Key point: Without detente, Beijing would likely have remained neutral given its strained relations with Moscow. Perhaps we'll never know how much was up to great leaders vs the pressures of great power competition.
What if Nixon had never gone to China?
China’s shift of weight towards the United States had major international implications. It heightened Soviet military vulnerability, while also providing what would become an engine of global economic growth. Within China, the pivot opened space for major domestic economic reform, although the Chinese Communist Party would not take advantage of this for several years.
We think of China’s shift as an inevitability—the consequence of timeless currents associated with the balance of power. But in fact, the summit between Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon demanded bold thinking from Chinese and American policymakers, thinking that ran against decades of foreign-policy orthodoxy in both countries. Even then, the summit required careful choreography, played out across several countries.
But domestic politics in either China or the United States could have scotched the deal, at least for a time. And what if (as some in China advocated), Beijing had decided to tilt back towards the Soviet Union? Or what if (as many in the United States contended), Washington had decided to maintain its diplomatic and economic campaign against the PRC?