Editor's note: Kenneth Lieberthal is senior fellow and director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. He served as special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director for Asia on the National Security Council from August 1998 to October 2000. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book, "Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy."
By Kenneth Lieberthal - Special to CNN
Pretty much everything has changed in U.S.-China relations since Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai signed the Shanghai Communiqué 40 years ago on February 21, 1972.
Nixon's goals were purely geostrategic. By cultivating China, he sought most of all to put pressure on North Vietnam to come to terms to achieve his promised "peace with honor" there, hopefully before the November election. He also sought, through China, to pressure Moscow to embrace détente and thus put America in the catbird seat in relations with the two communist behemoths.
China had different priorities - most of all, Beijing wanted to stiffen President Nixon's spine to oppose Soviet aggression and therefore to reduce Moscow's threat to China.
In the 1980s, Beijing got its way with Ronald Reagan, who came into office as an anti-Soviet crusader. Indeed, President Reagan aligned U.S. strategic interests with China so closely that America began military sales to Beijing. But in 1989 everything changed. President George H.W. Bush, just inaugurated and planning to move U.S.-China relations to a new level, saw this goal cut short by the brutal suppression of demonstrators at Tiananmen on June 4, 1989. As China transitioned from being America's darling reforming communist country to being its poster child for communist repression, the Soviet Bloc (and soon afterward, the Soviet Union itself) unraveled.
Not only did the Soviet collapse rob U.S.-China relations of their underlying strategic rationale, post-Tiananmen repression in China introduced human rights as a major political factor in the relationship. Every American human rights organization expended much effort in the 1990s to attach China somehow to that agenda and thus increase its own visibility and emotional power.
This made it far more difficult to deal with Beijing, especially as the Chinese connected this human rights agenda directly to an American objective to bring down the Communist Party's rule. The result was deep mutual distrust.