A History of Sino-American Relations

by | Nov 28, 2023

A History of Sino-American Relations

by | Nov 28, 2023

depositphotos 481303980 s

The following lecture was delivered at Spring Arbor University, October 2023.

There is hardly anything more important to the future of the world than Sino-American relations. And that’s quite a thing to say when looking at the state of the world these days. But over the long-haul these, the two largest economies, militaries, and navies on earth must find some way to coexist, or else there is going to be trouble for everyone. The aim of this talk is to outline the course of Sino-American relations.

As I presume most everyone here is generally familiar with the history of the United States, my talk will follow Chinese history and I will be introducing the relevant intersections between the U.S. and China as we go along. The United States being less than three hundred years old, and the first recorded ruling dynasties of China dating back to the second millennia BCE, I will be beginning my narrative of Chinese history rather abruptly, and quite late. Fascinating though its antecedents are, considerations of the time allotted to us today demand that we start with the last of the several foreign dynasties that ruled the area we associate today with the Chinese state. This was the ethnically Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). These were the descendants of an earlier northern “barbarian,” that is non-Han Chinese, people who had conquered northeast China in the early twelfth century, establishing the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), which was subsequently destroyed by the Mongol Yuan Dynasty a hundred odd years later (1271-1368).

Like their conquering predecessors, the Manchus had been effectively Sinicized. That is, in a manner not dissimilar to the case of the Normans of Europe during the Middle Ages, the ruling Manchus merged with and in important ways adopted Han Chinese culture, Confucianism, Taoism and Legalism. There were pragmatic reasons for this, and the reasons are in some ways central to the story of China in the nineteenth century, when it had its first sustained conflict with the newly industrialized states of Western Europe and the United States. You see, China is very large, the terrain is very challenging, and then as now it was extraordinarily populous. The Confucian bureaucratic elites and the existing governing structures were critical to anyone who wanted to effectively govern China, and prevent it from disintegrating into warring states, which happened at several points during Chinese history, most recently in the early twentieth century.

Marshalling the considerable resources of the Chinese state, scholars estimate that at the time China accounted for fully forty percent of global output, the Qing thereafter brought the Chinese Empire to its greatest territorial extent, adding new territories in central Asia, such as the province of Xinjiang and in the adjoining seas, such as Formosa, that is Taiwan. The centrifugal forces that would fatally weaken, undermine, and ultimately destroy the Qing dynasty were already at work, however, and these are what you see up on the screen here.

Obviously, any one of these problems is going to pose a severe challenge to any regime. Population growth strained the capacity of China’s non-industrialized agricultural sector at the same time a series of severe weather events put additional stresses on the ability of Chinese society to feed itself. Economically, local elites dominated markets that were in theory unified internally and without barriers. However, these markets were relatively limited by the vast distances involved and by the low level of urbanization and industrialization that had occurred. With regards to corruption, the problem was two-fold: on the one hand you had local elites who were resistant to obeying the central government, who were willing, for example, to let the British and Americans run opium into China in exchange for a cut of the action; while on the other hand, you have the more basic kinds of corruption like preferential treatment, bribery, et cetera. As for foreign interventions and rebellions, we’ll have plenty to say about those on the next slide.

Though internally there was relatively free movement of goods, as well as networks of finance, outwardly it was protectionist and, by the standards of the time, heavily bureaucratized. This hadn’t really mattered because for centuries there had been little the few visiting Europeans had to offer that the Chinese wanted, or that the Chinese government had wanted them to have. That last is, of course, a reference to opium. Because there was one thing the primarily British, but also American, sailors were increasingly bringing that millions of Chinese increasingly wanted and that was opium. Poppies were being run from India and later the Ottoman empire, processed into opium on a couple of offshore locations, and then smuggled into the country. This was as lucrative for the British East India Company and other traders as it was destructive to Chinese society, and so the British government was loath to put a stop to the flow when asked by the Qing. When diplomacy failed to stop the incoming opium, the Qing administration under the Emperor Daoguang took steps to try and block off and interrupt the illicit trade—going so far as to destroy British owned stocks of opium in Canton, at that time the only trading outpost open to the Europeans. A little pressure by the East India Company in London, and with that the First Opium War had begun.

