40 years after the Sino-US thaw

Wonder what Richard Solomon would have to say about the new Cold War between China and the US

Richard Solomon playing with Chinese table tennis champion Zhuang Zedong.

On June 19, 1972, a Boeing 707 belonging to the United States Presidential fleet, touched down at Peking Airport at 7:30 pm on what a New York Times report referred to as ‘a warm bright evening’.

The flight had departed Andrews Air Force Base two days earlier in choppy weather with stops in Hawaii and the US Military base in Guam and touched down in Shanghai briefly where a Chinese pilot was picked up, presumably for navigational and security purposes.

After all, this was still during the early phases of the thaw in Sino-US relations on the heels of the historic visit of President Richard Nixon to China in February 1972. Significant distrust was still in the process of being worked out.

The Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China Ji Pengfei was on hand to receive the US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger on this day. This would be Kissinger’s fourth visit to Beijing in less than a year: his secret visit to Beijing via Pakistan took place in July 1971, followed by an officially scheduled visit in October of that year, then accompanying Richard Nixon during the President’s historic visit in February 1972.

Emerging from the aircraft that evening at Peking airport behind Kissinger was a 35-year-old National Security Council (NSC) staffer by the name of Richard H Solomon. In the annals of history of this critical period of diplomacy between the United States and China, which continues to shape events even of the 21st century, the memory of individuals like Ambassador Solomon sadly appears to recede into a distant background.

Richard Solomon died in 2017 at the age of 79. He was a central figure in a dramatis personae that helped end more than two decades of almost absolute diplomatic estrangement between China and the United States.

In the current politically charged environment, especially in the aftermath of Covid-19, it is easy to forget just how important that breakthrough in US-China relations was, and continues to be for the subsequent evolution of global history. In less than 20 years after Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to China, the Cold War effectively ended leaving the United States as the sole superpower.

This was largely due to a US strategic posture that balanced China against the former Soviet Union. Solomon noted in a 2011 interview that the “shared security threat” is what welded the two very unlikely societies together.

China’s engagement with the United States in the early 1970s, set in motion processes that would lead to China’s integration into the global economic order, and subsequently lead to unprecedented economic growth and the lifting of hundreds of millions of people from poverty.

It is actually testament to the past contribution of less well-know people such as Richard Solomon that many observers today are able to make the argument that the US-China relationship will be the most significant one of the 21st century.

What makes a person like Richard Solomon especially appealing in the broad sweep of the history of Sino-US relations (and diplomacy more generally) is that he was a scholar-practitioner par excellence, the likes of which are becoming increasingly rare today.

Moreover, his contributions are overlooked and left unacknowledged vis a vis people like Kissinger and Nixon. He was appointed to the US National Security Council in the fall of 1971 as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow.

At age 34, he arrived at the White House and ‘immediately got heavily drawn into the whole process of normalizing US relations with China’. Prior to this appointment, Solomon had already developed extensive credentials as an authority on China.

He was a student at MIT under Lucian Pye, the noted political scientist and China watcher, and had witnessed China become ‘a matter of contemporary public interest’ in the United States due to the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1958 over the Quemoy and Matsu islands and also because of the Sino-Soviet split that had already commenced in 1960. A serendipitous event in June 1961 in the office of his PhD supervisor at MIT, Lucian Pye, appears to have launched Solomon’s career irrevocably in the direction of becoming a China specialist.

As the story has it, he and Pye were sitting across the table from one another when the telephone rang. On the line was the famous American economist Walt Whitman Rostow, author of The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. Rostow was then running the Policy Planning staff in the Kennedy Administration, and told his former MIT colleague Lucian Pye that ‘intelligence information indicated that the Chinese were in the midst of a major food crisis, and he wondered if Pye knew anyone who could analyse some of the information that was beginning to emerge on how the Chinese were dealing with this food crisis’.

