The rise of China is reshaping its bilateral relations with its neighbors in East Asia. On one hand, the fantastic growth of the Chinese economy has boosted economic growth elsewhere in East Asia and the world: a rising tide has lifted all boats. Increased commercial, business, transport, cultural and tourist links with China have fueled prosperity along China’s periphery. But China’s neighbors have also grown nervous in recent years due to China’s perceived assertiveness. The extent of China’s future ambitions is probably the hottest topic there at the moment.
To really understand international politics in East Asia, it’s necessary to look at the bilateral relations between China and its neighbors. This post will check out its relationship with East Asia’s other hegemonic power — America.
Unlike China’s actual neighbors, America does not have a long history of relations with China. It first appeared on China’s radar in the 1800s as part of the pack of foreign countries exploiting China in its infamous “Century of Humiliation.” Its main contribution was to insist on an “Open Door” policy so foreign countries had an equal opportunity to compete in China’s market. It was largely successful in this, so I suppose China should be thankful to America for keeping it from falling prey to one overbearing power as was the case in many other countries.
Sino-American relations noticeably improved in the 1920s and ’30s. At that time an ambitious, fiery general named Jiang Jieshi was looking to gain foreign support for his goal of conquering China. He conducted administrative and military reforms, beat up the warlords who stood in his path, and harassed China’s nascent Communist Party. He even married a cute American-educated woman who converted him to Christianity. Satisfied that China was finally getting its act together, America granted China tariff autonomy (the right to levy tariffs unilaterally), one of the normal privileges countries have that China had lost. China and America were now bros.
American public interest in China also picked up at this time. Pearl Buck, a missionary’s daughter, wrote The Good Earth, a novel depicting a hardworking, unpretentious Chinese peasant and his life. The Jiangs had connections with TIME Magazine, a major American news weekly which made sure to advocate on China’s behalf. Even the Communists got good press: Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley, two left-leaning journalists, journeyed with them on their Long March through the Chinese interior. Snow’s Red Star Over China broke the news that the Chinese Communists were a force to be reckoned with long before anyone else (even within China!) and spread the image of them as battling ancient Chinese injustices and chronic poverty. Mao Zedong, the Communist leader, enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath (an American movie about impoverished Oklahoman farmers), dreamed of a future alliance with America and tried to learn English.
Of course, the main thing pushing America and China together was Japan’s invasion of China in 1937. Japan’s savage atrocities against Chinese civilians and its sinking of an American gunboat in the Yangzi River hardened American public opinion against it. America funneled military aid to the Chinese government over a torturous road through China’s southwest, and Claire Chennault led a volunteer group of American aviators to assist the Chinese air force. Japan was eventually defeated by American military might, making America China’s liberator — something China has conspicuously failed to thank America for.
Alas, the Sino-American alliance was not to last. Within a year of the end of World War II, China was embroiled in war again, despite the mediation efforts of American general George C. Marshall. The Communists launched an all-out assault on the government, which was bolstered by billions of dollars in American aid. This time the Chinese government crumbled, and by 1949 it had been kicked out onto the island of Formosa (Taiwan). Disgusted with Jiang’s miserable performance, America expected the Communists to cross the strait and finish the job.
But that didn’t happen either. In 1950, North Korea, a Chinese ally, invaded South Korea. Faced with the prospect of 2 Communist takeovers in a year, America wasn’t about to allow a 3rd, and an American fleet was dispatched into the Strait of Formosa to separate the feuding armies. What’s more, an American counterattack in Korea succeeded, and America occupied Korea up to the Chinese border. Fearing an American attack, China invaded. The erstwhile allies were at war — the low point of Sino-American relations so far.
The war was a stalemate, but Sino-American relations remained icy cold. A Communist regime now ruled in Beijing. Mao abandoned his earlier dreams of an alliance and decried America as an imperialist and a ruthless capitalist. America considered China a stooge of Moscow, a fanatical Communist, and an instigator of worldwide revolution. It refused even to recognize the new People’s Republic, preferring to consider Jiang’s Taiwanese government as the true representative of the Chinese people and shutting China out of the UN Security Council (the important part). China was shunned, isolated from contact with any country that didn’t have friendly relations with Communists. What remained of Sino-American relations were occasional meetings between diplomats in Poland. They went nowhere thanks to both sides’ refusal to budge on the Taiwan issue.
Then, in the ’60s, things began to change. China’s alliance with the Soviet Union did not go well. Partially because of ideological differences, partially because of China’s annoyance at being treated as an inferior long after it had discarded the humiliations of a previous era, and partially because of mutual distrust and fear, China’s relationship with the Soviet Union shifted from peeved friendship to open antagonism over the decade. By 1969, they had deteriorated to the extent that Soviet and Chinese armies were shooting each other on the border in Manchuria (China’s northeast).
