How important is China to the United States? Among the most enduring legends of Sino-American interaction has been the insistence that Americans and Chinese have shared a special relationship, a friendship unusual in international affairs. But in truth China has always been of secondary significance to the United States-important simply in the context of crises with other countries. Only now, for the first time, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the absence of a new credible enemy must the United States deal with China for its own sake and decide where the Chinese fit in the American concept of a new world order.

The history of Sino-American relations in the past fifty years has been a tale of how Americans, preoccupied with the affairs of Europe, thought they could use China, subordinating its needs and interests to the realization of weightier objectives elsewhere. China played a role in defeating Japan and Germany in the 1940s, slowing Soviet industrialization in the 1950s and 1960s, and complicating Moscow's defenses in the 1970s and 1980s. The United States did not focus on China, as China, because its lack of wealth and its purely regional power did not necessitate direct attention.

Not surprisingly, disappointment plagued this distorted relationship. Neither country seemed willing or able to fulfill the expectations of the other. Americans saw the Chinese both as allies and adversaries, as people to be helped and feared, as potential customers and competitors, as strategic partners and expansionist aggressors. Such contradictions colored the efforts of statesmen to structure policy and of the public to understand what has transpired between the two states.

Differences in political objectives were aggravated by cultural discord. Americans determined to elicit political and social reforms commensurate with their investments-financial and emotional-felt frustrated by the Chinese rejection of Western values. Both before and after the communist takeover in 1949 China sought to modernize without having to Westernize.1 A source of tension throughout the Third World, the clash between change and tradition has been nowhere more powerful than in China and nowhere more troublesome than in Sino-American relations.


Possibly the most striking illustration of China's peripheral status and the thwarting of both Chinese and American expectations can be found in their respective responses to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. What President Franklin D. Roosevelt called a day of infamy was a blessing to Nationalist (Kuomintang) Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek in his fog-enshrouded wartime capital. According to an observer in Chongqing, "The military council was jubilant. Chiang was so happy he sang an old opera aria. . . . The Kuomintang government officials went around congratulating each other, as if a great victory had been won."2 The divergence between America's distress and China's joy underscored the differences between American and Chinese national interests. Washington, although now China's ally and a more forthright participant in the anti-Japanese struggle, put the war in Europe and the defeat of Hitler first. Roosevelt wanted to use the Chinese to bleed Japan, to thwart Tokyo's attempt to create a new order in Asia and seize European colonial holdings. To these ends the United States tried to reorganize Chiang's war effort by diverting him from China's civil conflict, training his troops and providing an American commander.

Chiang Kai-shek, in contrast, had assumed that the United States would take over the fight against Japan, freeing him to concentrate on eliminating the internal communist threat. The Nationalist leader saw no reason to send his soldiers to die opposing Tokyo when Americans could defeat Japan without them, and he had no use for the American commander and adviser in China, General Joseph Stilwell, whose efforts to replace loyal but inept Chinese officers threatened to destabilize his regime. Chiang expected Washington simply to send money, tend to the larger war and leave him to deal with China's domestic politics.

The clash in priorities escalated when Americans sought contacts with Mao Zedong's forces at Yan'an. Negotiations with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were vital to the rescue of downed U.S. pilots and the staging of an American assault on Japan's home islands from the Chinese coast. They would also allow the American military access to the only "allies" operating freely behind Japanese lines in north China. But the Nationalists adamantly rejected the idea of consorting with their enemy, relenting only under extreme pressure. And the Nationalists arguably had been right in their resistance, given the enthusiasm with which Americans responded to the communist Chinese. The Americans praised Mao's government and army, whose energy, integrity, efficiency and idealism so forcefully highlighted the corruption, disarray and torpor of the Nationalists. Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai welcomed the first American observer mission by celebrating the Fourth of July in 1944 and offering to travel to Washington to meet with Roosevelt to coordinate war strategies.

Nevertheless the United States remained, if reluctantly, tied to the Kuomintang government, disappointing the communists and encouraging the Nationalist Party to maintain an unrealistic assessment of its importance to Washington. In actuality Chiang's refusal to mount an energetic effort against Japan gradually eroded U.S. support and ensured substitution of an island-hopping strategy for winning the Pacific war. But, although he despaired of making Chiang an active wartime asset, Roosevelt continued to imagine that China after the peace could become a great power and useful American partner. Thus he insisted, over the protests of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, that the Chinese be given a seat in the Security Council of the soon to be created United Nations.

