How America’s Foreign Policy Establishment Got China Wrong By James Curran

CHINA HAS begun to assert a grand vision of its own for a new world. Speaking at the Communist Party’s nineteenth Congress last October, President Xi Jinping presented his country’s authoritarian system as a “new option for other countries,” representing “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems of mankind.”
When President Donald Trump took the oath of office, the People’s Daily editorialized that “Western-style democracy used to be a recognized power in history to drive social development. But now it has reached its limits.” That kind of rhetoric, though bombastic, is increasingly a hallmark of what some call a pragmatic form of Chinese authoritarianism.
President Xi’s appeal to the legacy of Karl Marx can also be seen in these terms. The campaign in China to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the birth of the German philosopher was directed straight from the top. Xi extolled neither the perils of capitalist exploitation nor the class struggle but uses Marx’s life and work as a prism through which China can resist the bullying of Western imperialists and so reclaim its former greatness. The commemorations included a special program to ensure that message reached younger Chinese.
It would be a mistake, then, to force the current U.S.-Sino relationship into a neat, Cold War straitjacket. For one, the concept of the “West” in Chinese rhetoric is often loosely deployed: as Rana Mitter points out, it can be used to assail “liberalism and constitutional reform but not Marxism or industrial capitalism.” Second, Xi does not necessarily envisage the export of what he calls the “China model” or “China solution.” Where Soviet leaders came to see the preservation of the USSR as the overriding duty of all Communist parties and their supporters around the world, Xi presents the China model more as an example “for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” His argument is that China illuminates a new path to modernization, though it is not yet clear as to whether China is to actively lead this new world or to stand aloof as an example to developing countries.
IF ONE, however, is to make this Cold War comparison, it should be said that China has more claims than the former Soviet Union to be an ideological rival to the United States. It calls on the proud claim of five thousand years of continuous history, with a particular focus on the one hundred years of humiliation it suffered at the hands of the West from the middle of the nineteenth century. On the day Xi was sworn in as president in 2012, he and the new leadership team changed into more somber clothing and undertook a highly publicized visit to the National Museum of China, making a special point of taking in the permanent display that tells the story of the country’s “Road to Rejuvenation.” Speaking after his visit, Xi proclaimed that “the Chinese nation has suffered unusual hardship and sacrifice in the world’s modern history,” but its people “have never given in, have struggled ceaselessly, and have finally taken hold of their own destiny.”
Much of the alarm in the United States and indeed among other American allies in Asia about the ideological dimension of China’s rise emanates from the fact that this kind of rhetorical confidence and the projection of a more strident Chinese nationalism is accompanied by a range of both internal and external markers of Beijing’s growing muscularity at home and abroad. In February, Xi rewrote the national constitution to abolish presidential term limits; more recently he has not only deployed anti-ship cruise and surface-to-air missiles on contested territories in the South China Sea, but also dispatched bombers there too: all moves that Xi, in his September 2015 remarks at the White House, said he would not take. China also wants to be the first country to soft land a probe on the far side of the moon.
BUT JUST as China is starting to spread its strategic and geo-economic wings, the “America First” tendency of the Trump presidency is hardening. Whatever restraints imposed by the so called “adults in the room” during his first two years in office—the changes in the White House national security team mean that Trump is now on the loose, an untethered president doing as he wishes on the world stage. It is not just that Trump is swinging a wrecking ball through both the U.S. alliance and multilateral trading systems; the prevailing sense of anxiety is magnified by the fact that he is an avowed sceptic of the post-Second World War Pax Americana. Unlike the majority of his predecessors since 1945, Trump has not invoked the rhetoric of America’s missionary impulse. Indeed, he brandishes a kind of fatigue with both mythological and military overstretch, a sentiment he exploited on his path to the presidency.
