China: What Engagement Should Mean

December 1, 1996 Topic: Security Regions: Asia Tags: Chinese Nationalism

China: What Engagement Should Mean

Mini Teaser: The challenge of an ascendant China now requires a consistent, steady, long-term view.

by Author(s): Robert B. Zoellick

The United States enjoyed a united policy toward China for two
decades. That unity ended with Tiananmen Square. But the challenge of
an ascendant China now requires a consistent, steady, long-term view.
The United States must rebuild a bipartisan policy toward China based
on a strategy that can be supported by successive presidents and
Congresses, Republicans and Democrats.

Past U.S. policies toward China have reflected two very different
national traditions. One has drawn images of China, its people, and
its future salvation from America's missionary experience. The other
approach has viewed China in light of the realist's concepts of
power, national interest, and balancing relationships among great
states. At times, the United States has managed to fuse these two
traditions in an unlikely amalgam, although the compound has usually
displayed cracks created by countervailing forces.

Missionaries, Heretics, and Romantics

America has had a special relationship with China. We have
romanticized, and then demonized, China and its people, time and
again, in a pendulum of alternating attitudes, which led in turn to
swings in policy. America's missionary experience with China helped
shape these views. Our first widespread public contact with China
came from efforts in the nineteenth century to convert the Chinese to
Christianity, to rescue them from their condition, to educate them,
to make them like us.

It was an effort that tapped some of the best American impulses. The
missionary movement reached deep into Christian churches across the
United States, certainly far beyond the elite seaboard groups that
considered themselves the guardians of U.S. foreign policy. Millions
of children learned about China at Sunday school, or from evening
programs with returning missionaries who brought home pictures and
stories, and then asked for nickels and dimes to help the Chinese.

The missionaries' influence also extended to more select company.
After all, many missionaries to China were trained at Yale,
Princeton, Oberlin, and other leading schools, and their children
returned to become political leaders, scholars, and foreign service
officers. They became the American interpreters of China.

The children of missionaries also wrote books that influenced
America's attitude toward China. The most famous and influential of
these writers was Pearl Buck, whose book The Good Earth received the
Pulitzer Prize, sold 1.5 million copies, became a Broadway play, and
was transformed into a movie seen in the United States by an
estimated 23 million people. Nor was this a singular example of the
infatuation with China in America's popular culture. For later
generations, the popular film The Sand Pebbles portrayed the
confusing experience of the U.S. Navy and missionaries in a
bewildering China caught between the old ways and the new, while The
Last Emperor pictured Pu Yi's and China's twentieth-century journeys.

The images of China created by the missionaries were reinforced by
America's trading ties. The romantic stories of China clippers,
exotic lands, and vast fortunes to be made--or lost--captured
America's imagination. Unlike Europeans, Russians, and Japanese who
grasped territories from disintegrating Qing China, U.S. Secretary of
State John Hay stood for an "Open Door" that would allow all to
prosper from the "great China trade."

The romantic, missionary view of China has had important implications
for U.S. policies. When the Chinese have embraced the United States
and its ways, Americans have been smitten. So Americans admired and
committed themselves to Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, the Soong
family, the Flying Tigers, the YMCA and YWCA in China, Christian
schools, the stoic dignity of enduring peasants, and, in a later era,
ping-pong diplomacy and the modernizer Deng Xiaoping.

But when China refused to be as Americans imagined it, or worse,
rejected America, the United States responded with the combination of
fury and hurt reserved for heretics. Whether Taiping rebels, Boxers,
"Red" Chinese, "human wave" assaults in Korea, or thegray old men who
crushed the young demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, America could
not understand why these Chinese would not be like the United States
or would even attack it. So the pendulum of attitudes would swing,
from embrace to rejection and back again. Meanwhile, the Chinese, who
for centuries viewed themselves as living in the "Middle Kingdom", a
place above the rest of the earth if still short of heaven, must have
had a terrible time figuring out the all-too-earthy Americans.