Such extravagant assertions of China's significance did not prevent Roosevelt's willing betrayal of Chinese interests at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 in pursuit of better relations with the Soviet Union and a swifter end to the war. In exchange for Moscow's agreement to fight in the Pacific and to sign a treaty with Chiang's government, Roosevelt arbitrarily sacrificed China's control over Outer Mongolia, Port Arthur and Dairen, as well as a share in the Chinese Eastern and South Manchuria railways. Although the United States could have done little to keep these territories and assets out of Soviet hands, it is also true that the president neither sought Chiang's approval nor worried much about the postwar impact of these choices on China's sovereignty.


President Roosevelt's compromises at Yalta did nothing to prevent the deterioration in Soviet-American relations that accelerated with the end of the Second World War. Americans insisted upon forward bases and open markets vulnerable to U.S. domination. The Soviets demanded security buffers and exploited unrest to spread revolutionary ideology. The resulting Cold War pitted competing blocs of antagonistic states against each other, slowly inducing the United States to see that China's strategic location and market potential could actually make it a useful partner.

America's policy in the tense days immediately following Japan's surrender consisted of creating a strong and prosperous China by avoiding renewal of civil conflict and focusing government attention on political reform and economic rehabilitation. If Harry Truman felt constrained to support anti-communist forces under Chiang Kai-shek, he nevertheless did not yet see the Cold War as the critical variable in Asia and could contemplate establishing a Nationalist-Communist coalition. But Chiang, confident of U.S. patronage, refused compromise, opting for military victory. He disregarded American advice and tried to project his forces into Manchuria beyond the capacity of his supply system. His forces squandered popular support by preying upon the newly liberated cities of east China, treating the citizenry as collaborators for having lived under Japanese rule. His interference in battlefield command threw planning into disarray, and when the People's Liberation Army trapped frontline troops Chiang bombed his own units to prevent their equipment from falling into enemy hands.

Chiang saw the key to success as unstinting American aid. In a relentless campaign to secure ever-increasing amounts of assistance, he devised inventive ways to entangle the United States directly in the war effort. But despite U.S. assistance amounting to $2 billion between 1945 and 1949, neither money nor weapons could compensate for what the Nationalists lacked in competent leadership, ideals or popular devotion. Furthermore Chiang's suspicion of foreigners and distrust of modernization projects that threatened his control reinforced Washington's inclination to focus on pressing European problems, such as the Berlin blockade and implementation of the Marshall Plan, where American help would be better utilized and more appreciated.3

As a result the Truman administration searched for ways to escape Chiang's grasp and move toward diplomatic relations with a new regime in China. In August 1949 Secretary of State Dean Acheson published an exposé of Chiang's blundering, known as the China White Paper, which argued that a generous and sympathetic United States could do no more on Chiang's behalf. Acheson spoke publicly of the practical value of diplomatic relations. Despite incidents like the house arrest of Consul General Angus Ward by communist forces in Mukden and labor confrontations with businessmen in Shanghai, American missionaries, diplomats and others remarked upon the surprising civility shown to foreigners in the midst of a civil war.

By December 1949 the Kuomintang's demise appeared imminent. Chiang had been forced to flee the mainland and had taken refuge among a hostile population on the island of Taiwan. American intelligence asserted that a communist attack would encounter little Nationalist resistance. On January 5, 1950, Truman announced that the United States would not interfere. Acheson placed Taiwan and Korea outside America's defensive perimeter in Asia. It was only a matter of time before Taiwan would collapse and the administration could accept the reality of communist control in Beijing.

For the United States, however, there could be no simple transition from Nationalist to communist control in China. Republican desperation to recapture the presidency in the late 1940s triggered a "red scare," blighting domestic affairs and undermining American foreign policy. Borrowing charges from the "China lobby" (a conglomeration of missionaries, businessmen, publishers, journalists, military figures and politicians who vigorously promoted the interests of Chiang and the Kuomintang), the GOP insisted that communist sympathizers in the State Department had "lost China." But it remained for the Korean War and Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) to turn China's loss into political dynamite. In need of an election issue, McCarthy waged a vitriolic attack upon the Truman administration, sweeping otherwise responsible Republicans up in the frenzy. The senator knew little about China but, armed with documents from China lobby activist Alfred Kohlberg, McCarthy capitalized on the shock arising from sudden war in Asia to generate national hysteria.