In one of the shrewdest and most consequential diplomatic maneuvers of the century (maybe ever), China made it known that it would welcome an American delegation in Beijing. America followed up on it, and by 1972, Richard Nixon, America’s president, was shaking hands with Mao. America’s diplomatic relations with China were restored, economic aid was reintroduced, and China regained its seat at the UN. The Taiwan issue was basically swept under the rug, with America severing its formal diplomatic ties to Taiwan and China deciding that the issue wasn’t that important after all. Ideological differences remained, of course, but both sides decided that the Soviet Union was the greater threat and the best way to face it down was by teaming up. It was a sudden switch right out of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The Mao-Nixon rapprochement (a French term for a healing in diplomatic disputes) set the tone for the new Sino-American relationship: a quasi-friendship. China was welcomed back into the international community; all sorts of Cold War restrictions were eased. China withdrew its aid from Vietnam, a country America was ferociously but hopelessly battling, and in return, America backed China in a war it started with Vietnam later. American technology, managerial expertise, capital, and grain flowed into China. Trade resumed. American companies, usually working with Chinese in joint ventures in port cities, invested heavily in kickstarting Chinese manufacturing. Thanks largely to American help, China grew into one of the world’s main petroleum producers. Chinese students and workers flowed into America to soak up knowledge they had been denied for decades.
This is when China really started to take off. Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, discarded Communism and allowed gradual introduction of private enterprise and property ownership (see “A New Power Arises in the East”). China became the world’s manufacturing hub. Trade with America picked up from $375 million in 1977 to $5 billion in 1980. China’s economic growth began its roaring ascent and never looked back.
Sino-American relations have largely remained constant since then. The one rough patch since then was the 1989 protest movement in Beijing (see “The Young Throng in Hong Kong”). It was a reminder to the world that while China had abandoned Communism as unworkable, it hadn’t abandoned Soviet-style totalitarianism. America squawked angrily and slapped some sanctions on China, but to no avail. China was already too important economically to punish too hard.
Another event shortly afterwards altered the context of Sino-American relations, and has therefore had a long-term effect on them: the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the old superpower menace gone, to be replaced by a weaker Russia, China has less to fear. Combined with its own surging military and political power, this had the effect of ending Chinese clinging to America for security.
By this point, China and America’s quasi-friendship has steadily cooled into a debatable equilibrium between friend and enemy. In some ways the two are inextricably linked and interdependent, but in others they are hostile and suspicious of each other.
America and China have grown extremely close financially. China is America’s largest holder of government bonds, which it uses to build up its dollar reserves. Its current American government debt holding is around $1.3 trillion. It works for China, because it can use the dollar reserves to hold down the value of its currency, the yuan — one of the tricks it uses to make its products competitive. It works for America because it amounts to a multibillion-dollar credit line, one that played an inglorious role in pushing America into its Big Bank Crash of 2008.
U.S.-Chinese economic ties are also as tight as ever. Besides the aforementioned huge American reliance on cheap Chinese goods, China has begun investing more and more in the American economy, buying major U.S. companies like Smithfield Foods (a pork producer) and the AMC movie theater chain, assets in oil and gas firms, and real estate in major American cities like New York, San Francisco and Detroit. All kinds of major American firms are in China, from international fast-food chains to pharmaceutical producers to supermarkets to technology companies.
This tight bond between America and China has been termed “Chimerica” by British historian/pundit Niall Ferguson. But lately the strains are more marked than the signs of affection. America has not forgotten Tiananmen, and it is glaringly obvious that China remains an imperial, authoritarian power. American leaders routinely harangue their Chinese counterparts about human rights (although less and less lately). China’s treatment of Tibet, a region unwillingly annexed in 1950, is an ongoing concern, as well as continuing suppression of political dissidents, torture, inhumane imprisonment, forced abortions, and generally behaving in an imperious manner without accountability. China mostly ignores these complaints, regarding anything more than a spoken critique as unwelcome interference in its business. (Foreign leaders meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled head of Tibet, is a particular irritant.) And America mostly ignores the ignoring, because the economic ties are too valuable to sacrifice.
Various Chinese practices that actually affect the economic ties also cause irritation. International copyright infringement used to be a big deal — Chinese companies would habitually make cheaper knock-offs of big American brands, undercutting their profits. America also whined a lot about Chinese currency manipulation, with unsuccessful 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney threatening to formally label China a currency manipulator. A current hot topic is cyberespionage, which both countries engage in. America presumably spies on the Chinese military and government, while China hacks into strategic enterprises, government databases, think tanks, the power grid, and more. America formally called out China on its spying this year, identifying 5 officers in an army hacking unit and putting out warrants for their arrest. China denies the accusations.