Trump harks back to an earlier version of this myth identified with the Monroe Doctrine: the idea that the United States’ role is not to march its armies into other lands or help other countries but to stand apart from international troubles as a shining exemplar, to express a purity of purpose in its own backyard. The difference is that Trump is animated not so much by the virtues of splendid isolation but by grievance and resentment towards previous American leaders who in his eyes have betrayed their people by indulging in misguided and adventurous attempts to transplant democracy abroad. For him, the burden that the United States assumed in the Cold War and post-Cold War eras had become something of a charity project. Still, it is also the case that Trump wants to make America “great again,” believes that Washington should get its own way in the world and that by doing so he can re-establish U.S. global leadership.
In that sense, President Trump represents a difference in style rather than a clean break from American exceptionalist ideology.
But Trump is also widely criticized for eroding the “liberal international order,” which, since it was created and led by the United States for much of the period following Second World War, is tantamount to charging him with undermining the American idea itself. A roll call of foreign policy grandees in the United States has lined up to excoriate the president for what they see as his fracturing of the American ethos. “Most often,” wrote former Deputy Secretary of State Bob Zoellick, “U.S. nationalism and internationalism have been in synchrony, not conflict, and that mixture created America’s unique global leadership.” Similarly, former senior foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton, Jake Sullivan, sees the task now as figuring out “how to convince people that principled nationalism and internationalism are not incompatible.” Seen in this light, Trump is driving a stake through the country’s very essence. Such a state of affairs is profoundly disturbing for an elite nurtured by deeply held beliefs in U.S. primacy. It is little wonder that American bookshelves are groaning under the weight of new tomes attempting to diagnose the causes of this ideological crisis.
Adding to this sense of drift is the perception in Washington and elsewhere that China, via the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the unfurling of its Belt and Road initiative, is determined over time to replace that order with a new one of its own. Late last year, the U.S. National Security Strategy’s nomination of China as a “revisionist” power was in part a response to this new departure in Beijing’s ambition. More recently, Vice President Mike Pence’s no-nonsense speech on the United States’ policy towards China at the Hudson Institute in October, 2018, and his forthright remarks about Chinese strategic and economic behavior during his recent swing through Asia, have caused a number of excitable commentators both here and abroad to herald the inauguration of a new U.S.-led Cold War, or “Cold War 2.0,” against China.
FOR THE United States and its vision of the world, it wasn’t meant to turn out this way. In his important book The China Fantasy , James Mann demonstrated that since the late 1970s, the American people have been told an optimistic tale of China’s future by their political leaders and pundits, who in various ways have pushed the line that China’s embrace of capitalism would ultimately lead to greater political liberalization and democracy—that China ultimately would become “just like us.” Bill Clinton, for example, famously told Chinese president Jiang Zemin at a news conference in Washington in October 1997 that his country was on “the wrong side of history.” And, as a presidential candidate speaking on China policy, George W. Bush observed that the “case for trade is not just monetary, but moral.” “Economic freedom,” he added, “creates habits of liberty.”
Other Western leaders have followed suit. In 2005 British prime minister Tony Blair announced that there was an “unstoppable momentum” towards democracy in China. And only last year Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop echoed a version of this mindset when she told an audience in Singapore—with China squarely in her sights—that “history also shows democracy and democratic institutions are essential for nations if they are to reach their economic potential.” Never mind, of course, that democracy might also prompt an even more intense form of Chinese nationalism, a development that would hardly be in the strategic interests of U.S. allies in Asia.
THERE ARE signs of late, however, that America is beginning to face up to the collapse of the core assumptions shaping its approach to China. While this reassessment has been going on for some time amongst academics and commentators, it has been rare for senior policymakers to publicly do so.
In Foreign Affairs , two senior Asia officials from the Obama administration, Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner, concede the flawed foundations of U.S.-China policy. They confess that there is a need for a “China reckoning,” a recognition that the underlying beliefs driving U.S. policy “have started to look increasingly tenuous” and that the “gap between American expectations and Chinese realities” has grown. In short, the conviction that U.S. power and hegemony could “readily mould China to the United States” has been shown to have feet of clay. Far from cultivating a greater political openness in China, both the liberalization of trade and the IT revolution have been used as tools for the imposition of greater Chinese state control. Rifling through the back catalogue of the relationship over the past half-century, the authors discern America’s China dream consistently falling short, dashed against the rocks of Beijing’s relentless rise.