North Korea's attempt to unify the Korean peninsula had a profound impact upon the course of the Cold War and Sino-American relations. Truman's resistance to huge military budgets evaporated. The administration used the Korean War to justify rearming Germany and militarizing NATO. It escalated appropriations to France for the fight against Ho Chi Minh in Indochina and dispatched its first technical advisers. Soon the United States would disregard Soviet and Chinese objections to conclude a peace treaty with Japan and would sign security pacts with Japan, Australia and New Zealand.4

For Chinese-American relations the Korean War proved an unmitigated disaster. Beijing leaders had taken Truman and Acheson at their word and anticipated an unopposed effort to oust Chiang from Taiwan. But Washington now reversed itself and placed the Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait to prevent expansion of the war either by a CCP attack or a Nationalist feint that would force U.S. intervention. Beijing's frustration was compounded by fear when U.S. forces, under U.N. auspices, threatened China's Yalu River border. Recently revealed documents from Beijing indicate that Mao, believing a military confrontation with the United States inevitable over either Vietnam, Taiwan or Korea, opted to fight in the arena most accessible and easiest to control.5 Thus Zhou Enlai cautioned the Americans not to move north, and when they dismissed his warnings because the Chinese appeared weak and preoccupied with domestic troubles-not a match in any case for American soldiers-China struck.

President Truman had hoped that a short conflict in Korea would mean but a brief reinvolvement in the Chinese civil war and a momentary distraction from European affairs. Although the president was quickly reassured that war in Korea was not simply a diversion to facilitate communist aggression in the West, he continued escalating military expenditures for Europe, revealing the administration's true priorities. But the Korean War dragged on and, despite administration antipathy, the network of economic and military ties with the Kuomintang grew more complex and self-perpetuating.


By the time the Republicans came to power in the White House in 1953, with what was supposedly a new attitude toward Chinese affairs, much of the structure of support for Taipei and harassment of Beijing was already in place. Nevertheless, Dwight Eisenhower chose to "unleash" Chiang Kai-shek. The president declared the Seventh Fleet would no longer protect the mainland from Chiang, thereby certifying his anticommunist credentials to the Republican right.6

But the president and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, were never the staunch proponents of Chiang's cause that they pretended to be in public. In reality they had a far more tenuous relationship with his regime and far less interest in Chinese affairs.7 Both men preferred to focus on Atlantic concerns and dealt with China reluctantly. When they could not avoid the China problem, they combined moderate attitudes with belligerent rhetoric. Eisenhower actually believed that trade with the People's Republic of China (P.R.C.) would be in America's interests and that diplomatic relations were unavoidable. Dulles became convinced that a "two Chinas" policy provided the only viable course for Washington. His disagreements with Chiang over troops on the offshore islands and in Burma, over returning to the mainland and over defense commitments gradually alienated him. Thus Chiang discovered that "unleashing" neither freed him to move against Red China nor implied U.S. support for such an endeavor. In fact the new administration secretly imposed restrictions more onerous than any dictated by the Truman administration. Chiang henceforth had to clear any large-scale assault on the mainland with Washington-a clearance Eisenhower never intended to give.

The Taiwan Straits crises of the 1950s convincingly demonstrated how inaccurately expectations were being calculated on all sides. The Nationalists anticipated unqualified American support, objected to Washington's unwillingness explicitly to affirm protection for Quemoy and Matsu, and refused to remove their troops from the islands to eliminate grounds for future confrontations. The Americans thought that they could dictate Chiang's cooperation rather than be manipulated by him. But in 1954, solely to prevent a Nationalist veto barring U.N. intervention in the crisis, Dulles reluctantly agreed to a mutual defense treaty with Taipei. Beijing, at the same time, misread the Americans, hoping that bombardment of the islands might deter deeper American involvement in the area by making it appear too dangerous. Later in 1958 Washington assumed that Beijing meant to seize the offshore islands when, in fact, the P.R.C. had decided to leave them in Kuomintang hands as a "land bridge" between Taiwan and the mainland.

The United States miscalculated not only Chinese intentions but also the impact of American actions on world opinion. Washington appalled its allies with its willingness to risk nuclear war for worthless islands and a discredited regime. Support of the Nationalists, in large part designed to demonstrate American credibility and steadfastness in the defense of Western Europe, clashed with a European emphasis on the need for prudence. To attest to its reasonableness, the administration agreed to talk with the P.R.C. in Warsaw despite Taiwan's objections, creating a forum for contact more frequent than for many official representatives in Beijing. Although few concrete results followed, periodic meetings discouraged confrontations and ultimately expedited rapprochement.


Among the most enduring myths of Sino-American relations has been the assertion that John F. Kennedy intended to recognize the People's Republic of China. In fact little evidence has been provided for such a scenario. Instead it would appear that Kennedy pursued a policy at times more rigid than that of Eisenhower, that he feared China more intensely and that he placated Chiang Kai-shek more assiduously. Certainly the communist Chinese nursery rhymes that mocked and condemned Kennedy suggested that Beijing did not see him as likely to allay frictions between the two countries.8

Contradictory indicators existed. The Kennedy State Department undertook a serious reexamination of China policy early in the administration. The desire to improve relations by relaxing travel restrictions and providing food aid captured the imagination of China experts and high-level diplomats. Perhaps most significantly, in 1962 when Chiang provoked a third Taiwan Straits crisis by mustering troops for an assault on the mainland, Washington used the Warsaw talks to assure Beijing that there would be no invasion.

More often Kennedy approached China as a pragmatic cold warrior. In striking contrast to Eisenhower, the young Democratic president secretly pledged to Chiang use of America's veto in the Security Council to keep the P.R.C. out of the United Nations. Kennedy believed his sympathies would eventually necessitate blocking China and so, against the advice of his experts, he chose to benefit from the inevitable by trading his veto for Chiang's cooperation on other issues.

Kennedy's suspicion of China appeared to grow rather than abate during his presidency. Although the split between Moscow and Beijing became increasingly obvious, Kennedy persistently dismissed it as an argument over how to bury the United States. Instead of courting China as Dean Acheson might have done and Richard Nixon eventually did, he looked solely to the Soviet Union for détente. Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin gave impetus to this posture by planting the belief that Nikita S. Khrushchev's Cuban missile gamble had been in part a response to the radical taunts of the Chinese. But in any case Kennedy found the Soviets less threatening than the so-called yellow peril. Beijing's incursion into India during the peak of the Cuban missile crisis, moreover, reaffirmed a view of the Chinese as dangerous and alienated many of those in the administration, like John Kenneth Galbraith, who had been pushing for reconciliation.9

The situation in Vietnam also made better relations less feasible. The Kennedy team attributed trouble with the 1962 Laotian accords and the deterioration of conditions in South Vietnam to Chinese influence. Escalation of American involvement there in turn convinced the Chinese of a U.S. desire to encircle them.

None of these developments, however, frightened Kennedy as profoundly as China's steady progress toward possession of an atomic bomb. Indeed, here, Kennedy momentarily ceased to view the P.R.C. through the lens of third country challenges, by taking it seriously as a military threat. Kennedy became obsessed with the idea that the Chinese would "go nuclear" and then intimidate the rest of Asia. The administration went so far as to discuss its fears with the Soviets, and one scholar has contended that Ambassador Averell Harriman carried a message to Moscow proposing a joint strike against Chinese research and development facilities.10 Even though the Chinese breakthrough in 1964 passed uneventfully, Secretary of State Dean Rusk was not above evoking the image of "a billion Chinese, armed with nuclear weapons" as late as 1967 to justify the Johnson administration's policy in Southeast Asia.

But by the mid-1960s China seemed more likely to self-destruct than wield atomic bombs against the United States or its Asian neighbors. Acting on his concern that time had vitiated conviction, Mao Zedong plunged the nation into a frantic campaign to reaffirm values, a campaign that quickly deteriorated into a struggle for power. China's Cultural Revolution ironically coincided with the first major steps toward liberalization of America's China policy. Responding to growing public discussion of "containment without isolation" as a way to reach out to China without risk, Congress held hearings to explore the possibility of modifying the China policy. But when Johnson himself echoed the theme, the Chinese had already descended into the abyss and could not be distracted from self-generated anarchy.

