More Than a Tacit Alliance: Trade, Soft Power, and U.S.-Chinese Rapprochement Reconsidered
It is well known that President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 visit to the People’s Republic of China established an anti-Soviet alliance between Beijing and Washington that reshaped the global Cold War power balance. Naturally, scholars have focused on strategic issues such as the Sino-Soviet split, the Vietnam War, Taiwan, and other factors of “high politics” to understand the U.S.-China rapprochement. However, one can no longer dismiss U.S.-China trade in the 1970s, albeit small in total volume, as insignificant and thus unimportant to the reconciliation. This article first examines how the Johnson and Nixon administrations conceived trade as a useful tool to improve relations with Communist China. It then explores how the Americans and Chinese carried out trade between themselves in the 1970s. It argues that many Americans were enthusiastic about U.S.-China trade because they believed that reopened economic relations with the United States would persuade China to abandon its Communist model of modernization and move closer to following the capitalist example. If the United States could promote China’s attraction to its capitalist model for future development, then their shared economic interests and developmental visions would consolidate further the U.S.-China strategic alliance. In this sense, promoting trade was a way for the United States to apply soft power to change China.