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Another Cold War? China This Time?

by Henry Butterfield Ryan on Jun 10, 1999

Henry Butterfield Ryan

Are we barging into another Cold War–this time with China?

Great powers, like male dogs, tend to fight. It’s a reflex, and only a firm hand on the leash can prevent it. With nations, governments must do the restraining. But it is very easy, and often politically rewarding, just to let the leash slip and see if your dog isn’t the top dog. But it’s a bad idea, especially when you’re dealing with great nations, not pooches. At the moment, the United States and China are growling at each other.

So what can we do?

First, the United States should resist the temptation to meddle in China’s internal affairs, repulsive as they may sometimes be to us. This will be especially difficult because a strong messianic strain has long run through U.S. foreign policy. So has a tendency to intervene in other countries’ domestic affairs.

When the American republic was young, we assumed that simply the example of our democratic society was a powerful force. Other nations, if they were wise, would follow it, but we would not try to force them. John Quincy Adams put the idea succinctly in 1821 when he said that the United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the independence and freedom of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

Still, influential voices in this country want us to ignore Adams’s advice in the case of China and to pressure Beijing into liberalizing its internal policies. Largely with that objective, Christian groups, trade unions, and politicians, including presidential hopefuls Gary Bauer and Pat Buchanan, oppose normal trade relations with China. About one-third of the House of Representatives, which votes annually on the matter, would also deny such relations. Most of these voices also resist China’s entry into the World Trade Organization until Beijing makes not just economic, but democratic reforms.

Having just observed the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, many Americans will find it hard not to sympathize with those views. As Adams implied, however, the U.S. government’s first responsibility is to the people of this country, not of China or anywhere else. To endanger our relations with a potential superpower over the question of how it governs its own people is contrary to the primary duty of the President and the Congress.

The second thing we should do in dealing with China is remember that it has good reason to worry about U.S. intentions. We have intervened in Chinese affairs since the first half of the 19th century. When the Europeans, and later the Japanese, were carving out spheres of influence in China, the Americans then insisted on normal trade relations — for the United States. Whatever trade terms other foreigners wrung out of the Chinese, we wanted the same. Furthermore, we insisted upon immunity for U.S. citizens in China from Chinese laws, a status they enjoyed from 1844 until 1939.

We have also intervened periodically in China with military forces. The last time was in the late 1940s, when U.S. Marines guarded trains, mines, and other facilities for the Chinese Nationalists, who were then fighting the founders of today’s communist government, a deployment almost unknown to Americans.

In 1950, during the Korean War, when American troops came within a stone’s throw of Chinese territory, an estimated 260,000 Chinese soldiers poured across the border to push them and their allies away. The Chinese attack caused many influential Americans, including Douglas MacArthur, commander of the allied forces, to call for war on China itself. Furthermore, President Harry S. Truman said in 1950 that the atomic bomb might be used against China.

The Chinese have not forgotten those events. During the riots in China in May following the U.S. aircraft bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, mobs cried, “Remember the Korean War.” American legislators and policymakers would do well to recall some of this history when dealing with China.

So then should we bow to Chinese geopolitical demands? Of course not. We were right to oppose Chinese sales of nuclear technology, and we should continue to do what little we can to get China out of Tibet. And certainly we should remain firmly at Taiwan’s side until it can take a secure place in a democratic China.

But although the world and our place in it has changed greatly since 1821, we still should remember Adams’s warning not to go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” That includes Chinese dragons.


Henry Butterfield Ryan is a writer for the History News Service. He is also an associate of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University, and a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge.