A War With China Would Be Bloody—And Stupid
Sidney Rittenberg knows a thing or two about China. During World War II, he learned fluent Mandarin as a U.S. Army linguist, worked in China, left the Army and joined the Chinese Communist Party. He became friends with Mao Zedong and spent 16 years in solitary confinement—as Mao’s prisoner.
We recently spoke to Rittenberg about his experiences in Maoist China, his imprisonment and why he became disillusioned with the party. In his 93 years, he’s seen China and America at their best … and their worst.
Now as tensions between Washington and Beijing grow, Rittenberg worries that American officials are returning to old habits of seeing China as a mysterious and hostile power. The former apparatchik thinks this is a grave mistake.
On July 9, Gen. Joseph Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee that China—and Russia, too—present the greatest threat to American security.
“They present the greatest existential threat,” Dunford said. “If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.”
China is rapidly upgrading its military and expanding its navy. The United States is undergoing a “Pacific pivot,” shifting military forces to the region and its strategic waterways. To be sure, Rittenberg blames both Washington and Beijing for the veritable arms race between the two countries.
But in the second part of our extensive interview, Rittenberg warned that a potential conflict with China would be disastrous … and bloody. He doesn’t believe it would be a war America could win. “We’re not very good at learning,” he said.
In any case, he believes the United States and China have far more—and better—reasons to work together than to fight. He argues that this has been the case historically, even when Washington and Beijing didn’t have diplomatic relations at all.
Rittenberg derives his views from his relationships and experiences. He’s a retired academic and ran a consulting business for American firms seeking to do business in China. He also twice translated for Mao during the communist leader’s interactions with the U.S. government during the 1940s.
Back then, Mao made several overtures to the Harry Truman administration, even as his rebels fought the U.S.-backed regime of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Mao’s reasons were pragmatic—he wanted normal diplomatic relations with the United States so he wouldn’t have to depend on Joseph Stalin.
As Rittenberg sees it, Washington missed a golden opportunity to exploit a growing rift between the Soviet Union and China’s future communist leaders—and perhaps avoid future wars in Korea and Vietnam. Or at least, make those conflicts far less costly.
Besides, the Soviets were stingy. Following the Chinese civil war, the communists requested a $300 million loan from Moscow. Instead, Stalin gave them $4.4 million. Another time, Mao told Rittenberg of an attempt to buy smelting equipment from the Soviet Union. Stalin slapped a condition on the sale—the Chinese had to buy Russian rocks to go with the equipment.
“Mao told Stalin that there were plenty of rocks in China, but Stalin said they came as a set,” Rittenberg recalled with a laugh. “He said China couldn’t have one without the other.”
China’s communist leadership soon locked Rittenberg away at Stalin’s insistence—the Soviet dictator thought he was a Western spy. Mao didn’t release Rittenberg until 1955, after Stalin’s death.
Sino-Soviet relations didn’t improve when Nikita Khrushchev took power, either. The new leader continued Stalin’s propensity to condescend to the Chinese, which offended them. “I remember once seeing Khrushchev come out of that room purple faced, madder than you can hardly imagine,” Rittenberg recalled of a meeting between the Khrushchev and Mao.
During one visit, the Soviet leader told Mao he expected the Chinese to invite Soviet technical advisers to sit in during all committee meetings. When the Chinese leader told him they would instead brief the Russians on whatever decisions they made, Khrushchev protested.
“Khrushchev told [Mao] ‘all our comrades in Eastern Europe do it this way,’” Rittenberg recalled. “Mao told him, ‘I know what happens in Eastern Europe, that’s why we’re not going to do that.’”
By the 1960s, Khrushchev had recalled most Soviet advisers.
Pres. Richard Nixon—who ironically rose to prominence as an ardent anti-communist—finally pushed the United States to recognize that communist governments weren’t in lockstep with each other.
He made China a priority, arguing that “there is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.” His 1973 visit led to a historic thaw in relations between the two powers.
“We’ve taken a strategic position with every president since Nixon, that a strong China is good for America,” Rittenberg said. “Despite what you hear, relations on the ground are actually very good.”
He said that post-Nixon, American leaders have generally welcomed Chinese prosperity as an opportunity for mutual growth and healthy competition. He’s not wrong. Dozens of U.S. government agencies regularly hold high and mid-level talks with their Chinese counterparts—a level of engagement Rittenberg argued America has with few world governments.
In 2007, Gen. Peter Pace—one of Dunford’s predecessors—accepted a Chinese invitation to tour the country. He became the highest ranking American military official to visit China since the 1940s.