China's implosion also took its toll in Vietnam. American involvement in the Indochina war had arisen out of concern for France's position in Europe but had deepened, in part, in response to the threat from communism in Asia. With Chinese foreign policy in disarray, rather than retrench Johnson pressed his advantage with troop escalations in the south and bombing missions ever closer to the Chinese border in the north.11 Washington policymakers, troubled by the 1965 words of heir apparent Lin Biao encouraging wars of national liberation, overlooked China's anxiety regarding the growth of Vietnamese power and convinced themselves that with the Third World under siege America could not be found wanting in Vietnam.


But if Vietnam served to escalate tensions between the United States and China in the early 1960s, it helped to initiate the process of rapprochement at the end of the decade. Nixon had declared in a 1967 Foreign Affairs article that China should no longer be treated as a pariah.12 He increasingly thought of China as a strategic partner to deter the Soviets, conceivably as a market to remedy U.S. economic ills and certainly as a foreign policy triumph with attendant domestic political acclaim. Most immediately he believed that pressure exerted through a Beijing friendly to Washington could force Hanoi to negotiate.

The outbreak of shooting along the Sino-Soviet border in 1969 facilitated the reversal. Following on the heels of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Moscow's announcement in the Brezhnev Doctrine that it would act to save socialism wherever threatened, China concluded that Soviet belligerence necessitated support from the United States. Ultimately, although Beijing provided little direct assistance in getting the United States out of Vietnam, Americans and Chinese became useful assets to one another in a new international game of triangular politics.

Progress toward reconciliation accelerated after Chinese hard-liners, worried about security, ideology and Westernization, lost out to more pragmatic leadership. In April 1971, signaling advances secretly negotiated by diplomats, Zhou Enlai welcomed a team of American ping-pong players to China. In late October the United States acquiesced in a U.N. vote to expel Taipei and to grant Beijing a seat in the United Nations. Although determined to preserve "Free China," Nixon signed a document, the Shanghai communiqué, during his historic visit to the P.R.C. in February 1972, agreeing not to challenge Beijing's position that there was only one China and Taiwan was a part of it (a view that the Nationalists in fact shared). Eager to give the Chinese incentives to facilitate a settlement of the war in Vietnam, the United States promised that as the level of violence in the area diminished Washington would withdraw its troops from the island.

Great expectations engendered by the breakthrough once again brought disappointment. First the Watergate scandal impeded American efforts. Nixon could no longer risk alienating conservatives whose opposition to recognizing communist China remained strong. The Chinese failed to comprehend Nixon's disgrace and condemned American faintheartedness. Soon, however, political turmoil in China added to the difficulties. In 1976 both Zhou and Mao died, and Mao's radical allies purged Deng Xiaoping, leaving the policy of opening to the United States without a patron.

Only Deng's rapid return to power and his daring program of economic reform helped to swing the pendulum back. Anxious to realize Zhou's plan of the "four modernizations" (in agriculture, industry, science and technology and the military), Deng recognized the opportunities created by foreign trade and investment. Simultaneously Jimmy Carter, prodded by national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, looked to an alignment with China to curb the Soviet Union, allowing Sino-American relations to be governed yet again by Soviet-American tensions. Moreover, in the wake of Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, the timing could not have been more propitious. Deng agreed that China would not reclaim Taiwan by force, anticipating that China's improved relations with the United States would serve to check Vietnam's Soviet allies while Beijing punished Hanoi. Normalization, long sought, became reality with breathtaking speed.

The rapidity and secrecy with which the American government moved, intended to distress the Soviets, shocked and dismayed others as well. The Nationalists on Taiwan, of course, were horrified. The final indignity in the tortuous reconciliation process that had subjected Taiwan to repeated humiliations since 1971 arrived when the American ambassador, Leonard Unger, woke Chiang in the middle of the night to notify him that diplomatic relations were to be severed in the morning. In Congress the administration's blatant disregard for legislative consultation as prescribed in the 1978 Dole-Stone Amendment, coupled with genuine alarm at having abandoned an ally, triggered a bipartisan backlash. The resulting Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 strengthened administration assurances that the Nationalists would continue to receive military assistance, despite renunciation of the 1954 mutual defense treaty, and provided civil mechanisms to simplify continued economic, political and cultural contacts between the United States and Taiwan.


