How Richard Nixon’s visit to China 50 years ago changed Sino-US relations

By and Published March 1, 2022

In 1972 Richard Nixon became the first US president to visit the People’s Republic of China. Nixon called the visit: “The week that changed the world”. Since then, phrases like, “Nixon going to China,” have become shorthand for describing surprising and uncharacteristic actions by political leaders.

1950s Hostility between China and the US

The United States believed that China was an aggressive, expansionist power that threatened the security of its noncommunist neighbours. In fact, the two nations had been enemies in conflicts. During the early 1950s, China and the US were involved in both the Vietnam war and the Korean war.

Major events in US-China relations


(some issues addressed)

China-US face-to-face meetings

Within weeks after diplomatic ties were normalised between Beijing and Washington in 1979 – China’s Deng Xiaoping, as the paramount leader of the country, made his historic state visit to the United States. Here is a look at the frequency of the US presidents and China’s leaders who have visited each other’s country.

Even though trade was not discussed much during the seven-day trip, it paved the way for the resumption of the US - China trade relationship. Albeit slowly in the first few years, the two leading economies undoubtedly made significant contributions to each other’s foreign trade.

China imports and exports from US

According to the China foreign economic statistical yearbook, China imported US$ 142.6 million of commodities from the US in 1950 and exported $US 95.5 million worth to its counterparts. After Chinese troops entered the 1950-53 Korean war to help North Korea fight US-led United Nations and South Korean forces, the US imposed a collective trade embargo in May 1951.

The US share of overall foreign trade amounted to 21 per cent of China’s GDP in 1950. However, from 1954 to 1971, the total US goods and services trade value with China dropped to 0 dollars.

US President Richard Nixon accepted an invitation from Premier Zhou Enlai to visit China for a week of talks and signed the first communique in Shanghai. China rapidly became the world’s biggest exporter and producer of industrial goods.

China didn’t attract large amounts of foreign direct investment from the US until Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour,which revived China’s commitment to reform amid isolation from the West over its 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. In 2015, Chinese companies invested more in the US than American companies in China for the first time.

The significant contexts of the establishment of formal diplomatic US-China relations in the 1970s and Deng Xiaoping’s open-up policy not only transformed the two countries in foreign trade, but also motivated the cultural exchange. The rapid growth of US adventurers travelling to China is paralleled by waves of Chinese students flocking to US universities.


Withdrawal of American forces from Taiwan began in 1973 after President Richard Nixon's diplomatic opening with the People's Republic of China

The week that changed the world

The icebreaking journey of Nixon was regarded as an opportunity to end China’s decades of diplomatic isolation. Beijing also spared no efforts to improve relations with other Western powers and neighbouring emerging economies in the 1970s. Here is a look at the year of establishment of diplomatic relations with China.

Creative Director Adolfo Arranz
Illuratration by Adolfo Arranz

Sources: China Foreign Economic Statistical Yearbook; United Nations Conference on Trade and Development; Institute of International Education; China Statistical Yearbook; A&E Television Networks; Brown University; Statistical Bulletin of Foreign Direct Investment; The Heritage Foundation; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China; The Office of the Historian

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