Like the Second Opium War, which as you can see was fought just over a decade after the conclusion of the First, and was primarily concerned with enforcing the terms of the treaty of Nanjing, the military operations of the western powers concerned were primarily naval. That is, they primarily involved the blockading and shelling of ports. As for their aims, the wars were concerned with the expansion of the Europeans, and Americans’, privileges in China: these were things like extraterritoriality, the rights of citizens of, say, Great Britain, to not be subjected to Chinese authorities but rather to locally based British ones. The cession of so-called Treaty Ports, additional enclaves for foreign traders to do business, Shanghai perhaps being the most significant. And, lastly, the rights of Christian missionaries operating in China were protected. I’ll have more to say on Christianity in China later.

So as we can see from the conditions imposed on the Qing by the Europeans in the various treaties we see listed on the slide, neither the Opium Wars, nor any of the subsequent interventions we’re going to talk about by the European powers or the United States in China, had as their goal replacing the existing Chinese imperial system. In fact, several of the most important interventions in China by the other powers were operations conducted in order to protect the Qing from domestic opponents to its regime. Why did they do this? Well, essentially for the same reason conquering invaders like the Manchu or Mongols had allowed themselves to be incorporated into existing structures. The Europeans couldn’t possibly have occupied China, and after the experience of India few, particularly in England, at this point by far the strongest power, wanted to try. Leading intellectuals and politicians, people like William Cobden, believed colonizing India had been a mistake, and they wanted the British presence in China to be all the benefits of commerce with none of the expense and baggage of direct rule. However, as one might expect, the increasing presence and domination of China by foreigners led to backlash against the Qing regime the Imperial powers were seeking to prop up. One of the many ironies of empire we see repeated over and over throughout history.

Now I want to emphasize that even prior to the arrival of the Europeans in force, the Qing had already faced at least two serious rebellions. Remember, these were outsiders who weren’t entirely beloved by the Han, especially for things like the way they were forced to wear their hair, that is the shaved front of the scalp with the long braid. But the destabilizing effects of losing multiple wars helped spark a virtual rolling tide of rebellions during the second half of the nineteenth century. The most important of these were the Taiping (1850-64) and Boxer (1899-1901) Rebellions, both of which required varying amounts of Western intervention to put down in order to keep the Qing regime in place. Now, unfortunately we don’t have time to go into these in any depth, but since we were just speaking about the ironies of empire—in the first case you have the Europeans helping suppress a native Christian uprising; while in the second, the Manchu Qing are quietly encouraging what are essentially Han Chinese Nationalists to rise up against their regime in an effort to in that way somehow throw off the European powers.

The events surrounding the Opium Wars kick off what is referred to by the Chinese as their “century of humiliation.” Now, some of what we see up on the slide takes us beyond the narrative we’ve already covered, things like the Second-Sino Japanese War or the Betrayal at Versailles. And we will talk about both of those things; but I just wanted you to be able to see the whole litany of events that constitute China’s “century of humiliation” listed all together, to get a sense of the blow after blow China took. Really, it is somewhat remarkable that China survived more or less in one piece, as we’ll see. And the “century of humiliation” at the hands of the Western powers and the Japanese remains very relevant in Chinese propaganda today.

So as we talk more about China’s “century of humiliation,” one thing that needs understanding is that the Qing Imperial Court essentially invited in the Russians and Germans and the French to compete with the Americans and English in order to try and play the powers off one another, trusting that they couldn’t agree on how to divide up China among themselves, hoping they would fight each other over it and that eventually these foreign barbarians would leave. You have to think, Chinese history is very long: I mean, the Han dynasty was founded in the 200s BCE. Barbarians come and go, the thinking went. But, unfortunately for the Qing strategists at the Imperial court, this was not what happened. Because by granting most favored nation status to each of the powers, each successive privilege negotiated away would then be demanded by all the rest of the powers. Meanwhile, Russia, France, Japan, and Germany all took turns picking away pieces of China—all of Manchuria in the case of Russia, the tributary kingdoms of Vietnam and Korea respectively in the cases of the French and Japanese, while even the lately formed German empire got in on the action seizing a port for itself in the 1890s. And when we look at the pair of maps on the slide, which hopefully you can all see ok, illustrate precisely what we’ve just been talking about. Now, it isn’t just that opium, Christian missionaries, and foreign traders are flooding in, as had been the case from the 1830s-1850s, now China is losing its influence in key areas, even losing vast stretches of territory. In the case of places like Macau and Hong Kong, they wouldn’t be returned to Chinese sovereignty until the 1990s.