Normalization based on opposition to a common enemy rather than on mutual understanding provided only a temporary respite from frictions. The TRA went further than the Carter White House had intended in protecting Taiwan. Beijing, angered by American interference in its internal affairs, did not comprehend that congressional action could be allowed to contradict executive branch policy. Annoyance over the act escalated into outrage during the 1980 presidential campaign. Ronald Reagan refused to acknowledge the Shanghai communiqué and repudiated Carter's shameful abandonment of Taiwan.

The campaign speeches proved but the first in a series of Reagan actions that soured relations with Beijing and gave the Nationalists false hope about Washington's intentions. As president-elect, for instance, Reagan invited Taipei to send a representative to his inauguration-an invitation that had to be hastily withdrawn. As president he declared that he would rather adopt tennis star Hu Na than force her to return to China when she sought asylum in the United States. More seriously the administration persisted in selling arms to Taiwan in excess of Beijing's expectations. By the end of 1981 Deng had concluded that Reagan's unreliability justified a stance more equidistant between Washington and Moscow. The Sino-American accommodation nurtured by three administrations seemed to be unraveling. When in early 1982 intense Chinese pressure stopped sales of advanced fighter aircraft to Taiwan but failed to prevent transfer of less sophisticated planes, Beijing remained dissatisfied and Taipei felt betrayed.

A joint communiqué, signed on August 17, 1982, arrested the precipitous deterioration of relations between Washington and Beijing but as always seemed to promise more than would be delivered. The United States agreed not to increase the quality or quantity of weapons sold to Taiwan and committed itself to gradual reductions. Beijing thought it had negotiated an end, if a distant one, to American support for Taiwan. In reality the United States, by recalculating past levels, significantly augmented the assistance it could give and postponed termination by decreasing sales minimally. Further it denied that the communiqué covered transfer of technology, and it supplied Taiwan with the capability to produce its own advanced weaponry.

Despite such maneuvers, ties between the United States and China revived and flourished during the Reagan years while Washington turned its attention to the threat posed by the Soviet "evil empire." Arguments that Beijing could help contain Moscow, coupled with Chinese hospitality during a 1984 Reagan visit, appear to have persuaded the president to desist from provocative rhetoric and live with a Red China. The United States became one of the leading foreign investors in the P.R.C. and trade boomed. Collaboration in fields as diverse as theater and nuclear energy expanded dramatically. By the late 1980s some 40,000 Chinese studied in the United States and American teachers, researchers and students were scattered throughout the Chinese countryside. The election of George Bush to the presidency in 1988, given his experience in Beijing as head of America's liaison office, seemed to be the perfect complement to these developments.

But the solidarity of the relationship that diplomats on both sides spoke about in reverential tones proved deceptive. There had, indeed, been a flaw all along. Although accommodation had proceeded from strategic concerns on both sides, the Chinese had also been motivated by the desire for American technology and trade. Yet behind Chinese interest in U.S. science remained resistance to Westernization. Chinese leaders repeatedly cautioned that Americans should not misunderstand China's willingness to educate its youth in the United States. There must be no nineteenth-century-style effort to patronize China, no spiritual pollution. A recurrent theme in the repressive campaigns of 1979-80, 1983-84 and 1986-87, this fear of an American-influenced "bourgeois liberalization" lurked just beneath all the exchanges and surfaced whenever groups within the country began to talk about democracy.

The crisis at Tiananmen Square in June 1989 demonstrated how rash expectations were that Chinese-American relations had matured beyond dangerous misperceptions. Americans saw the crowds in the square and assumed, incorrectly, that they were witnessing a vast popular uprising demanding immediate implementation of American-style multiparty democracy. The conviction that the Chinese people yearned to be more like Americans magnified American repugnance for the Beijing regime and unprecedented concern for human rights in China.

