Changing Places: China and the United States

With a little unacknowledged help from the Vietnamese Resistance, it was none other than famed Chairman Mao Zedong who reopened China’s door to America in the early 70s. It was Mao who hosted Kissinger, and then Nixon, Mao who guided the early stages of the negotiations, and Mao who brought Deng Xiaoping back into the leadership. In those days China saw itself in the middle of a “two-line struggle” between visionary Maoism (half millenarian communism half national defense) and the road of state-organized capital investing that Deng Xiaoping was to lead China down. The two-line struggle ended with the victory of Deng and the “capitalist roaders” and a developing comity of nations with the US, including strategy, economics, and culture. Kissinger’s gambit succeeded. Opponents of the new relationship with China, such as Secretary of State William Rogers, were marginalized. On the military side, the Vietnam War, marketed domestically as a war against Chinese Communism, lost its (always dubious) rationale and began slowly winding down. These changes gave the US a stronger hand (and a partner) against Russia as well as against a number of key third world nations such as Chile, South Africa, and Vietnam. President Carter recognized China in 1979, the year China invaded Vietnam, and Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. If a sore point remained between the US and China it was Taiwan, and Ronald Reagan (and his “old right” backers) were Taiwan supporters: for them the defeat of Chiang Kai Shek and his Nationalist Party, confined to Taiwan since 1949, remained an unhealed wound from the end of WWII in 1945 to the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949.


Academic China watchers and sinologists are a cultish lot and drive a lively trade in in-jokes. One from the early 70s was that China has one Party with two lines, while the US has two parties with one line. Another was the jesting prophecy that the polarized US and China were on crossing trajectories, with China becoming more democratic and capitalist, the US becoming more like China. One interesting sign of this was the emergence of a two-line struggle within the Reagan administration over China policy, with Kissinger representing the friendship team and George Schulz (later Donald Rumsfeld) the opposing side, a struggle that continues to this day.


After Reagan took office Kissinger’s influence remained strong and his man, Al Haig, was made secretary of state. But in 1982 Reagan removed Alexander Haig and replaced him with George Schulz. The rise of the Neo-cons had begun. Men like Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney began a steady push to reverse most of Kissinger’s initiatives, and that included China policy. The moment is described by journalist James Mann: “Schulz proceeded to embrace [Paul] Wolfowitz’s views about China policy, the same ones Haig had spurned,” he writes in The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (2004). Mann continues: “The new secretary of state agreed that Washington had been overvaluing the strategic importance of China . . . and been unnecessarily weakening its bargaining position in dealing with China. Shultz began to give greater weight to relations with Japan” (p. 116).


The Neo-con line on pressuring China moved forward by fits and starts until 1989. The Tiananmen events, followed by the fall of the USSR and the first Iraq War gave US policy the opportunity to “lean forward” in Asia as well. More and better arms went to Taiwan. Trade and ideological tensions increased. The Iraq and later the Yugoslav war had an anti-Chinese dimension. Throughout the 1990s the relationship grew troubled. The Chinese took a hard line with Taiwan, and in 1996 US warships went into the area. In April 2001 the Chinese forced down an EP-3 spy plane that flew over Chinese territorial waters, the most overt and provocative sign of incipient conflict. During the earlier part of 2001, virtually down to 9/11, the pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times fairly throbbed with the drumbeat of alleged China threats to U.S. military and economic security. There has not been much variety in the ways Americans interpret these events. But to think through how many Chinese interpret them, one has to take a few steps backward into history since Chinese leaders are often more attentive to long-term historical trends than their American counterparts. Hence this study contains flashbacks to remoter times that may be less immediately familiar to American readers than to Chinese (or Asian) readers.




Many Americans and some Chinese as well, imagine that our two nations have a special relationship, one that goes back to the period of American missionary ascendancy in China in the 19th century. Americans went to China to save souls, and Chinese immigrated through San Francisco’s “golden door” to keep body and soul together. At the turn of the century the US urged rival Powers to save the failing Manchu dynastic state so that it would keep China’s “door open” to all foreign interests and would forestall Russian and Japanese encroachment. At the same time the US waged a lengthy war in the Philippines with a steady eye on developing US interests in China. In those pre-WWI days China was very much on the mind of US policy makers, but the colonial front runners were Britain and its partner since 1902, Japan.