America officially protested. However, it demanded an Open Door, when it came to China: that is to say no American could be denied the same treatment of any citizen, missionary, or trader of one of the conquering European powers. Washington also sent forces to fight on the side of the Europeans in the Second Opium War, seeing action at the battles of the Taku and Island Forts. It also sent punitive expeditions to Formosa, Taiwan, in 1867 and to Korea in 1871. And while these weren’t directly leveled against Chinese people, that is they were directly fighting the native Paiwan and Koreans respectively, these were both areas extremely sensitive to China, a technical province in the case of Taiwan and one of its long-time tributary kingdoms in the case of Korea. On top of all this were things happening in the United States itself which served to further alienate Chinese opinion. These included what came to be regular incidents of anti-Chinese violence in the United States beginning in the 1860s and ‘70s, which culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It was renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1902. It remained in place until 1943, and as you can imagine it is the type of policy that makes you unpopular to the people in question. In fact, after it was made permanent a boycott movement erupted in China in 1905, coinciding with well-documented outbreaks of violence and discrimination against the Chinese in the United States, most prominently in San Francisco and Boston.

With the Qing government effectively unable to stand up for its citizens rights at home or abroad, and being challenged internally by a resistant commercial class, increasingly empowered military governors, and secret underground republican movements, it is hardly surprising to find the last Imperial dynasty finally being consumed by revolution in 1911. For any interested vexillologists, I have up on the slide the banner of the Qing dynasty and both flags of the Republic of China, the short lived multicolored iteration as well as the more famous blue and red one still used by the Taiwanese today. Now, the fledgling Chinese Republic that emerged, however, still faced many of the same problems as that of the Qing. China was an under-developed, multi-ethnic stew; it was surrounded by enemies, and several potentially rebellious Chinese generals were also in the mix. Almost immediately, then, the new government is challenged by Imperial Japan. As we saw on the last slide, Tokyo laid down a series of humiliating demands that the Chinese republican government had to accept or else face the prospect of a totally hopeless war. It wasn’t long and those Chinese generals we just mentioned did in fact revolt against the central government, each becoming in effect the rulers of their own little competing kingdoms: so began the so-called “Warlord Era.”

Now, in the intervening years the Republican government, first under Sun Yat-sen and then under his successors, were trying to do all they could to get western assistance, and specifically American assistance. Because you see, despite America being far from innocent, Washington had always officially objected to what the other European powers were doing in China; and, further, Washington had recently returned its share of the large indemnity the imperial powers had extracted from the Qing court following the suppression of the Boxer uprising of 1900. So while the United States was maybe considered only the best of a bad lot, it was still considered the best. And when Woodrow Wilson came onto the world scene talking about the rights of all peoples to self-determination, America briefly became something of a darling in China. A quick succession of Chinese Republican leaders agree to send many thousands of Chinese laborers to Europe to help man the factories and do other manual work in order to assist the allied powers in defeating Germany in World War One. Critically, however, this was done on the understanding that in exchange for this service the pieces of China occupied by the German Empire, such as Kiautschou Bay, would be returned to China. On top of this, the Chinese negotiators believed that a number of other arrangements the Chinese didn’t like would be on the table for discussion as well, things like China regaining the right to collect its own taxes on the trade going in and out of the country, which it had lost decades prior to the Europeans.

Instead, none of this happened. You see, Woodrow Wilson didn’t want to upset the Japanese because he feared they then wouldn’t join his new League of Nations. And so rather than pressuring the Japanese to vacate the German holdings in China Tokyo had occupied in its minor contribution to the allied war effort, Wilson gave those parts of China to Japan. Now remember this is just a few years after those demeaning demands Japan had made, and those just a couple decades after the Sino-Japanese War that had effectively cost China Korea and Taiwan. So this was extremely unpopular. In fact many draw a straight line from this betrayal, as well as the simultaneous Soviet Union renunciation of all of Imperial Russia’s former privileges in China, to the May 4 movement and the rise of communism in China. While this almost certainly overstates things, if however slightly, it did not help that at this time Washington under the Warren G. Harding administration elected to recognize a series of those warlords we talked about previously, who in a series of battles were taking turns occupying Beijing. This caused the Chinese Republicans to turn to the USSR for support.