Chinese leaders, in their horror at the uncontrolled demonstrations of national disaffection-a clear indication of the dangers of Westernization-assumed that they could use force to suppress opposition, that international and American objections would be muted and quickly forgotten. But television cameras made the events at Tiananmen Square visible everywhere, and the crackdown did not fade. The American Embassy in Beijing, moreover, became a direct participant when it gave refuge to dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi and his wife. Assertions were also made that Voice of America broadcasts had helped to create and sustain the crisis.

The obvious threat to Sino-American relations induced President Bush publicly to chide the Chinese government but privately to try to bridge troubled waters. Twice in the months following the Tiananmen Square massacre, secret missions headed by National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft traveled to Beijing to maintain contacts, provide briefings and avert a deterioration of strained relations. The president labored to avoid the worst of the sanctions Congress sought to impose on Beijing, particularly withdrawal of most-favored-nation trade status.

China's leaders, however, believed that they could propitiate the United States without risking domestic control and sacrificing Chinese values. They might generously permit the assistant secretary of state for human rights, Richard Schifter, to come to Beijing in December 1990 to explain American concerns, but never intended to remedy the problems he identified. They allowed Fang Lizhi to leave his uncomfortable "imprisonment" at the American Embassy but kept hundreds of others languishing in jail. Interference with Voice of America transmission and academic exchange projects became commonplace. The proposed Peace Corps program in China, which threatened to carry democratic principles into the countryside along with technical assistance, was terminated. American plots to subvert Chinese communist control through encouragement of "peaceful evolution" would be no more acceptable in 1991 than in the abrasive days of Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles.

Other problems added to the fragility of the relationship. Disputes over textiles and trade deficits, nuclear proliferation and weapons sales, as well as computer software piracy, proved increasingly volatile given the adverse atmosphere. Human rights issues including birth control, the production of export goods by prison labor and the crackdown in Tibet also received more attention as American activists waged a campaign to eliminate what they claimed had long been a double standard for China.


With Sino-American amity already so seriously undermined, the end of the Cold War removed the single most important impetus behind cooperation and the primary justification for compromise. Joint strategic planning against the Soviet Union motivated presidents from Nixon to Bush to make concessions to China. The complicated game of triangular politics encouraged the growth of trade and cultural ties and led Americans to ignore disquieting evidence of Beijing's unrepentant autocracy. But as the Soviet Union, as well as the Soviet threat, vanishes, China's leverage and license also disappear.

Efforts to substitute new types of cooperation against lesser enemies have not succeeded. Beijing did adhere to the anti-Iraq coalition long enough to cast several U.N. votes in favor of curbing Baghdad's aggression, but President Bush failed to elicit Beijing's support for military action. In exchange for violating his own prohibitions against high-level contacts by meeting with the Chinese foreign minister in Washington, all Bush managed to obtain was Chinese abstention from rather than opposition to war. The administration neglected to take account of China's sensitivity to any appearance of Western oppression and accordingly anticipated its participation when China never intended to join in. Subsequent White House anger demonstrated the dangers of misperception and the frailty of relations based on cooperation against other countries.

China's suggestion that growing militarism in Japan necessitates Sino-American collaboration need hardly be taken seriously. Even in 1941 the United States did not go to war with Japan to save China. Americans focused on defeating Germany, which meant tying Japanese forces down in China so that they could not march upon the Soviet Union. It meant preserving colonial empires to help finance and provide raw materials to European allies. It meant defending the southern Pacific so that troops from the Commonwealth could continue to fight in the Middle East and South Asia. Had the issue been China alone the United States might never have confronted Japan at all.

There are nevertheless several reasons why Sino-American relations remain important to both Washington and Beijing. China continues to benefit economically and technologically from its American connection. The United States may not need China to balance the Soviet Union, but the Chinese can facilitate settlements in Cambodia and on the Korean peninsula. Washington hopes to curb destabilizing Chinese arms sales, and each nation remains alert to the other's nuclear arsenal. In areas such as environmental pollution and drug trafficking both countries will benefit from working together.