Their accounting for this failure, however, is altogether too easy.
First, Campbell and Ratner argue that America’s “strategic distraction” in the Middle East since 9/11, along with the global financial crisis and the perception that the United States is in decline, has allowed China to steal the march on the United States in Asia and elsewhere. Second, a suite of Trump policies, they say, look set to compound the problem by locking Washington into a confrontational international stance at the very time that China is showing itself to be “increasingly competitive without being confrontational.” The clear implication is that if only the United States had not been a victim of cruel circumstance at the turn of the century, and if only it now had a president embodying the same commitment to benevolent American globalism as those before him, the calculus in U.S.-China relations might perhaps be quite different.
Crucially, Campbell and Ratner argue that Washington also needs to focus more on its own “power and behaviour.” They know that a dose of humility is in order, that the “hopeful thinking” of transforming China can no longer shape America’s Asian strategy.
What they fail to acknowledge, however, is the pervasive influence of American nationalist mythology on U.S.-China policy over the last seventy years. Their argument is replete with references to America’s “expectations,” “aspirations,” “faith” and “optimism” over what China might become, but at no stage do they pause to give serious consideration to either the sources or origins of such American thinking. Arguably, getting to grips with the influence of these deep-seated beliefs is the harder task, since it requires its own reckoning with the very essence of America’s national identity.
In similar fashion, Aaron Friedberg, formerly Asian affairs adviser to Republican vice president Dick Cheney, argues that the sources of U.S. failure on its China policy can be put down largely to the “resilience” and “ruthlessness” of the Chinese Communist Party. That may be so, but intriguingly, Friedberg characterizes the American and Western leaders’ hope that engagement would “tame and transform” Beijing as akin to a “gamble.” In doing so, he, like Campbell and Ratner, effectively plays down the powerful ideological roots of America’s China vision.
THE FORMAL responses to Campbell and Ratner’s article reveal traces of the same blind spots. Thus, the former U.S. ambassador to China, J. Stapleton Roy, makes a rigid distinction between the use of values in justifying American policies and the hard-headed national interests that formulate them. Dismissing entirely what he refers to as “gauzy dreams of democracy” in U.S. rhetoric towards China and the “false premise” that U.S. policy was intended to “remake China in the United States’ image,” Roy nevertheless is not immune to the impulse of American exceptionalism and its capacity to shape the kind of China Washington wants. Echoing Robert Zoellick’s desire for Beijing to act as a “responsible stakeholder’ in the international system, Roy contends that a responsibly behaved Washington can still “balance China’s growing strength and foster its peaceful rise.” Having denounced the idealism of previous policymakers he nevertheless reveals a certain susceptibility to the very same motives. Washington, he writes, needs to recapture its global leadership role by emphasizing that “U.S. policies seek the common good, not simply the good of the United States.” Woodrow Wilson could hardly have put it any better.
Thomas Christensen and Patricia Kim are even more effusive in proposing:
“…the United States should continue encouraging Chinese leaders to seek political stability and greater prosperity through more liberty and freer markets. The United States can do this in two ways: by getting its own house in order to set an example that inspires Chinese citizens and elites and by continuing to try to persuade Chinese leaders at all levels that political and economic reform will produce more stability and wealth than will doubling down on statist economics and authoritarianism.”
Like Roy, and indeed Campbell and Ratner, the assumption here is that if America had a president committed to the ethic of American globalism, the state of play in the U.S.-China relationship would be much more to America’s advantage. Such a view also taps into the same kinds of exceptionalist myths about the United States as the model for China, the guiding hand overseeing a teleological progression towards greater democratic liberalization and reform. In short, Christensen and Kim envisage a China that is remade in the American image, harking back to precisely the kind of approach that dominated U.S. thinking on China from the 1970s. Nevertheless, they do highlight the real dilemma faced by the Chinese leadership, namely how to maintain its tight authoritarian grip at the same time as allowing the market to more freely allocate resources.