Very quickly, I just want to introduce a few key figures. Together these three men played a significant role in determining the outcomes we see today, both on the mainland and on Taiwan. On the left is Sun Yat-sen, a doctor, philosopher, and republican. He is a central figure in the underground revolutionary movements in China, however he spends much of his time abroad, essentially in exile. This included time spent in the United States; in fact, he was in the United States, on a train passing through Colorado, when he heard the news in 1911 that the Qing dynasty had fallen. He returns to China and does briefly assume the role of president. However, despite his prestige Sun has no military or economic power, nor any broad constituency or apparatus for executing his vision for China and this led to his ultimately passing power to a military authority; for, as we talked about on the last slide, China was in real danger of completely coming apart. During his time out of power Sun formed the Guomindang or Kuomintang or KMT, the political party that today shares in the rule of Taiwan, and which under the leadership of the next man we’re going to talk about, would be the ruling party of the Chinese Republic. Before moving on to talking about Chang Kai-shek, however, we should note that it was Sun Yat-sen who initially brokered an agreement between the KMT and the newly emergent Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to work together to defeat the half-dozen military juntas ruling different parts of China. This is part of a broader effort by Sun during the last years of his life to bring together the disparate factions in China and thereby to unify the country.

After Sun died in 1925, leadership of the KMT eventually passed to the second man on our slide, Chang Kai-shek; Chang was one of Sun’s lieutenants; in fact, when Sun was denied aid by the American government in the 1920s and a mission was sent to the Soviet Union to seek assistance it was Chang who led the delegation to Moscow. While Chang succeeded in securing military and economic assistance from Moscow, Chang neither liked nor trusted the CCP with whom he was now working to defeat the warlords. And after having unified a significant portion of the country, particularly in the south and east, in 1927 Chang turned on the CCP in a violent purge. We’ll go into that more on the next slide in the broader context of the essentially two decade long civil war fought for control over China. But for now, suffice it to say that but for one brief respite, Chang and the KMT would be in conflict with the CCP until finally driven off the mainland in 1949. Now, even though Chang had effectively cemented his and the KMT’s control over China, the challenges they faced were enormous. And what efforts the KMT made to try and stabilize and develop the country were constantly being foiled—most principally by the Japanese Empire, which would invade a few years later, in 1931 and then in full-force in 1937, the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War we’ll be talking more about. But, again, for now let’s just note that when the KMT and CCP resume fighting following the defeat of Japan in 1945, the KMT are forced to retreat all the way to Formosa, which from here on out I’ll simply be referring to as Taiwan. The island, eighty miles off the coast of China, was then ruled by Chiang and the KMT as a military dictatorship under effective U.S. protection. To the end of his life, in the early 1970s, Chiang insisted that his was the legitimate government of China. And up until at least the mid-1960s there are records of his asking for and consideration in Washington having been given, for help waging a campaign in order to dislodge the communists in Beijing.

Which brings us to the last man on our slide, no pun intended for any of you Marxists out there, Mao Zedong. He was a student during the revolution; a huge reader, he spent a lot of time during the late 1910s drinking in the classical texts of western liberalism and experimenting with different ideas. By the early 1920s he has experience in secret underground societies and the rudiments of revolutionary activities, organizing, et cetera; and it is at this point that he has fallen in with the Chinese communists. He was a central early member of the Chinese Communist Party, heading one of the branches. He had some peculiar ideas, such as the revolutionary potential of the peasantry, which orthodox Marxists found ridiculous. He also embraced collaboration with the bourgeois revolutionary forces represented by the KMT, at least whenever they were willing to collaborate with him. In fact he even held positions in the KMT in the mid-1920s before Chiang’s purge. Unlike many of his early, and frankly, rival comrades, like Li Lisan, one of Mao’s primary focuses was on maintaining an independent armed force. And it is this core of several thousand men and women that formed the future People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Mao was deeply nationalist, but at the same time he was totally averse to anything he judged backward, or which made China weaker, even when those things were aspects of Chinese culture itself. This is one of the interesting differences one sees today in Chinese state propaganda, is its emphasis on China’s thousands of years of history and its traditions: Mao waged aggressive cultural wars against traditionalism, as he saw it. To him, it was all part of teaching China and the Chinese to “Stand up,” as he put it, after a century of humiliations at the hands of the western powers and Japan. Mao successfully navigates both Chiang and the Japanese, and he emerges at the end of World War Two clearly the strongest force in China. Americans present as part of the 1944 Dixie Mission to China attest to that. He’s being helped by the Soviets, and will continue to be assisted by the Soviets all the way through the 1950s, even after Stalin’s death. Mao attempts to radically transform Chinese Society by way of a series of Five Year Plans, and he initiates the so-called “great leap forward,” a series of forced agricultural and economic measures that result in millions of Chinese starving to death. In response to criticism by more conservative party members like Deng Xiaoping, Mao launched the cultural revolution in order to effectively decapitate opposition to his continued rule. His deteriorating situation domestically, as well as his increasingly fraught relations with Moscow and the Vietnamese, result in Mao approving of an attempt to reach out to Washington. He died in 1976: just four years after Nixon’s visit and three years prior to the normalization of relations between Washington and Beijing, which we’ll talk about here shortly.