Thucydides, Napoleon, and the Realists

There is another view of China--that of the realist. Realists have
been concerned with China's power, not its soul. They trace their
perspective to Thucydides, the great historian of the Peloponnesian
War. Thucydides wrote that the war among the great city-states of his
day was the inevitable result of the growth of Athens' power, and of
the fear it inspired in Sparta. Centuries later, another student and
practitioner of power, Napoleon, noted that China was a sleeping
giant, and that the world would quake when it awoke.

During the Second World War, the United States hoped to arm and train
huge Chinese armies to help fight the Japanese invaders; regardless
of the ideologies of Chinese Nationalists or Communists, these
realists concluded that America's interest would be served by a
unified Chinese effort against imperial Japan.

After 1949, when the Communists established control over mainland
China, some American realists recognized that China posed a new force
with which the United States must reckon. This power appeared allied
with the Soviet Union by reason of a shared ideology, and the Korean
War then led to a bloody encounter with this Chinese enemy. But
President Eisenhower and General Omar Bradley sought to avoid an
expanded ground war with China because of the priority they placed on
defending Europe from the Soviet Union. According to General Bradley,
a military contest on the Asian mainland would be "the wrong war, at
the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy." This
assessment of ends and means prevailed.

It took President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger, however, to
recognize that China's power might be balanced against that of the
Soviet Union. Ignoring America's fundamental differences with China's
political system, Nixon and Kissinger applied the realist's dictum:
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The strategic rapprochement
between the United States and China that began in 1971 was based on a
common interest in countering the power of the Soviet Union.

Over the past ten years, however, the Soviet Union's collapse and
China's amazing economic development have presented a new challenge
for realists. China is no longer a "card" to be played in a global
game against the Soviets. In a sense, the "card" has become the new
game. Napoleon's prophecy is coming true: China is now stirring,
shaking established foundations for policies in Asia and the world.

In some respects, China today is analogous to Germany at the end of
the last century. As rising regional powers with potentially global
influence, Germany then and China now are characterized by a mixture
of arrogance and insecurity. Germany expected, and China expects, to
be taken seriously. The challenge, now as then, is to demonstrate to
the rising power that it will benefit from integration within
regional and global systems, but also that it must accept the rules
of those systems or face negative consequences. The failure to deal
effectively with Germany's rise led to seventy years of conflict,
followed by the forty-five year division of Europe just recently
overcome. America needs a strategy toward China that avoids similar
mistakes. In the words of Senator Sam Nunn, "History should teach us
that established powers must provide consistent and credible signals
about their expectations and set forth reasonable terms on which they
are willing to incorporate the rising power into the international

It is time to stop the pendulum of policy positions toward China. We
need to recognize China for what it is--a huge, complex country, heir
to an ancient civilization, in the midst of enormous transformations.
At the same time, we need an approach that recognizes America for
what it is--and what it stands for. We need the wisdom of
realpolitik, wedded to the goals of America's exceptionalist

Ad Hoc Engagement Isn't Enough

As the Clinton administration struggled to rework its policy toward
China, it turned to the label "engagement" to describe its strategy.
Engagement points in the right direction, but it is not enough.
Indeed, ad hoc engagement between the United States and China,
without an integrated strategy to manage the inevitable problems, is
likely to lead to a short-term and short-sighted policy of merely
coping with crises, which will lead to increased political friction
in both countries.

Consider, for example, the prospects for economic engagement. China's
ongoing transformations are likely to create problems in the
Sino-American economic relationship. China still lacks an effective
system to protect property rights. It must deal with the problems of
reforming a large state-owned sector. Because its macroeconomic
policy instruments are only now being developed, China has lurched
through stop-go growth cycles, with concomitant surges of inflation.
Given its Mandarin heritage, the Chinese state also remains far too
willing to interfere by changing the rules (even retroactively) if it
does not like a result.

Essay Types: Essay