Still the United States must avoid expecting too much from its ties to China. The two nations have not been allies since World War II, and their conflicting goals even then led to disappointment and friction. Americans should abandon ill-founded assumptions that they can transform China internally. Stringent sanctions are more likely to consolidate opposition to the United States than against China's leadership. Far better to demand of the Chinese things that they can give: greater autonomy in Tibet rather than independence, adherence to a global nuclear nonproliferation regime rather than abandonment of intrusive domestic birth control programs. Americans ought to recognize that impatience is a cultural trait that the Chinese do not share and that the fear of political chaos is more universal in China than abhorrence of the current authoritarian regime. Change must come, but few Chinese would welcome cataclysmic transformation such as has reshaped eastern Europe and the Soviet Union since 1989. Americans should also dispense with the hoary notion that a hugely profitable China market waits to be exploited. The Chinese today may welcome American investment and assistance but still prefer self-reliant development that will encourage Westerners to go home.

The Chinese in turn must finally understand that modernization inevitably involves Westernization and global interdependence. This need not be seen as pollution of the Chinese spirit. The Asian minidragons (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore), whose economic successes gave impetus to China's reforms, have not abandoned political and cultural traditions to pattern themselves upon the United States, but neither do they remain inward-looking Confucian autocracies. The future of Sino-American relations, as indeed of China itself, depends upon Beijing's willingness to devise an amalgam-perhaps "creeping pluralism"-to carry it into the next century.

The legacy of Sino-American interaction since World War II suggests that the future will not be, indeed cannot be, without friction. Even the shock of Pearl Harbor failed to divert Washington from its fixation on Europe. China appeared of lesser importance but also so mired in poverty and obscurantist politics that it had little to offer the United States beyond a limited anti-Japanese front. In subsequent years Washington sometimes exaggerated Chinese power but rarely gave China much attention. Only the opportunity to join in an anti-Soviet alignment rescued Sino-American relations from marginality.

Today, although Asia finally occupies a significant place in the American consciousness, China's domestic contradictions still prevent it from being a great power and stymie American efforts to establish enduring ties. Until China can offer cooperation unencumbered by ideological reservations, an internal order less repressive of its own people and opportunities not destined to be buried by bureaucracy or disrupted by upheaval, the cycle of improvement between Washington and Beijing may have peaked.

Given a new world order in which threats are not as dire or as neatly defined as the erstwhile challenge from Moscow, in which resources are scarce and demand inordinate, the United States does not need China as much and will be both less generous and less forgiving. Americans may be right to question why their government should try so hard to placate Beijing. When their national security is at stake, Americans have been prepared to ally with the devil; in the absence of such a threat they prefer to associate with nations that share their values. Few today argue that China should be isolated or Sino-American ties be severed, but the time has come to rethink Sino-American relations, to find a common ground where benefits are truly mutual, where China and America see each other clearly, free from distractions posed by third parties and apocalyptic crises.

2 Han Suyin as quoted in Michael Schaller, United States and China in the Twentieth Century, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 70.

3 Chiang Kai-shek, China's Destiny, New York: Roy Publishers, 1947. The volume originally was published in China in 1943.

4 Robert Jervis, "The Impact of the Korean War on the Cold War," Journal of Conflict Resolution, December 1980.

5 Exciting new work on China and the Korean War has been appearing recently. See Zhai Zhihai and Hao Yufan, "China's Decision to Enter the Korean War: History Revisited," China Quarterly, March 1990; Chen Jian, "China's Changing Aims During the Korean War," manuscript; and the important review essay by Rosemary Foot, "Making Known the Unknown War: Policy Analysis of the Korean Conflict in the Last Decade," Diplomatic History, Summer 1991.

6 Pu Shan, an aide to Zhou Enlai in 1953, remarked in retrospect that the indignity of American presidents leashing or unleashing Chiang like a dog said much to Beijing about problems in the Washington-Taipei relationship. Author's interview with Pu Shan, Beijing, 1987.

8 Author's interview with Professor Wang Jisi, Peking University, 1987.

10 See Gordon Chang's controversial article "JFK, China and the Bomb," Journal of American History, March 1988.

11 U.S. officials simultaneously signaled to assure China that no direct threat was intended, according to Alien S. Whiting, who from 1962 to 1966 headed the Far East Division of the Intelligence and Research Office at the U.S. State Department, and Chinese diplomat and Warsaw negotiator Wang Bingnan. Author's interviews, 1988.

12 Richard M. Nixon, "Asia After Vietnam," Foreign Affairs, October 1967.

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