Okay, so with that background in mind, on the first column of the next slide we have the Warlords era, which we talked about – the dividing up of the new Chinese Republic during the late 1910s and 20s by what were effectively feuding military dictatorships. In response you have the United Front and Northern Expedition, this was the unification of the KMT and CCP; who, with the help of Soviet arms and money, began effectively retaking control of the country. That being practically accomplished, that first column concludes with the betrayal and murder of many of the communists in 1927-28, the so-called “Canton Coup” and Shanghai Massacre. In the second column, 1928-45, we see reunification of most of China under the KMT; the CCP responded by launching a guerilla campaign, which resulted in their being forced to retreat, the so-called “long March”—that was in 1934. And just a few years later, 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese War began. And this horrifying eight year war quietly humming along in the background of world war two resulted in the deaths of somewhere close to 20 million people.

Now, this third column, I want to just pick up the story with the onset of the Second-Sino Japanese War and World War Two because the United States, though it sympathized with China and viewed Japan as a threat, it didn’t want to fight Japan on China’s behalf. And, indeed, though it would eventually in the late 1930s and early 1940s, begin sending aid and advisors to China, Washington’s support was far from whole-hearted. It was a distant third priority behind Europe and the island hopping campaign in the Pacific. Washington did send missions, like the Dixie and Marshall missions, but their reports of the situation were largely negative. Marshall, who is there after the end of the war against Japan, tries to push for the creation of a unity government of the KMT and CCP. This of course failed and the Civil War resumed. But when it did it was quickly won by the communists. There are a number of reasons for this, the principle two being that Chiang’s government was unpopular, ineffective, and corrupt, and the CCP had been receiving a steady supply of arms and funds from the Soviet Union. Mao and his forces sweep south, and the Americans watch as Chiang gets all of his army that he can across the strait to the islands of Taiwan.

And now, before we move on to the fourth column, which as you can see is headed by the Korean War, which I expect most of you already know a good deal about, I want to introduce you to something far less well-known and which isn’t on the slide. This is the so-called China White Paper issued by the U.S. State Department in 1949, the year of the CCP’s victory of the KMT on the Chinese mainland. In it, Secretary of State Dean Acheson and his team outlined why they felt that despite U.S. help the KMT was always going to fall to the CCP for the reasons already outlined, and why in their opinion a communist victory was not necessarily bad for U.S. interests. In fact, Acheson very perceptibly argued that the new regime in Beijing would be effectively nationalist and much like the Yugoslav Communist ruler Josep Broz Tito prove to be a thorn in the side of the USSR rather than some pliant proxy. Korea changes that, however. With Stalin’s encouragement the Korean communists controlling the northern half of the Peninsula attacked the south in response to shelling and sorties against them by the south which had been taking place in the several months prior. The U.S. intervenes, just keeping the communists out of Seoul; it drives them back across the dividing 39th parallel and the general in charge, MacArthur orders the forces under his command to pursue and drive them to the Yalu River—the border between Korea and China despite intelligence coming in that hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops sent by Mao were preparing to come pouring across to fight them. Of course, they do; they push the Americans back, my grandfather among them; and after a bloody couple of years, millions dead, the war essentially ends back where it started – and of course the situation of an armed truce continues to this day.

Now, some historians argue that the entire debacle in Korea resulted from Acheson omitting Korea from a list of protected U.S. allies in east Asia during a public address he made. And while it is unclear precisely how much that played into the decision, it seems likely that it was a factor—and so in order to deter any other potential misunderstandings both Truman and then Eisenhauer make big shows of force across the Taiwan strait to deter what appears to be a looming threat by the CCP to invade across the 80 or so miles of water separating Taiwan from the mainland to finish off the KMT holed up on Taiwan. This resulted in a pair of war scares, in 1954 and then again in 1958, the first and second Taiwan Strait Crises, which saw Eisenhower openly threaten to nuclear bomb China. Eisenhauer did this a lot—in Korea, later in Indochina, that is Vietnam when it became clear the French were losing their battle against Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communists who would later go on to defeat the Americans as well. But importantly for Taiwan, the events surrounding the crises, particularly the Cold War and McCarthyism in the United States, resulted in Washington granting Taipei military protection via a mutual defense treaty in 1954.