THOUGH THEY do not define it in these terms, what Campbell and Ratner in effect are tilting against is a longstanding American nationalist view of how China ought ultimately to behave. This has deep roots in the history of the U.S.-China relationship, dating at least back to the late nineteenth century when growing numbers of Americans first encountered China. These Americans, as historian Michael Hunt showed some time ago, might have reinforced earlier stereotypes of the Chinese as “weak, vulnerable and backward,” but they also at the same time envisaged what China “might become under the patronage of American diplomacy and the invigorating influence of American finance, trade and mission work.” That particular image of China “appealed powerfully to their countrymen, ever on the lookout for an arena to exercise their greatness and conditioned to expect the westward flow of civilisation.” The Open Door Policy has often been characterized as the epitome of this American special relationship with China—a resolute Uncle Sam preventing the wanton economic carve up of the Middle Kingdom by ruthless European imperialists.
So powerful was this American image of China that, by 1935, when the Assistant Secretary of State John Van Antwerp MacMurray, himself a former U.S. minister to China in the late 1920s, came to write an assessment of the East Asian situation following Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, he felt compelled to underline the residual hold of such attachments. America’s ongoing sentimental attitudes toward China, he wrote, were
“based upon rather naïve and romantic assumptions… upon a somewhat patronising pride in the belief that our Government had borne the part of China against selfish nations, but still more upon the fact that our church organisations had through several generations cultivated a favorable interest in China in support of their missionary enterprises therein.”
MacMurray’s memorandum is highlighted in an insightful new analysis of George Kennan’s approach to East Asia by former intelligence analyst Paul Heer.
Heer shows too that John Paton Davies, himself born in China to missionary parents, and one of the State Department’s so called “China hands” in the 1930s and 1940s, later drew similar conclusions to MacMurray in coming to terms with American policy towards China in the 1930s and 1940s. Davies believed that the missionary influence and U.S. guilt at not having intervened to protect China from Japanese invasion all fed a “surcharged sentimental attachment” in some policymakers in Washington. But the point here was that MacMurray and Davies argued that such emotional currents unnecessarily inflated the importance of China in U.S. strategic thinking and planning.
That was to change, of course, as it became clearer after the Second World War that Chiang Kai Shek’s prospects for maintaining control in China were diminishing. Some American officials remained loath to come to terms with the prospect of a permanent Communist power in China. In 1948, Kennan’s Policy Planning Staff judged that the Chinese communists, who they believed were in thrall to Moscow, would ultimately be on the receiving end of a nationalist backlash from the Chinese people for their subservience to the Kremlin. Mao’s kowtowing to the Soviets would so provoke the “powerful sentiments of nationalism and xenophobia against a future Communist regime” that “its chances for long term success would be drastically reduced.”
That sentiment found its ultimate form in a crucial State Department White Paper which sought to challenge criticism of Washington’s China policy, and which was released in August 1949 as the People’s Liberation Army stood on the cusp of defeating the Chinese Nationalist forces. That paper likewise judged that the Chinese people had been duped by Mao’s Communists into being mere puppets of the Kremlin. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson told President Harry Truman, the Communist leaders had “forsworn their Chinese heritage and publicly announced their subservience to a foreign power.” What he was saying was that Chinese communism was not a genuinely Chinese movement. These Chinese puppets of Russia had tricked the Chinese people. Nationalism and communism in this view were incompatible. It was a tragic misreading of the politics on the ground, one repeated time and again during America’s Cold War in Asia.
Ultimately, Acheson believed, “the profound civilization and the democratic individualism of China will reassert themselves and she will throw off the foreign yoke.” Moreover, he added that the United States should “encourage all developments in China which now and in the future work towards this end.” And of course, that “end” was to be the Chinese acceptance of democracy and liberty, America’s national myth.
