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Is China a Permanent Enemy?

If there is any word that should be removed from the world politics vocabulary, it is “permanent.” The subject, i.e. foreign policy, international politics, has a history that almost makes a mockery of the adjective and testifies to a near-total lack of anything durable within its midst. The only thing, tragically, that seems to endure is the universal rivalry, enmity, and, ultimately, war that has existed within and between the separate units. Be they city-states, empires, or nation-states, they have invariably taken up the “sword” to resolve their differences in six millennia of history.

Warfare in nearly all societies

Since warfare is seemingly endemic to human nature, it has accompanied mankind throughout time regardless of the political environment or “system” involved. There is hardly a society on earth that has not undergone, in one manner or another, some form of “civil” or internal conflict. The greatest war in American history still remains the Civil War, despite U.S. involvement across the globe from the beginning. Total American casualties of both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the current War on Terror still would not surpass the figures of the Civil War. That, even more astonishing, in a population then of only 32 million.

Although the exact number of actual military conflicts in recorded history is nearly impossible to count, a general figure would number in a minimum of tens of thousands, a maximum of hundreds of thousands. The most useful estimate has recorded that approximately 90 to 95 percent of human societies have engaged in war at one time or another, many of them in endless and chronic war with bordering neighbors. As a single case, note that French armies crossed into Germanic regions on no less than thirty occasions long before the Prussian invasion of 1870.

Unpredictable diplomatic relations

The history of diplomatic relations shows a remarkably similar pattern, i.e. inconsistency, unpredictability. The U.S. fought two of history’s greatest wars against Germany in the last century, but, after the second, Germany became the most important and reliable U.S. ally in continental Europe. Shortly after the atom bomb ended the war with Japan, that country became the same in Asia (both still are).

The first two major American wars were against Great Britain and they aided the Confederacy in the Civil War. Yet, for over a century the “Anglo-American” relationship has become “special” and has defined the nature of the twentieth century from beginning to end.  After a near-quarter century of conflict/war against North Vietnam, the U.S. has now recognized the unified country and has normal and stable relations with them (so much for the “domino” theory).

History of U.S.-China relations

An examination of US-China relations would reveal the same conflicting scenario. At the beginning, the U.S. was the only country on earth to support China when it was occupied by a host of foreigners from both Europe and Asia. In 1899, Secretary of State John Hay (who was Lincoln’s personal aide) sent the so-called “Open Door” notes advocating that the others respect China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. From that point forward, the U.S. continued to defend the Chinese cause which, on reflection, became the chief issue separating the U.S. with imperial Japan. Pearl Harbor and the Pacific war was the result while the U.S. continued to support the Chinese Nationalist government, first against Japan and then against Mao Zedong and the Communists.

The Communist victory over the Nationalists in 1949 saw a reversal of policies between China and the U.S. Washington supported Chiang Kai-shek’s government on Taiwan while the Communist mainland joined the Soviet Union and become an Asian Cold War enemy.

This went on during the early Cold War, and the two became bitter opponents, with the U.S. assuming that Beijing was firmly in line with Moscow in a common global and ideological front. But this was not the case at all, and, by the 1960s, it became apparent that China and the Soviets harbored profound historic, ideological, and strategic differences and that the “China-Soviet split” opened up still more opportunities for creative statecraft.

In 1972, the Nixon Administration, led by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, made a series of overtures to China that ultimately led to the “Shanghai Communique” and an open diplomatic rupture between the two Communist giants. Into that breach was a new and positive American presence in Asia, particularly after the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. Another “about face” began.

Eventually the U.S. recognized the mainland (1978), and Taiwan was downgraded to “representative” status. The Shanghai Communique forbade any one country to “seek hegemony in the Asian-Pacific region,” thus marking an informal rapprochement between Beijing and Washington. The USSR, in the meantime, was left out of the picture, and began the eventual process leading to its own dissolution (1991).

Current U.S.-China relations

There has been no major Asian war since while the U.S.-China relationship has been in flux. Taiwan’s status remains ambiguous, as both countries formally recognized that Taiwan is technically part of “One China,” while the U.S. continues to support the autonomy of the Taipei government. The Taiwan Strait remains one of the world’s most dangerous “flashpoints,” while China’s assertive behavior in claiming the South China Sea still presents a volatile region for open war. But control of adjacent sea lanes has rarely been occasion for world war between great powers.

Trade has been the greatest obstacle to “normalcy” with China in the Trump Administration, but the ratio of imports to exports, as with sea lanes, is usually negotiable.

If there is one area of the world in which relationships between political units continue to fester, it is in East Asia. Practically every critical issue remains in a continuous but precarious flow of momentum. The past record gives profound testimony both to the dangers and opportunities that present themselves to the great powers. One can emphasize one or the other, but the decision to take advantage of opportunities offers the best hope that resolution of issues can be peacefully arranged.

Overall, East Asian strategic history demonstrates the temporal and fleeting nature of world politics.  This, however, should encourage, rather than restrain, twenty-first century leaders to seek solutions that will avoid war and create stability. For American foreign policy, the opportunities are there for the taking, as before.

There’s a difference between “permanent” and “final.” The first can mean “perpetual,” while the second has but one meaning, “the end.” With the first, there is always hope, with the second there is none.

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