Now I know you’re all getting tired of this slide, but we’re almost done and I’m going to move through the years faster on these last few—beginning with the Sino-Soviet split. Following the death of Stalin, in 1956 his successor Nikita Khruschev gave a quite incredible speech to a gathering of communist elites. Named “on the cult of personality and its consequences,” Khruschev essentially denounces Stalin for being a murderous and repressive dictator. Now Mao does not like this. After all, he is well on his way to being the personality around which a cult is being formed. Furthermore, he actually liked and respected Stalin despite what he recognized to be Stalin’s frequently duplicitous dealings with the CCP over the years. And so Mao denounced Khruschev, and by the early 1960s China was competing for influence with Moscow in the developing world. This was as Acheson had predicted, and indeed there are internal documents from the 1960s that speculate on the possibility of the U.S. allying with China, but it isn’t until the election of Richard Nixon that any attempt to act on these insights are made. Now the background to this is that Nixon wants out of Vietnam, and he thinks the CCP can help exert leverage on the North Vietnamese; he also believes, correctly as it turns out, that this new front of the Cold War would push the Soviet’s, now under the leadership of Brezhnev, towards strategic arms negotiations. And so Nixon sends his National Security Advisory Henry Kissinger secretly to China via Pakistan to lay the groundwork for the normalization of U.S.-China relations. This ultimately resulted in Nixon’s surprise trip to Beijing in 1972 and the production of a joint document known as the Shanghai Communique. This was the first of the three communiques you see at the bottom of that last column. The second, under the Carter administration in 1979, resulted in the official recognition of the government in Beijing. And the third we’ll talk about on the next slide.

Before getting to that Third Communique, and further explaining the context and consequences of the normalization of relations between the U.S. and China, specifically for Taiwan, I want to quickly summarize what we’ve just gone over.

Following the fall of the final Chinese Imperial Dynasty, the Qing, from 1911-49 we have general if often limited support for the Republic of China from Washington. From 1949-72, we saw adversarial relations between Washington and the new People’s Republic of China. 1972-82 brought rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China to isolate the Soviet Union. And then, as we’ll see here in a minute, from 1982-1991 under Deng Xiaoping the People’s Republic of China pursued increasing privatization and integration into the global economy while maintaining good relations with Washington.

So, with the Second Communique Taiwan’s relationship with the United States was officially altered. Now all three of the communiques are primarily concerned with Washington’s respect for Chinese sovereignty, but the first communique is limited to establishing that “both sides acknowledge there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of it.” It is with the Second Communique, in 1979, that the mutual defense treaty with Taiwan is ripped up and replaced with the Taiwan Relations Act as Washington now officially acknowledges Beijing to be home to the official government of China. Now not everyone is happy about this change, first and foremost Taipei, that is the KMT government on Taiwan. And they have friends and supporters in Washington, and they push back on the perceived weakening of U.S. commitments to the island with the Six Assurances; these follow the Third Communique under the Reagan administration, 1982, which had been almost entirely about Taiwan, and they are meant to reassure Taipei that the United States isn’t about to stop providing them the means to defend themselves. Now, as Beijing agreed to work toward peaceful reunification but refused to rule out the possibility of retaking the island by force, Washington decided to maintain a posture of what’s called “strategic ambiguity,” that is there is no longer a guarantee to Taiwan that a mainland invasion will be met by U.S. forces, but nor is it ruled out: the idea here was to keep both sides guessing, and in that way prevent either Beijing from attempting to invade or Taipei from declaring independence, since that is basically Beijing’s one red line that they say will trigger an automatic invasion of the island.

But under Deng in the 1980s Beijing had other things on its mind. It has received most favored nation status from the United States and is in the process of beginning to transform China. I want to emphasize that changes undergone in China over the past forty years have virtually no parallel, from how weak and unstable it was politically, economically, and militarily to where it is now. The best comparison is probably the newly unified German empire from 1870 to the onset of World War One. It did wage one war, but it was one the U.S. supported, that against the Vietnamese, who had removed the Pol-Pot regime from power in neighboring Cambodia. It also assisted Washington in Operation Cyclone, the arming of the Mujahadeen to bleed the Soviets in neighboring Afghanistan. So, all in all things seem to be proceeding well.

Then came the 1990s. Obviously, the end of the Cold War and then the collapse of the Soviet Union drastically changed Beijing’s strategic calculations. They had fought multiple wars against the Soviets and the Russians before them; the two share a long border, and much of Beijing’s war planning and resource allocation had thus gone toward bolstering their ground forces. On top of that change in its perceived threat environment to the north, Washington was taking its first steps as a unipolar power, and with virtually every move Washington made it alarmed or alienated the Chinese. First was Iraq War One, Desert Storm, which demonstrated that the United States’ military was vastly superior to anything else in existence. Washington then immediately turned its defensive alliance, NATO, into an offensive alliance by intervening multiple times in the Balkans. And even more than the fact that this was Russia’s backyard, was that the U.S. went in without a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force, and then mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. So not good. The Clinton administration also threatened China over Taiwan. This was the so-called “Third Taiwan Strait Crisis,” in 1996. What had happened here was that Taiwan was in the process of democratizing, and in fact the first Presidential Elections were about to be held, and Taiwan’s President Lee was petitioning to visit his alma mater, Cornell. When he is let into the United States and gives this speech at Cornell, Beijing responds by firing missiles into the waters surrounding Taiwan. Now Beijing probably was overreacting – and certainly it was counterproductive, helping sour voters on Beijing’s preferred candidates—however the Clinton administration’s reaction was equally shocking: he called out the fleet and sent aircraft carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Strait. This was the same thing that had happened during the 1950s, when Eisenhower had forced Beijing to back down with the threat of war.

Now despite these geopolitical problems in the relationship, at the beginning of the twenty-first century Sino-American relations were largely considered in an okay state due to the economic relationship developing between the two. Now this is happening on multiple levels: on one level you have U.S. corporations enjoying huge cost savings by relocating factories to China; they and their shareholders love that. Then you have U.S. consumers paying lower prices and getting lower interest rates on loans because the gains from globalization allowed for a loser central bank monetary policy. Then there was development theory and democratic peace theory, which together said that economic development brought democratization and that democracies did not fight one another. Essentially, when compared with the mess Washington made in the Middle East after 9/11, China policy post-2001 WTO membership took a backburner. Things weren’t perfect, but they seemed fine enough.

In a great example of political scientist Edward Luttwak’s “great state autism,” Washington seemed to have no cognizance of how its behavior this whole time was being received in Beijing, which essentially said, “never again” and began to use its newfound wealth and industrial capacity to invest heavily in naval and missile development with the aim of establishing a new doctrine of A2AD, or area denial. This is the strategy of being able to prevent the United States from interfering in China’s immediate maritime environs, specifically the south and east China sea, where it has outstanding territorial disputes with South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and a few other of its neighbors. Beginning in 2012 China indeed began to escalate its claims against some of its neighbors, such as the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoals, one of which it occupied as part of its larger “island building” strategy in the Spratlys. And while this all may seem like so much obscure trivia, the United States has mutual defense treaties with several of these states. In fact, just this past week the White House warned China that it would fight them over the Philippines claims in the South China Sea if Beijing pushed things.

In the background to all this, economically, China was growing astonishingly fast during the two decades following its WTO accession, while the United States struggled in the wake of the 2001 and 2008 recessions. The financial crisis in particular had been deeply damaging. China, however, had been very helpful during the crisis, and soon thereafter became the world’s second largest economy. It was at that point Washington, now under the Obama administration, put forward the idea of what was at the time called a “G-2” relationship between China and America; a strategic and economic dialogue that essentially amounted to making China America’s junior partner in upholding the existing international order created by Washington since World War II. When China declined, remaining focused on its long term goal of achieving effective independence in a multipolar world, Washington immediately thereafter set about trying to contain China. The so-called “pivot to Asia” was a combination of military, diplomatic, and economic repositioning. Washington relocated assets to the Pacific; it launched a diplomatic offensive to bolster old alliances and bilateral relationships, and to build all new ones, such as the Quad, which features India, or AUKUS; the strategy also featured a new trade agreement, the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), which was meant to build around China the largest customs union in terms of GDP over the coming century and then to exclude China from it.