After WWI the US leaped forward economically but remained subordinate in Asia to Britain and Japan. This situation lasted well into the 1930s, indeed beyond the Nanjing Massacre of late 1937-early 1938, a spectacular display of brutality by which the Japanese Imperial Army tried to shock and awe the Chinese capital and induce quick surrender. The Japanese blitzkrieg against civilians failed. The special relationship between the US and China was renewed only in late 1938 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt began to shift US foreign policy from its tolerance of Japanese aggression in Asia (the official phrase was “non-recognition”) toward a clearer pro-China position, supporting Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist Party (the Guomindang). This important shift soon led to war between Japan and the US in December 1941, and culminated, as the war drew to its close, with President Roosevelt’s inviting China to become one of the Four Powers, Britain and Russia being the other two. (France was still part of the Third Reich.) Thus American leaders appeared once again, as they did at the time of the Open Door Policy, to be the guardians of China’s global position. As a check both to Russia and to Japan, out of concern with China’s growing Communist movement, and with an eye on the soon-to-be-formed United Nations, FDR decided to override British objections and remake China as a major post war ally in Asia, ignoring Churchill’s fears of an independent and empowered China inspiring thoughts of independence in India and Hong Kong. In August 1945, as WWII ended in Asia, the Truman administration was determined to sustain its China partner in its unfolding civil war with the Communists.


The obstacle to US policy was the Chinese revolution. The great tsunami that had been gathering force since the mid-19th century finally discharged itself in five short years 1945-49. In October 1949 Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China with words heard round the world, “The Chinese people have stood up.” Truman and those he listened to had misread the situation, ignoring the wiser heads like China hands John Service and Owen Lattimore who had warned him not to cling to the corrupt Nationalists but rather to work out a relationship with the Communists. Thus Truman ended up on the losing, and the wrong side of the civil war. The Americans were very sore losers. Relishing their schadenfreude, the British recognized the new government; so did India. But Truman did not offer recognition, and for the next two decades Sino-US relations plunged into a hostile stand-off that spent itself in proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam. By the late sixties the failure of the effort to conquer Vietnam (which was largely justified as “containing” China) compelled the US to change course. Contained (instead) by the Vietnamese and forced to withdraw forces, Nixon and Kissinger negotiated the breakthrough with China.


One of the most influential supporters of the Kissinger line has been Zbigniew Brzezinski, a national security adviser to former president Carter. His positions on China questions are based on calculations of interest and without sentiment. In his Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the 21st Century, published in 1993, he saw the emergence of China as a fourth center of economic power, joining the U.S., Europe, and Japan. He urged U.S. leaders to accommodate a rapidly developing China and include it in the Western “club.” “That,” Brzezinski says, “will require not only a positive and cooperative Western response which in fact would almost certainly be forthcoming but also a Western recognition that China will still symbolize, and in part represent, the aspirations of the poorer portions of mankind” (p.199-200). Otherwise, he writes, “China could aspire to leadership of a global revolt of the masses” (p.197). Despite its concessions to the hegemonic West, China has reserved its “third world card.” China’s recent negotiations with Iran, Venezuela, and a number of African nations confirm Brzezinski’s anxiety, although these moves come more under the aegis of economics (than politics) in command. China’s energy-oriented relationships with Russia and India are a part of the same drive toward multi-polarity, which is the Chinese counter to US unilateralism.


A contrasting work in the Neo-con vein is The Coming Conflict in China by Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro, published in 1997. A few lines from the Introduction suggest the book’s bent: “Even without actual war, the rivalry between China and the United States will be the major global rivalry in the first decades of the twenty-first century” (p.4). And, “Growing Chinese economic and military strength, linked to the nation’s ambitions and to its xenophobic impulses, are making it more rather than less aggressive” (p. 11). The authors, as their title says, hold little hope for US-China rapprochement and their provocative language seems almost spoiling for trouble.


The strengthening Neo-con line on China changed after 9/11. With American leaders focused on a new enemy, they swiftly moved China to the back burner and lowered the light. The U.S. accordingly curtailed its support for Tibetan independence and Islamic secessionists in Western China and an interval of uneasy Sino-American cooperation began. The ensuing Iraq War offered further respite to the Chinese. Much as Rumsfeld and the Neo-cons would like to resume earlier initiatives and increase the pressures on China, the failing U.S. project to remake and dominate Iraq has devoured the moral and material resources of the State and forestalled until further notice any military conflict with China. This situation has strengthened Rumsfeld’s opposite number, Henry Kissinger. Nevertheless, the two-line struggle goes on. A number of the dueling strategists entered the lists with competing positions in June 2005.


From the June 6, 2005 edition of the Wall Street Journal:


“SINGAPORE — Critical comments by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld regarding China’s growing military capabilities are raising fears among East Asian countries that they could become ensnared in a new period of strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing. . . . [Many East Asian] leaders also are quick to caution the Bush administration against being overly confrontational toward Beijing on trade and security. This approach could divide Asia into competing camps and undermine its prospects for cooperation and growth, they say.”


