the logical culmination point of a process to help the weaker side (China) against the stronger antagonist (Soviet Union).
    Obviously President Ford will have to ponder over the necessity of strengthening the Chinese state against Soviet “encirclement”.  How far will the American public regard this as a “creative development” of the Sino-American rapprochement if it directly lead to exacerbation of US-Soviet relations?  It is an unacceptable analogy to regard China as another Yugoslavia to which the USA provided help in gaining immunity from attack.

  2. Mr. Nixon’s Peking odyssey was successful because the former US President correctly interpreted popular sentiment in favour of peace and negotiations after war-weariness in Vietnam.  The projected Ford visit has practical significance for the Chinese in their role as confrontationists with the Soviets.  In spite of all the analyses and predictions of Dr. Kissinger, President Ford must realise that a faulty assessment of the American domestic emotions on the subject of striking a posture on the Chinese confrontation against the Soviet Union might make nonsense of the arguments used in favour of the earlier Nixon visit.

  3. As an instrument for furtherance of American foreign policy, the utility of the Nixon visit lay in its acceptability for promoting stability in Asia by bringing China out of its isolation.  Dr. Kissinger has jubilantly reported that in Peking he found “a basic understanding of United States world policy and the need for the US role in Asia” and he has registered a frank and unequivocal interest on the part of the Chinese that the American role in Asia should not come to an end.  One may ask whether the post-Mao leadership will continue to adjust itself to the requirements of United States world policy.
    A relatively minor event in Korea could bring out the contradiction between Chinese messianic objectives and the US role in Asia.  As for Dr. Kissinger’s proposal for a meeting of North Korea, South Korea, China and the USA to achieve resolution of conflict in the Korean peninsula, the Chinese have continued to resort to ideological as well as political excuses.  The Japanese who have no wish to suffer another Nixon shock have made a slash in criticism of any move to hold United States-North Korean talks outside the United Nations framework.
    Although the Americans can draw substantial satisfaction from the deep disagreement that exists between the Soviet Union and China, yet US efforts for modus vivendi with China on complicated issues like Taiwan and Korea are involved in the most distasteful choices.  Even though  his Secretary of State is convinced that US and Chinese points of view coincide on their common opposition to any “expansionist aims”, it must remain a perilous experiment for President Ford to be pushed into accepting a chain of circumstances which must lead to breach of treaty commitments with Taiwan and South Korea.

  4. The question of durable relations between Washington and Peking also depends on the cherished image of the anti-Soviet aspirations of the ruling group in Peking What is the strength of groups secretly harbouring ideas of rapprochement with Moscow?  We may find no allusion to this crucial question in Dr. Kissinger’s opinions, but at the present stage of Chinese succession politics as hard-headed men, the US decision makers must certainly entertain mental reservations about the durability of anti-Sovietism in Peking.  The pro-Russian elements who have abstained from activity might prefer concerted action when they find the ruling faction confronted with a Hobson’s choice over questions like Taiwan.

  5. The principal aim of President Ford is to establish the credibility of American commitments after the national cataclysm of Vietnam.  He feels America should not take a lethargic view of the Soviet-American détente and he feels special measures are required to maintain the strength of the US bargaining position in the face of the sustained rise of Soviet power.  What cannot be in doubt is his wish to develop the relationship which his predecessor established with Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai.  It is, however, far from clear whether he will be able to go ahead untrammeled by the clandestine struggles between the different factions competing for Mao’s mantle.  The failure of Dr. Kissinger to even make a courtesy call on the “ailing” Chou En-lai is primarily attributable to the sharp oscillations in the leadership hierarchy in Peking.

The normalization of Sino-American relations is certainly high on the agenda in Peking and Washington.  We cannot, however, fail to observe the essential difference in the situation between the events leading to the signing of the Shanghai communiqué by President Nixon and the “wait and see” mood which grips every one as the ancient regime of Mao Tse-tung reaches its closing scenario.  Any obfuscation of this contrast will not help President Ford in finding convincing answers to the objective issues of American foreign policy.

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