China is getting sick of what it considers American whining and lecturing. The American government system, with its accountability to a fickle public and reckless posturing, does not look particularly appealing. Congressional stunts like the government shutdown last year raise fears that America will default on its debts. Concerns about imperialism and military aggression seem silly coming from a country involved in 2 wars and with military bases around the world. China is still the junior partner in the relationship, as it was with its relationship with the Soviet Union, but it’s getting more and more tired of that; it craves equality, maybe even dominance, and as it grows and matures into a modern capitalist society, America looks less and less impressive and valuable.
Strategically, China is widely assumed to crave hegemony in East Asia. It is by far the largest country there, both in size and population, and its culture the most influential. Its economy gives it potent leverage, especially over poorer countries in the south who envy its economic boom. Yet China’s ambitions also illicit nervousness among its neighbors, driving them to pull on America’s shirt sleeves and ask for more help. The result was an American “pivot to Asia” announced several years ago, with the intention of focusing more on East Asia and less on West Asia. But that pivot (or “rebalancing” as it’s usually branded now) never really panned out — it amounted to a few more American soldiers stationed in the Philippines and Australia. It did, however, spark fears in China that America was trying to encircle it and exploit the suspicions of its neighbors to contain its rise. (This was, by the way, more or less what China advised America to do with the Soviet Union in the ’70s.)
America is the superpower. China, while not a superpower yet, could certainly become one if it really wanted to, and is foremost among the Great Powers. It is a rising power, and America is usually considered to be in decline. America is the most powerful country in East Asia, with allies in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and (sort of) Taiwan. India, Myanmar, Indonesia and Vietnam are drawing closer to it. Its navy guarantees maritime security. This sort of imperial power, deployed in a region relatively far from America itself, inspires resentment and jealousy in China. The two countries’ competing worldviews, cultural outlook, and political orientations make cooperation unlikely and only propel them toward conflict.
The latest development in Sino-American relations is the carbon emissions accord reached at last month’s APEC summit in China. Barack Obama, America’s president, promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28% by 2025, while Xi Jinping, China’s dictator, promised to reduce them after 2030 and use more clean energy sources. It remains to be seen whether the countries will stick by this deal, given widespread reluctance in both to do something that’s seen as economically stifling, but since China and America are together the world’s leading polluters, it could have a big impact on the global environment — and perhaps help smooth out the bumps in the relationship in general.
The Sino-American relationship has been through some twists and turns, and the current “Chimerican” symbiosis is a strong bond, maybe even the strongest bond between them yet. But the forces pulling China and America apart are strong as well.
Sino-American relations have turned a corner. China is increasingly cocky, arrogant, and ambitious, and will probably start going for grander measures overseas both politically and economically. America, despite its claims of pivoting to East Asia, remains fixated on West Asia and Europe. Although relations between Xi and Obama personally are genial enough (and definitely way better than those between Obama and Vladimir Putin), in private Xi probably thinks of Obama as weak and naive, given his preference for dealing with international disputes by conciliation and negotiation. America has lost its lustre and shown that it can blunder as badly overseas as anyone.
Meanwhile, the economic and financial ties joining China and America are as strong as ever. Both countries need each other and both benefit from each other. American universities remain the strongest draws for Chinese students, and Chinese comprise America’s 2nd-biggest ethnic immigrant group (not counting the various European ones who have largely lost their identity). China holds probably the world’s best trump card against meaningful intervention in its affairs: economic indispensability. America’s control of the world financial system, as well as its dominance of international institutions like the UN, World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund), holds some potent cards as well. If Chimerica tried to detach itself (as Ferguson pointed out), the results would be catastrophic for both countries.
But things are looking more and more strained. China’s internal market is strong and well-developed; it isn’t quite as dependent on America as it used to be. American control over the world order will inspire resentment in China and prod it towards doing its own thing. China (with good reason) feels entitled to dominate East Asia, at least, and will continue its naval buildup to edge America out of its side of the Pacific. The Chinese see the American political system as inefficient, dysfunctional and badly flawed. Americans see the Chinese political system as tyrannical, unaccountable and threatening. They are unwilling to withdraw from East Asia, or even to show any signs of weakness in the face of a rising threat.
The economic and cultural linkages are important and strong, and many observers feel they will help guide the two empires through the storms that batter their relationship. But trade and commercial links didn’t spare Germany from warring with Britain, America and France. I feel that Chimerica is chimerical, and, tragic though it may be, given the laws of history, geopolitics, and strategy, war will erupt between China and America eventually.