Can there ever in the history of the world be a more complicated, love-hate relationship locked in interdependency as that between the United States and China?
In the beginning, when the United States was young and China already very old, the U.S. emerged in China’s eyes as something better and less bullying than the European powers that were gathering to feast on China’s weakness. The United States demanded no concession ports, and, for a while, was better known for its educators and missionaries than its gunboats. Then as now Chinese loved coming to America for higher education.
In America’s eyes, the idea of a yellow peril rising to threaten the world always vied with trade considerations and a romance with Chinese civilization. During the Cold War, Russians used to complain that Americans essentially liked China while they never felt that way about Russia.
In the early years of the last century, American ideals were cherished by Chinese intellectuals chafing under the heavy hand of tradition. President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points were heard in China as they were across the world, but disillusion came when China saw Wilson didn’t really mean it. The Treaty of Versailles gave Germany’s old possessions in China to Japan, instead of China.
America sent soldiers to help defeat the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, fought alongside China to defeat Japan in World War II, and then fought against China in Korea. A period of complete separation followed, only to see President Richard Nixon in China when the Chinese and the Americans decided they might need each other to confront the Soviet Union.
Since then China and the United States have loomed large in the other’s imagination. For the American left, China is draining jobs from American factories — as if the desire of American firms to outsource to China were China’s fault. Human rights, never China’s strong point, also figure in the left’s bill of particulars. On the right it was the paranoia of power. China is hell-bent to displace the United States as the world’s only superpower and needs to be thwarted at every turn. In cheap literature, the Chinese began to replace the Japanese as the new yellow peril of the post-war world.
For China, it’s the fear that the United States means to deny China its rightful place as a great regional power after centuries of Western dominance. The issue of Taiwan, which China claims, was masterfully side-stepped by Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai. But it remains a concern. Military confrontations erupt, with a serious incident involving an American spy plane when President George W. Bush first came to office, and a lesser one involving a spy ship in President Barack Obama’s first weeks. And, as they have for 100 years, the two sides occasionally demonize each other in the press.
It became a traditional dance for American politicians to denounce China when they ran for president — saying this time the United States was going to really crack down — only to then back down once they reached the White House. For the United States had developed a drug-like habit of indebtedness to China, while China had settled into a pattern of export dependency on the United States to keep its phenomenal growth going. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton only spoke the truth when she indicated that human rights issues were never going to interfere with economic considerations.
When George W. Bush came to power, his neo-conservatives seemed determined to paint China as an enemy. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted a policy of containment making a false comparison with the USSR. But, as it was with Bill Clinton before, and Obama after, keeping the China trade going always trumped.
The irony is that for years America urged China to privatize its economy, only to end up with creeping government ownership of its own.
Today, with America leading the way to global recession, you have China sternly warning the United States to look after China’s assets in America as a father might tell his son to be careful with the family car. Just as the United States cannot get too aggressive with the country holding so much of its debt, China views the United States as AIG-like: profligate, but too big and too important to let fail.
More GlobalPost dispatches on China:
A tough decision: Poke the dragon?
Sports: Femurs and lies
Barbie in the land of Chairman Mao