A week later, Henry Kissinger, advocating strategic accord with China, wrote in the Washington Post (June 13, 2005), “As a new century begins, the relations between China and the United States may well determine whether our children will live in turmoil . . . or will witness a new world order compatible with . . . peace and progress.” His Washington Post article also says, “The American interest in cooperative relations with China is for the pursuit of a stable international system. . . . Preemption is not a feasible policy toward a country of China’s magnitude. It cannot be in our interest to have new generations in China grow up with a perception of a permanently and inherently hostile United States.”


The constant axis in the ups and downs of US China relations has always been Taiwan. It is an issue that has driven all others for half a century. In 1999 the Neo-cons issued a joint public statement that “called for an end to America’s policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ toward Taiwan” and “called upon the United States to ‘declare unambiguously that it will come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an attack or a blockade against Taiwan” (Mann, 243). Ambiguous rhetoric aside, this was the actual policy all along, and the Chinese knew it. The real change lies only in going public at a high policy level, a move that sends a guideline message to domestic U.S. opinion-makers and in addition gives the Chinese a good public slap. The subsequent attacks on Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq all included a strong and intended signal to the Chinese. Moreover, extensive US basing in central Asia has prompted the Chinese to explore alliances with Russia, Iran, and to an extent India, a development that Brzezinski had predicted if the US did not bring China into the “club.”


In its June 2005 issue The Atlantic Monthly featured two articles, one in a Neo-con and one in the Kissinger mode. The lead article, by Robert D. Kaplan, an advocate of US imperial expansion, is called “How We Would Fight China: The Next Cold War.” The cover illustration shows a sinister almost feral-looking young Chinese sailor enlarged in the foreground; behind him a jaunty row of white-clad Chinese naval officers. It may not be racist, but the visual message borders on the racial. The article summary reads: “The Middle East is just a blip. The American military contest with China in the Pacific will define the twenty-first century. And China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia ever was.” The author then proceeds to float various militaristic scenarios, mostly involving naval and/or nuclear conflict. The focus is the Pacific as a war theatre, and the roles of Japan, Taiwan, and Korea.


Kaplan’s article is balanced by a shorter secondary piece in the same issue called “Managing China’s Rise,” by Benjamin Schwartz. The article summary reads: “Far from discouraging the rise of China and other powers Washington should recognize the significant benefits that can result.” Thus, the Atlantic issue embraces the two approaches, though not evenly: the tentative and timidly argued Schwartz article has second billing.


One big problem with the Atlantic Monthly‘s lead article is the title, “How We Would Fight China.” From the viewpoint of many Chinese (but only a few Americans) the question is not how we would fight China, but how we have been fighting China for the past 60 (or 160 years). Again, it’s worth trying to understand how a Chinese reader might react to the title of Kaplan’s article by elaborating on some of the historical points with which this essay begins.




The roots of conflict between China and the US can be traced back to the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, in which the U.S. seconded England in using armed force to press the criminal trade on China and to secure for themselves other “legal” and property “rights,” i.e. unfair economic advantages in trade relations, judicial authority over incidents and conflicts in China, and special privileges for Christian activists. It would take a whole course to cover the century in Asia from 1842 (the year that the Treaty of Nanking ended the first Opium War) to December 7, 1941.


If we stick to the shorter time line of our own era, starting with the end of WWII, we find the U.S. at war in China once again. Within moments after the Japanese had surrendered in August 1945 the Truman administration thrust itself into China’s civil war. While ostensibly trying to broker a peace between the two sides, and a post war government for China, the U.S. was in fact weighing in with money and weapons on the Nationalist side. By doing so Truman prolonged the civil war, thus causing a four-year extension of the suffering that the Chinese endured during their Resistance War against Japan (the official name of WWII in China).


After the Chinese Communists came to power in 1949 Truman had the opportunity to change course and work out a Kissinger-like modus vivendi with them. Most American analysts have convinced themselves that China’s Cold War isolation was China’s choice. The facts do not support this reading of the historical moment. The British and the Indian governments managed to recognize the new Chinese government without undue Chinese obstruction. The Truman administration, however, never offered recognition with a view toward normalizing relations. No one can know therefore how the new Chinese leadership might have responded to an offer of recognition, or how they might have negotiated after that formal step. Instead of creatively exploring diplomatic options, the US leadership pursued a war process, including embargo, sabotage, raids, over flights, and nuclear threats. The Korean and Vietnam wars expanded this process into proxy wars against China. In the end, as noted above, the policy failure in Vietnam compelled the US leadership to abandon the policy of regime change in China. And so it might be said that World War II in Asia came to an end in April 1975, with the Americans finally liberating Vietnam (by leaving it), having made at long last the rational choice of working out a business-like relationship with the People’s Republic of China.


