The United States has always had an outsize sense of its ability to determine China’s course. Again and again, its ambitions have come up short. After World War II, George Marshall, the U.S. special envoy to China, hoped to broker a peace between the Nationalists and Communists in the Chinese Civil War. During the Korean War, the Truman administration thought it could dissuade Mao Zedong’s troops from crossing the Yalu River. The Johnson administration believed Beijing would ultimately circumscribe its involvement in Vietnam. In each instance, Chinese realities upset American expectations.
With U.S. President Richard Nixon’s opening to China, Washington made its biggest and most optimistic bet yet. Both Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, assumed that rapprochement would drive a wedge between Beijing and Moscow and, in time, alter China’s conception of its own interests as it drew closer to the United States. In the fall of 1967, Nixon wrote in this magazine, “The world cannot be safe until China changes. Thus our aim, to the extent that we can influence events, should be to induce change.” Ever since, the assumption that deepening commercial, diplomatic, and cultural ties would transform China’s internal development and external behavior has been a bedrock of U.S. strategy. Even those in U.S. policy circles who were skeptical of China’s intentions still shared the underlying belief that U.S. power and hegemony could readily mold China to the United States’ liking.
Nearly half a century since Nixon’s first steps toward rapprochement, the record is increasingly clear that Washington once again put too much faith in its power to shape China’s trajectory. All sides of the policy debate erred: free traders and financiers who foresaw inevitable and increasing openness in China, integrationists who argued that Beijing’s ambitions would be tamed by greater interaction with the international community, and hawks who believed that China’s power would be abated by perpetual American
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