Vietnam was the great failure, and China the great success, of Nixon's diplomacy. He recognized the advantages that could accrue to the United States by exploiting the Sino-Soviet rift. Peking might put pressure on Hanoi to settle the Vietnam War, while American-Soviet relations might also be affected if Americans and Chinese achieved a détente. During his bid for the presidency Nixon argued, in an article published in the journal Foreign Affairs (October 1967), that "we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates, and threaten its neighbors. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation." These comments were surprising, coming from a politician who had made a career of attacking as "soft on Communism" any American political leader who dared to suggest similar ideas.
Hostilities broke out in March 1969 between Soviet and Chinese troops along the Ussuri River, giving Nixon his chance to pursue a diplomatic opening. The first step, recommended by the National Security Council (NSC) and the State Department, was to lift travel and trade restrictions. Then, on visits to President Yahya Khan of Pakistan and General Secretary Nicolae Ceauşescu of Romania, Nixon hinted that he would like better relations with China. By 1970, Walter Stoessel, the American ambassador to Poland, was meeting with Chinese diplomats in Warsaw. In April 1971, signs of a thaw between the two powers became public knowledge, as an American table-tennis team was invited to play in China and was received by Premier Chou En-lai. Later a Chinese team was sent to the United States as part of this "Ping-Pong diplomacy." By the end of April the Chinese indicated privately they would receive a high-ranking emissary from Washington, and Nixon decided to send Henry Kissinger in secret to make arrangements for a summit meeting. On 2 August, Secretary of State Rogers said that the United States would withdraw its opposition to the seating of Communist China in the United Nations, which occurred in October 1971; but the United States resisted the expulsion of Taiwan unsuccessfully. During the summer Nixon announced that he would visit China early in 1972, and Kissinger was then sent to Beijing for another trip. Kissinger and Chou negotiated the outline of a statement dealing with the outstanding issues dividing the two nations.
Nixon's visit to China, which began 21 February 1972, was a field day for the news media. The Chinese permitted American television crews to set up modern studio and transmitting facilities. For ten days the world press followed Nixon as he spoke with Chinese leaders and toured the country. Meanwhile, Kissinger and Deputy Foreign Minister Chiao Kuan-hua continued work on the statement that was to be issued by the two sides at the conclusion of the visit.
The final document, known as the Shanghai Communiqué, summarized points on which the two nations could agree. One point was that there was only one China and that Taiwan was part of China. Another was that the Taiwan issue must be settled peacefully by the Chinese. A third was that the United States was committed to "the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan" in the context of a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue.
Each of these points contained some ambiguity. The communiqué did not mention which government, the Communist one on the mainland or the Nationalist one on Taiwan, was the legitimate government of "one China." Neither did it mention American treaty commitments to the government on Taiwan. It did not specify a timetable for withdrawal of American forces from Taiwan but only committed the United States to the objective of withdrawal and linked it to a peaceful settlement. Nevertheless, the agreement was the beginning of a new era in Sino-American relations. Trade, tourism and cultural contacts increased.
The new relationship did little to help American diplomacy in other matters. The Chinese were unwilling or unable to bring pressure to bear on Hanoi. The China opening may have convinced the Soviets to negotiate an arms agreement, but it is more likely that it convinced them that a plot to encircle them could be countered only by a massive military buildup. Soviet shifting of forces to the East did bring about an advantage to the allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for a brief time until the effects of the Soviet buildup in conventional arms were felt.