Thirty years have now passed. The US is beset by multiple crises of its own making, in the Middle East, in Central Asia, and in East Asia. As US moral credibility wanes in the first decade of the 21st century, more than one thoughtful observer has begun to wonder if China may be the country destined to succeed the US in a world leadership role. Such a solution to the current complex of crises has been suggested in a low-profile piece in Daedalus (Summer 2004) by the directors of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, John Steinbruner and Nancy Gallagher. The article, “Constructive transformation: an alternative vision of global security,” draws upon a longer on line high-level think piece, by the same two authors, called “Prospects for Security Transformation” (March 2004).


The authors’ concern is that US unilateralism may prove self-destructive. In discussing “transformation” a term used by the US military to discuss quantum leaps in strategies and weapons, they write, “The possibility that the security of the United States ultimately depends on the security of everyone else is essentially ignored. Such a thought is said to be unrealistic.” The authors’ anxiety about the limits of such thinking has prompted them to speculate about who might take the lead in organizing an international response to correct for the American advantage, or rather the unilateral use of that advantage in destructive ways. They write, “The idea would have to be put into circulation in engaging detail if security policy is to be meaningfully affected, and that would require official advocates who are forceful, consequential, and adroit enough to command global attention. By virtue both of incentive and apparent inclination, China would be the most plausible source of such an initiative, but it is not reasonable to impose the burden of global leadership entirely on China. It is more reasonable to imagine a productive collaboration between China and the members of the EU and the OSCE. The basic principles of constructive collaboration for mutual protection have been most significantly developed in Europe over the course of the cold war and thereafter. It is that legacy, adapted by China and extended to Asia, that offers the most promising prospect for improving security through a process of constructive transformation” (Daedalus, summer 2004; italics added).


The underpinning for such a seismic shift in international power balances may have already been laid down. The Sydney Morning Herald for September 13, 2005 says:


“Suddenly, China seems to be holding the levers of the world economy. With foreign reserves of $US711 billion . . . , it holds nearly $US500 billion in US treasury bonds and other American securities. It is one of the leaders among the Asian industrial countries that keep the US housing and consumer boom going by providing the US Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, with the liquidity for his soft-interest rate policy. A switch of Chinese foreign reserves to euros or yen — or a big revaluation of its yuan to encourage domestic spending — could force up US interest rates, bring the spending party to an end, and scupper the Republican Party’s chances of staying in the White House after 2008.


“General Motors is making 40 per cent of its worldwide profits in China, while it and other US firms have put $US42 billion into factories and other investments there so far this decade. Entire corporate boards of global giant companies ranging from Time Warner to BHP Billiton have been touring China to survey opportunities.”


Similar thoughts have been cropping up in European and American accounts of China’s economic development and strategic potential. The cunning of history might have amused even the old owl himself, Georg Hegel. The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal for September 15, 2005 carried an essay called “Revolutionary China, Complacent America.” The authors, Charlene Barshefsky and Edward Gresser, pushing back against the Neo-cons and the recent fiasco of Hu Jintao’s non-state visit, advise US leaders to react creatively to the rapid growth of Chinese power in Asia and the world. In a prophetic analogy the authors refer to China’s long-departed Manchu dynastic house, which was overthrown by the Republican Revolution of 1911: “No country leads the world by divine right. China itself provides a sobering lesson. . . . [The Qing emperors] considered their status natural and eternal . . . [but] in just a few decades China’s leaders were discredited and its vassal states fell away.” The article ends, “Our competition has gotten tougher, and we need to match it. Two hundred years ago the Chinese emperors failed. America must act now to succeed.”


The authors’ prescription is for renewed US economic effort. If the US rulers decide, however, that peaceful co-existence and economic competition, the rule of the marketplace, is no longer working well enough for American business interests, the resort to colonial war, the option of choice in the so-called Cold War era, should be expected. Alternatively, the Iraq war may prove in the longer stretch of history to have been a kind of lightning rod that grounded the US war drive and thus spared much of the rest of the world from being incorporated into the Neo-cons’ “New American Century” dreamworld project. The Wall Street Journal article cited above implicitly affirms Kissinger’s angry warning to the Neo-cons: “Preemption is not a feasible policy toward a country of China’s magnitude.”



Moss Roberts is professor of Chinese at New York University. He has translated classic works of philosophy and literature. Among his political critiques are: “Contra Ideocracy” (Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars), “Bad Karma in Asia” (in Learning Places, ed. Miyoshi and Harootunian), and “We Threaten the World” (in Ross and Ross, Anti-Americanism).

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