The Skeptics

How the GOP Stopped Loving China

The New York Times editorial board has condemned the GOP’s new platform, just authorized at the Republican National Convention, as the “most extreme” in memory. This may well be the case, but the platform is also remarkable for something the Times does not comment on: belligerence and a new cynicism towards China. To show how this really is something new, this article reviews GOP platforms since Nixon’s rapprochement with China and traces the evolution thereafter of GOP disillusionment.

In 1972 the Republican platform boasted, “President Nixon’s visit to the People's Republic of China was . . . an historic milestone in his effort to transform our era from one of confrontation to one of negotiation.” Relations between the two countries were seen as promoting “an important contribution to world peace,” as the 1976 platform reaffirmed. Despite cultural and political differences, the relationship was based above all on “the need to maintain peace and stability in Asia” as the 1980 platform put it. In 1984, Republicans spelled out what they meant by the euphemistic “peace and stability”: “Despite fundamental differences in many areas, both nations share an important common objective: opposition to Soviet expansionism.” By 1988, when Reagan’s détente with the USSR was in full swing, the platform approved later that year cut out the anti-Soviet rhetoric, basing the U.S.–China relationship instead on “mutually beneficial trade,” and China’s continued economic and political opening up.

1992 heralded an important shift in the GOP’s position on China. Now without any Soviet threat, apparently no longer particularly pulled by the China trade, and certainly reeling from the disillusionment of Tiananmen, the new platform baldly and brusquely declared: “Our policy toward China is based on support for democratic reform. We need to maintain the relationship with China so that we can effectively encourage such reform. We will continue to work toward the day when the Chinese people will finally complete their journey to an open society, free of the deplorable restrictions on personal liberties that still exist.” GOP support for the U.S.–China relationship was solely focused on encouraging democratic reforms in China. The 1996 platform, which hardly mentioned China, concurred, even while promising—for the first time—“vigilance with regard to its military potential.”

The 2000 Republican Convention authorized a platform that put trade back on the agenda, leading the GOP to support China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Even so, there was little optimism about China, which was called “America’s key challenge in Asia” and accused of proliferating weapons of mass destruction. Even so, the platform held out hope that China would still achieve a democratic transformation and promised that it would be welcomed into international society if it did. In 2000, the GOP saw China as an illiberal state, a growing security threat, and a valuable trading partner, but still not—overall—a particularly important country.

By 2004, the GOP platform took China much more seriously, offering more details than any platform since Nixon went to China. It is in this platform that the declaration—which since has become a mantra among U.S. government officials—appears: “We welcome the emergence of a strong, peaceful and prosperous China.” But there’s something important to understand here. This GOP welcome has always been conditional, as the following sentence from the 2002 National Security Strategy makes clear: “The democratic development of China is crucial to that future.” The democratic conditional was based on a syllogism that would be repeated for the next eight years: “Eventually, men and women who are allowed to control their own wealth will insist on controlling their own lives and their own country.” Economic freedom was step one; social and religious freedom had to necessarily follow, for freedom is “indivisible,” or so went the idea.