The Creative Ambiguity of the Shanghai Communiqué

February 27, 2017 — Today marks the 45th anniversary of the signing of the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué, the world-startling diplomatic letter that marked the beginning of the rapprochement between the People’s Republic of China and the United States. The communiqué was signed at the end of a week-long visit to China by President Richard M. Nixon, his wife Patricia, and a large entourage, including Secretary of State William Rogers and Dr. Henry S. Kissinger (who served as Secretary of State in the second, abortive Nixon administration, and also in the subsequent Ford administration).

Nixon arrives in Beijing, February 21 1972. Here he is shaking hands with Zhou En-lai.

Nixon arrives in Beijing, February 21 1972. Here he is shaking hands with Zhou En-lai.

The Nixons arrived in Beijing on February 21 and together with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai toured historic sites in the capital and Hangzhou before arriving in Shanghai on February 26. They stayed at the Xijiao State Guesthouse in Hongqiao, but the communiqué was signed in a building on the grounds of the Jinjiang Hotel, one of only a handful of hotels in the city where foreigners could stay at that time. The Jinjiang was conveniently located across the street from another state guesthouse, a stately neo-Baroque building that was until 1953 the Cercle Sportif Francais – the French Club. Even more convenient, Chinese negotiators could avail themselves of the tunnels that linked the Jinjiang and the guesthouse – part of a bomb-proof bunker installed in the 1960s to ensure the safety of top government officials in the event of a Soviet-launched nuclear attack.


The Jinjiang Complex today: the Shanghai Communique was signed in a building between Cathay Mansions (left) and Grosvenor House (right), now demolished.

Before 1949, of course, the north and south buildings of the Jinjiang Hotel had been the Sassoon-owned Cathay Mansions (1928) and Grosvenor House (1930). These magnificent structures were two of the most desirable addresses in the French Concession in the 1930s, with all the modern conveniences, the French Club (1926) right across the street, and the country’s most fashionable shopping district just steps away on Avenue Joffre (today’s Huaihai Road).

The main achievement of the communiqué was a commitment by both nations to work toward normal diplomatic relations. But it is the letter’s delicate finessing of the Taiwan issue that has enabled the bilateral relationship to develop – with ups and downs – during the past four and half decades.

Normally, diplomatic notes catalog areas of agreement. But because of the vast differences between the two countries in 1972, the parties agreed to allow each side to make separate statements within the Shanghai Communiqué. The Chinese section stated plainly that “the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government of China.” The Americans merely pronounced, “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position.”


Crafting the Shanghai Communique at the Jinjiang.

Upon the establishment of full diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979, the United States went further and recognized the PRC government as the sole legal government of China.  At the same time, it maintained its parsing of the Taiwan question by “acknowledging” the Chinese position that “there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”  Further complexity was added in the Taiwan Relations Act, effective on the same day, wherein the U.S. declared that “Whenever the application of the laws of the United States depends upon the law that is or was applicable on Taiwan or compliance therewith, the law applied by the people on Taiwan shall be considered the applicable law for that purpose.”

This “creative ambiquity” remains the foundation upon which the relationship has developed from mutual hostility to one of “multiple intimacies.” ** — Patrick Cranley

** These descriptive words were used by Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. in his address, “The Promise of Sino-American Relations,” delivered at the Jinjiang Hotel on 21 February as the 2008 Barnett-Oksenberg Lecture. Ambassador Freeman was the principal American interpreter on Nixon’s historic 1972 trip to China.

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