For all that, however, China still remained off the front pages of the papers and official talk was generally confined to public statements regarding China as a key strategic partner. In the years prior to Trump taking office, it was Iran that was in Washington’s crosshairs over its nuclear program, as well as Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Trump demonized China early and often, tapping into a populist vein upset over America’s deindustrialization due to globalization. He began a trade war with China, the fruits of which have yet to be seen; but more importantly, the way he spoke about China, as an enemy taking advantage of America, was new to the era’s political discourse. Further, his policy teams routinely churned out papers and studies singling out China as a threat that needed containing; this was because, in the words of Trump’s Secretary of State at the time Rex Tillerson: “China Threatened the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Domination.” As he was leaving office, Trump’s second Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, officially charged China with committing genocide against its own people, the Turkic Muslim minorities of Xinjiang. At the same time, it was leaked to the press that the United States had inserted military trainers onto Taiwan, a decision that was never publicly debated but which certainly violated the spirit if not the letter of the terms of Washington’s normalization of relations with Beijing, as did a series of high level visits, including Nancy Pelosi’s, which resulted in Beijing blockading the island with missile tests.

Despite his early, moderate statements regarding China, Biden ultimately followed the path trodden by Trump. In fact, in several statements he escalated it: breaking with Washington’s long-held policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding whether or not the U.S. would military intervene in the event of an attack on Taiwan, he stated in multiple public addresses that the United States would definitely intervene. Yes, today it is safe to say that Sino-American relations are decidedly hostile. In fact, the period of the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis aside, which proved a temporary blip, I would say they are at their lowest since the 1950s.

If you take a look at the slide, you’ll see I write that Chinese economic growth is slowing, but that it will remain significantly faster than those of the matured and post-industrial economies of the west; further, that it is pursuing autarkic policies to insulate itself from potential attempts at western decoupling, such as sanctions, tariffs, or investment bans. Apart from its alliance with Russia, Beijing has been building alternate institutions to those created by the United States and is seeking to expand the use of its own currency in transactions with key partners. Beijing accuses Washington of trying to turn Taiwan into a powder keg, and there are perceptions on the part of the Chinese that the United States is abandoning its “One China” policy, that is the formula of the First Communique “that there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of it.”

Taiwan is nice, after all. It’s a democracy now, and rich, and important in global supply chains. Plus, as General MacArthur observed, it’s essentially an unsinkable aircraft carrier 80 miles from China’s cost. However, Taiwan is a red line for Beijing, whose leaders view it as the last remnant of China’s century of humiliations; and it strongly opposes increased diplomatic and military exchanges between Taiwan and the United States. We’ve come to a dangerous place. We did so by choice. And we should all hope that the first in person talks between President Biden and President Xi, scheduled at this point for next month, are productive in trying to navigate these many dangers.

This segues nicely into my closing remarks.

I would be being insincere if I said I had no opinion on how relations with China should be handled. I do not, however, insist that you accept my interpretation of events or embrace my preferred policy prescriptions—all of which you can easily find in ten minutes of searching on the internet. What I do ask, however, as people highly statistically like to be active voters, is to think deliberately about what is being asked, what is being staked, what it is that is likely to be gained, and what other alternatives exist when it comes to Sino-American relations. Between the two of them just a fraction of their nuclear arsenals being used could wipe out human civilization in an afternoon. Even assuming a hot conflict that doesn’t reach the nuclear threshold, we’re talking about World War level casualties in hypothetical battles over islands less than one hundred miles from mainland China and which are officially recognized by the U.S. government as well as the United Nations as part of China.

Apart from considerations of possible war or human extinction, as an advocate of constitutional, republican government, it is a fact that such a limited government is incompatible with a state powerful enough to engage in overseas adventurism and militarism as the United States does. It is economically and morally bankrupting us. In the words of Pat Buchannan, we are meant to be a republic not an empire, an example, not an enforcer.

Thank you for your time.

About Joseph Solis-Mullen

Author of The Fake China Threat and Its Very Real Danger, Joseph Solis-Mullen is a political scientist and economist at the Libertarian Institute. A graduate of Spring Arbor University, the University of Illinois, and the University of Missouri, his work can be found at the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Libertarian Institute, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Journal of the American Revolution, and Antiwar.com. You can contact him via joseph@libertarianinstitute.org or find him on Twitter @solis_mullen.

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