Far from being some kind of superficial or “gauzy” gloss, the ideals driving this policy had real effects. For a quarter of a century after the coming to power of the Communists in China, America paid a high economic price for being true to what its national ideals dictated. Washington refused to recognize the regime, treating the People’s Republic as a pariah nation and banning Americans from any contact or connection with the country, including economic ties such as trade and investment. But many of its allies, including Australia, would not agree to such extreme self-denying measures and continued to trade profitably with Beijing.
THIS INABILITY to face up to the costs of sticking by these ideals is in some ways understandable given the American experience in the wake of the Second World War. At that time, the United States’ economic, military and cultural prowess reinforced its sense of ideological and therefore moral superiority. America had taken on a recognized and indeed necessary role of world leadership: it proclaimed itself to be the hope of all peoples in a troubled world. And it is of course the case that, Vietnam and the invasion of Iraq aside, the U.S.-led international order has ushered in a period of relative peace and prosperity over the past seventy years.
Identifying and acknowledging moments where the United States has suffered strategic failure, however, is a more difficult proposition. Indeed, because of the innate power of the American national myth as an ideological force shaping U.S. foreign policy, its failures can only be ever approached from something of an oblique angle.
Thus, if only the Chinese Nationalists had not disregarded the advice of George Marshall and embarked on such an ambitious military campaign, or if only American aid had been better managed by Chiang’s forces, China might not have been “lost.” In South Vietnam, America might very well have triumphed if only the right local leader could have been found to install the kind of democracy the Americans envisaged taking root there; or if only the generals had been given sufficient numbers of troops and not been thwarted by meek presidents back in Washington. Likewise, in Iraq, the United States may well have been able to establish a flourishing democratic haven in Baghdad if only the planning for the post-conflict phase had been more thorough.
China’s rise, then, presents this American national mythology with an altogether different challenge. What does it mean for the deeply ingrained habits and culture of American primacy? It is hard to see a U.S. president or national security adviser developing a strategy to accommodate Chinese power. In part, this is because it will be very difficult for Americans to relinquish their sense of having been bequeathed a special providence in world affairs. They simply cannot conceive of themselves as a “normal nation.”
Witness, for example, the call to arms from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who in a recent address to the U.S. diplomatic corps pledged to restore his department’s “swagger,” a stance he said came from both confidence in “America’s essential rightness” and an “aggressiveness born of the righteous knowledge that our cause is just, special and built upon America’s core principles.” Again, it is worth stressing that this is no rhetorical fanfare. Pompeo means what he says. Speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in late July, he referred to growing moves in allied countries to prevent interference in their internal affairs by the Chinese government. Extolling the moves that the United States has taken in this regard via the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act, Pompeo remarked that “we are beginning to strike that comprehensive response versus China that I think will ultimately do what has historically happened—allow America to prevail.”
And yet middle America’s rejection of the foreign policy establishment at the last presidential election was in part due to feelings of betrayal at being sold down the proverbial policy river over preceding decades by precisely the kinds of ambitious idealism that Pompeo is invoking. Indeed, many Americans who themselves formed the military backbone of the Cold War struggle have withdrawn their consent for this kind of foreign policy. And they have expressed a certain frustration with the grand promises of the Washington elites: that they were witnessing the “end of history” with the collapse of communism in eastern Europe; that China would eventually become democratic; or that Afghanistan and Iraq would become beacons of Jeffersonian liberty in the Middle East.
Writing elsewhere, Ely Ratner observes that despite the contest between the United States and China for the “heart and soul” of this century, “Washington and the American people have yet to grapple with this reality in any meaningful way.” A critical but to date sadly neglected part of that process must surely involve taking a good, hard look at how the myths of American nationalism have influenced the course of U.S.-China policy since 1949.
James Curran is professor of modern history at Sydney University and non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Fighting with America: Why Saying ‘No’ to America Wouldn’t Rupture the Alliance (Penguin, 2016) and Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War (Melbourne University Press, 2015).

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