Following Nixon’s surprise trip to Beijing in 1972, U.S. attitudes toward China shifted suddenly and dramatically. After 20-plus years of deep hostility that included the Korean and Vietnam wars, China reclaimed the prominent place it had held in the American imagination from the mid-19th century through World War II. In the early 20th century, American missionaries, backed by contributions from church congregations across the United States, built hospitals, universities and libraries across China. In the same period, China’s president, Chiang Kai-shek, and his wife were baptized Christians close to U.S. political and corporate leaders. Americans saw China as a kind of special project — recreating America in Asia’s most important country. Against this backdrop the defeat of Chiang at the hands of Mao’s communists was a bitter pill.
But with the Nixon opening followed shortly by the death of Mao and the ascension of Deng Xiaoping, nearly everything looked possible again, at least economically and politically. China’s walled-off economy opened up, free enterprise was welcome, markets flowered, Chinese students flocked to American universities and U.S. businesses set up shop in China. Deng and his immediate successors were determined to transform a country that had been left destitute and nearly ruined by Mao’s demented ideological campaigns. Deng’s aspirations were distilled in a pithy slogan that actually originated in late 19th century Japan — “rich country; strong army.” Deng was a nationalist determined to restore China’s historic wealth and power. But his aspirations required American help, particularly science, technology and money (investment). If General Motors established a factory in China, it would produce not just cars but more technically literate Chinese workers along with the relative prosperity their wages generated. Americans — government, corporate and academic — saw a win-win situation. Nike would produce shoes in China at a fraction of what it would cost in Oregon, Chinese students would pay handsomely to attend American colleges, and Chinese officials educated in the United States would embrace American values and would see policy choices in much the same way as their U.S. counterparts. This hopeful future was captured in a phrase coined by a senior U.S. official, Robert Zoellick, who spoke of China as a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs.
Zoellick, speaking on behalf of the U.S. government, envisioned a China that understood how much it benefited from the economic and political order in Asia underwritten by the United States since World War II. That order consisted of a rich variety of independent states from Japan to Thailand to Australia that coexisted peacefully and engaged in commerce to great mutual advantage. The United States acted as a benign overseer — keeping the peace, facilitating trade and assuring that critical sea lanes remained open and secure. China, more than any other country, had reaped the rewards of this regional order. If Beijing accepted the role of responsible stakeholder, it would continue to prosper and in time would assume its natural place as Asia’s regional great power. Listen to someone like Kissinger talk about China and you heard a vision of a kind of U.S.-China partnership managing a new Asian golden age. This happy prospect was broadly shared in Asia itself, from Seoul to Singapore to Canberra and beyond.
But that shared vision rested on a fragile foundation of wishful thinking. By 2008 or so there were a number of disturbing signs, including China’s rapid naval buildup in the South China Sea accompanied by increasingly explicit statements that these international waters were actually part of Chinese territory. It was as if the United States suddenly announced that America’s borders encompassed the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. When Xi Jinping became China’s president in 2012, there was more wishful thinking that he would be a friendly reformer. Instead we have a leader who has imposed an increasingly totalitarian political order within China while maneuvering to position himself as China’s president-for-life. Every day Xi looks more like Stalin than Deng.
More significant for the rest of the world, Xi has detailed a vision for national “rejuvenation” that sees China as not just Asia’s great power, but as its dominant authority. Other Asian countries must accept subservience to China’s will. As for the South China Sea — it has been Chinese territory “since ancient times.” The U.S. Navy has no business being there. Meanwhile, U.S. government agencies along with business leaders have become increasingly alarmed by a long record of Chinese appropriation (through corporate takeovers and outright theft) of critical American technologies, many of them with direct military applications. Through Huawei, Beijing is currently engaged in a huge effort to control the next generation of digital technologies worldwide while Chinese diplomacy has become increasingly hard-edged and demanding — see things China’s way or else. All this has produced a fundamental shift in American attitudes toward China. A policy elite that even five years ago was very much of two minds regarding China is now remarkably unified in seeing China as unfriendly and threatening.
But reality is complex, if it is anything. The U.S. and Chinese economies are still deeply intertwined. For example, the current pandemic has highlighted the fact that a large proportion of America’s pharmaceuticals are produced in China. It is entirely possible that the first effective vaccine against COVID-19 will be developed in China. A personal anecdote: Like many Americans, I have been unable to obtain surgical face masks for daily use. A Chinese friend contacted me and said she had received a box of masks from her family in China. Would I like some? I said, “of course.”