Exactly 45 years ago to date, on 21 February 1972, the then US president Richard Nixon arrived in Beijing, radically transforming the balance of power that defined the Cold War. That visit at once recognised Mao Zedong's China, diplomatically and politically, and effectively de-recognised the regime in Taiwan. Ever since the Communist revolution established its rule on 1 October 1949, the United States had steadfastly refused to accept even the existence of the Peoples' Republic of China. The Americans had even blocked China's entry to the United Nations. No American president even thought of visiting the red China. But suddenly, after a secret visit of National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to Beijing via Pakistan in July 1971, the visit of Nixon, six months later, was plotted. That visit brought China and America closer, isolating the main Cold War enemy Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Forty-five years later, another Republican president, Donald Trump has reversed the entire order with his friendly overtures to Taiwan and upsetting the mainland Chinese comrades while at the same time embracing Vladimir Putin's Russia, which is still a hardcore rival of the US, even after the Cold War. Interestingly, he has done that within a month of assuming office (today marks Day 30 of Trump presidency).
It is fascinating to see the contexts of this awkward triangle, and a few mini-triangles, including the one of Russia, China and Pakistan. The Sino-Indian War of 1962, followed by Indo-Pak war in 1965 and in 1971, which led to the liberation of Bangladesh had created a sub-continental triangle. This South Asian scenario had a direct bearing on the Cold War and the Soviet-American rivalry which was manifesting all over the world. Nixon's China initiative has to be seen against this global backdrop which kept the world in a state of uncomfortable suspense, on tenterhooks.
The opening to China by Nixon in 1971-72 was a political masterstroke at the time. The world in the early 70s was as much in turmoil as it is now. America was deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War. More than half a million American soldiers were in Vietnam, fighting a losing battle. The "body bags" of American soldiers coming from Vietnam and the daily televised reporting of the bizarre and brutal war had uprooted the sanity and stability of the society. Despite repeated announcements by the US establishment of wanting to end the war in South-East Asia, there were no signs of even easing the conflict. In fact, the war was extended to Cambodia, ostensibly to destroy the "Vietcong hideouts" on the border.
All American university campuses were aflame with protests and counter-cultural movements. The youth was resisting the compulsory drafting to the armed forces. The Black Panthers had emerged as the militant voice of the African-Americans, and the feminist movement and environmental agitations were developing and spreading. The working class in Europe and the US and also the third world was up in arms. America as a country and the Nixon-Kissinger duo were seen as villains. The idea and ideology of socialism had captured the imagination of the masses everywhere. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro were the heroes of the youth. Latin American countries were confronting the American multinational corporate imperialism. In Chile, popular socialist leader Salvador Allende was elected in spite of direct American involvement in the campaign against him.
Even the Indian subcontinent was in the throes of million mutinies as the famous writer VS Naipaul described the scene at that time. The people of East Pakistan, were up in arms, after having been denied of power in spite of a stunning electoral victory in the election in December 1970. The Pakistani Army had launched a genocidal aggression on its own territory in the East. There was an exodus from the Eastern Bengal province to India.
It was not a coincidence that Kissinger secretly visited China — with the direct but secretive assistance of General Yahya Khan — when the Bengali uprising was at its peak, and a war with Pakistan was on the horizon. Pakistan was America's loyal and trusted ally. The US intelligence agencies were reporting the growing intervention by India to White House. Within a month of Kissinger's visit to China, India signed a multi-dimensional treaty with the Soviet Union. The changed Sino-American relations and the Indo-Soviet treaty brought the Cold War to India's borders. To add to the geopolitical crisis, the personal animosity of Nixon towards Indira Gandhi exacerbated the tension.
This was the backdrop of Nixon-Mao bonhomie, euphemistically described as the "ping pong diplomacy", because of the Chinese table tennis teams playing in America and vice-versa. The Trump-Putin relationship is turning the Nixon-Mao order on its head. But the difference is that America opening up to China did not generate the kind of hostility that is being witnessed now. Indeed, post-communist Russia is seen now as even more vicious and villainous by the American elite and the media. But the Nixon-Kissinger pair could carry the new policy forward in spite of a political crisis in the US and Nixon's humiliating resignation on 9 August 1974. However, Nixon's humiliation was not on account of his policies as much as for his misdemeanour manifested in the Watergate scandal. Almost the entire media turned against Nixon and the war against the president was led by The Washington Post and The New York Times. If he had not resigned, he would have been impeached.
Though Nixon disappeared from the global political stage, his Sino-Strategy survived, in fact, expanded, in spite of the official communist flag in China. After China opened its economy, the massive investments from the US flowed into the country and markets in America were flooded by Chinese goods. Hundreds and thousands of manufacturing jobs went there because of cheap labour, and billions and billions of dollars worth goods entered the malls and shops in America because they were cheaper.
The Triangle thus has a military, geopolitical and economic dimension. Russia knows the delicate nature of the three angles in this geometry. Therefore, Russia is trying to promote joint economic projects with China and Pakistan, which it feels, will reduce the tension in the region thereby promoting a growth of trade. The involvement of Pakistan in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will help Moscow convince the Pakistani establishment to stop escalating tensions on the Indo-Pak border and in Jammu and Kashmir. But as always, the Cold War has often been fought on the propaganda front.
If there are disagreements and tensions between India and Russia and within the BRICS, it will give additional advantage to the West, mainly the US. Indian strategists feel that one way to break the imbroglio is to increase trilateral political and defence coordination within the Shanghai Organisation of Cooperation (SOC). That can effectively neutralise the Islamic State and terror networks. Trump's maverick approach and turnaround towards Russia could prove to be an asset in reducing the war and terror fever in South Asia. The continuation of the historical and strategic relation between Russia and India will force Trump to look at the subcontinent as an opportunity rather than as a crisis.
But Trump also has to live with the contradictions that he himself has created. His support base comes from the unemployed white and black workers, middle America's lumpen. He blames immigrants, Muslims and blacks as the villains for their plight. But neither the manufacturing companies nor the middle class consumer is convinced or happy. The discontent is rapidly growing. It took six years for Nixon to get embroiled in the storm. It has taken less than a month for Trump to suffer a massive backlash. Nixon was warned of impeachment which hastened his resignation. There is already open talk of Trump's impeachment, court conviction or resignation, even though he completes just one month in the White House on 20 February.
Though both the Republican presidents found themselves in similar predicaments, condemned and ridiculed by the media, the difference is that Trump's Russia initiative is seen as undermining America whereas Nixon's China initiative was seen as a huge opportunity. Trump's campaign against China and his wild war on the Muslim nations has all the makings of a catastrophe. Nixon too had spread the war in the rest of South East Asia, just as Trump is expanding the theatre of war in the Middle East by encouraging Israeli occupation. But America retained its allies in NATO and ASEAN and NAFTA. Trump seems to be wrecking all such alliances and losing friends while winning enemies all over the world. If he survives politically, this decade will end with a far more troubled and disastrous world than he inherited.
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Updated Date: Feb 20, 2017 20:31:29 IST