Pye looked across his office table and responded to Rostow: “Well, we have a young man right here who might be right for this project. I’ll get back to you.” This call set off a chain of events in the career of the young PhD student who then went on to study Chinese for the next five years at Yale, Harvard, the Taiwan National University and in Hong Kong.

His PhD work differed substantially from existing Sinology of the time which centered on ‘analysis of classical texts and heavily Confucian-oriented’. Solomon’s research was based out of Hong Kong and Taiwan where he did actual empirical interviews with ‘100 Chinese refugees from the mainland of China who represented the three existing generations: the generation who had lived most of their lives under the Qing dynasty that collapsed in 1912; those who had lived during the Warlord period; and the more recent generation who had grown up, at least in part, under the communists’.

This could not have been a better way to understand the ‘political culture’ for his PhD, the seemingly ‘simple’ notion that people from different cultures or countries think about and experience politics in radically different way. He was perhaps not so simplistic and way ahead of his times in trying to grapple with what makes Chinese politics and political practice distinct, instead of naively assuming or expecting, as one example, that there would be an automatic correlation between the opening up of its economy and the evolution of liberal western-style democracy in China.

Richard Solomon went on to write several important books such as the voluminous 600-page Mao’s Revolution and the Chinese Political Culture in September 1971 just as he started work at the NSC under Kissinger. Solomon’s substantive policy work at the NSC started out with ‘liaising or bridging over to the academic community’, essentially devising possibilities for academic and other such exchanges with China, an experience that led to what Solomon referred to as his first “operational assignment” as Nixon and Kissinger’s ‘representative in the Chinese ping-pong team’s American tour in April of 1972’.

Solomon explains that ping-pong diplomacy was one aspect of the ‘signaling’ that was taking place from Mao and Zhou Enlai and from Nixon too as early as 1967 via his Foreign Affairs article (and built upon via secret diplomatic communications that started in 1969 or even earlier) indicating that there was a serious interest for engagement in both the United States and in China.

Solomon was placed in an extraordinary position at this time, having been ‘assigned to escort the Chinese ping-pong team around [America] as the “eyes and ears” of the White House’. His primary remit was to understand as best as possible the mood and views of the Chinese ping-pong delegation.

According to Adam Bernstein of The Washington Post, here was an extremely unique personality, ‘a China scholar who assisted in the historic “ping-pong diplomacy” that led to the opening of US-Sino relations in the 1970s, who became an authority on Chinese pressure tactics during negotiations’ with Chinese officials.

In 1976, Solomon left the National Security Council to work in academia as head of the political science department RAND Corporation. Solomon himself described RAND as a ‘FFRDC—a Federally Funded Research and Development Center … that conducted about two-thirds of its work under contract to the Defense Department’.

The most important study he carried out during his time at RAND was one that was commissioned by US intelligence agencies that was expressly focused on Chinese political negotiating behaviour. Solomon explained that “that project resulted in a book-length study that was first published on a classified basis within the government and then a decade later was finally made public’.

The title of the book is Chinese Political Negotiating Behavior, 1967-1984. As it remained classified for a number of years, we can assume that it served as not only required reading material for important leaders and bureaucrats in successive US administrations, but that it moulded opinion as well.

Bhaskar Koirala is an independent analyst associated with Peking University.

The Chinese negotiation approach

Richard Solomon’s study is still available on the RAND Corporation website is summarised in the following way:

‘An assessment of the patterns and practices in the ways officials of the People's Republic of China (PRC) managed high-level political negotiations with the United States during the normalization phase of relations between the two countries. This study is designed to provide guidance for senior American officials prior to their negotiating encounters with PRC counterparts and to establish control over the documentary record of U.S.-PRC political exchanges between 1967 and 1984. A basic finding of the study is that Chinese officials conduct negotiations in a distinctive, but not unique, manner consisting of a meticulously managed progression of well-defined stages. The approach is influenced by both Western diplomatic practice and the Marxist-Leninist tradition acquired from the Soviet Union, but its most distinctive qualities are based on China's own cultural tradition and political practices.’

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