“China will never be a superpower and it opposes hegemony and power politics of any kind.” So reads the “Shanghai Communiqué,” the joint statement released by President Nixon and Chairman Mao Tse-tung during Nixon’s famous trip to China, which began exactly 40 years ago today. The street value of diplomatic joint statements is always lower than their face value, of course. Nonetheless, an argument can be made (and is being made far and wide) that there are no more pressing concerns for the West in this still-young century than China’s taste for hegemony and power politics, not to mention the possibility of parity with the world’s current sole superpower.

Nixon’s propensity for the historic left its mark on our political lexicon. Any scandal, no matter how ridiculous, earns a “-gate” suffix, and any major politician’s rebuke to his ideological compatriots, no matter how superficial, is a “Nixon-to-China moment.” But while Nixon’s critics are, for all the obvious reasons, reluctant to give him recognition for his accomplishments, Nixon deserves the credit for the China trip. (As he does, as we now know, for Operation Nickel Grass, the weapons airlift to Israel during the Yom Kippur War.) What was so notable about Nixon’s desire to work with China for mutual benefit is not that Nixon considered China a paper tiger—quite the opposite. Nixon understood China’s potential, once unlocked, to dominate, and worked to facilitate it anyway. As Niall Ferguson said in his opening remarks at last year’s Munk Debate on China:

Four decades ago Richard Nixon got this point sooner than most: [Nixon said,] “Well you can just stop and think of what would happen if anybody with a decent system of government got control of that mainland. Good God, there’d be no power in the world that could even…I mean, you put 800 million Chinese to work under a decent system and they will be the leaders of the world.”

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the presidency often (eventually) imbues the country’s chief executive with a bit of humility, even if hard earned. Once that happens, to these men history becomes not the vessel but the wave, if not the violent riptide underneath—seemingly beyond their control or design. So it appears to have been with Nixon, who saw a near future with China in pole position. Well, are we there yet? And more importantly, what is the status of U.S.-China relations, the legacy of the original Nixon-to-China moment?

Is it the story of, as Zachary Karabell believes, how the “two countries became one economy”? It certainly doesn’t appear that way, with the sitting president complaining of unfair trade practices (China’s obvious currency manipulation) with the Chinese vice president and heir apparent Xi Jinping in town for a major state visit. Mitt Romney says he’ll go even farther if he’s elected president this year, pledging to label China a currency manipulator on day one of his first term. That sounds an awful lot like the instigation of a trade war, and conservatives have been uneasy with a policy that reeks of protectionism. (And veteran foreign policy opinion writers aren’t too impressed, either; Dan Drezner describes the attitude as inspired by the Incredible Hulk—“Romney SMASH China!”)

But Irwin Stelzer, in an incisive post for the Weekly Standard, suggests there may be more behind the president’s and Romney’s vocal displeasure with China’s trade practices:

One reason Xi came to America is to protest Obama’s expansion of the American military presence in Asia. Hu Jintao had earlier complained that America is building “a wall of containment” around China, to use Kagan’s phrase. “What the Chinese find really upsetting,” he continues, “is the extent of American’s military alliances,” some fifty, whereas China has not a single ally in its region, with the exception of North Korea, as much a liability as an asset. To make American intentions at strengthening these alliances and its presence in Asia clear to Xi, Secretary Panetta timed congressional testimony detailing the expanding U.S. military presence and capabilities in Asia to coincide with the Washington visit of the future Chinese [leader].

And so China has responded with a see-and-raise maneuver that would be audacious if it weren’t so familiar:

Which suggests that American efforts to persuade China to abandon its trade practices, in any event doomed to failure, has as much to do with power as with money. China’s currency manipulation, subsidization of its SOEs and other export enhancing practices provide funds to pay for an expanded military. They also create a voracious demand for oil and other commodities, a demand that is forcing China to extend its reach to Africa and to America’s backyard, Latin America. In addition, the earnings from trade are used to make loans that add to Chinese influence. The Financial Times reports that the $75 billion China has lent to Latin America since 2005 exceed the total made available by the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and the Export-Import Bank.

Stelzer’s article is titled “Trade Is War, By Other Means.” That “by other means” is obviously the way we intend to keep it, but still: It’s a far cry from China “oppos[ing] hegemony and power politics of any kind.”

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