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MAY 4, 2012 12:50PM

Ideals and Self-Interest in Sino-American Relations: History

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For MEB.And for Robert Tucker, SAIS, who trained me in the analysis of foreign policy, especially a book his trainer wrote, Robert Osgood: Ideals and Self-Interest in American Foreign Policy. That work really ought to be read by a lot more people, because it's still applicable as to our complex of motivations.

As to the history of Sino-American relations in this context, America has always had something of a fascination with China, possibly because it has been almost backwards, or really opposite of America in some ways.

We value the individual in theory more than the State; that most definitely cannot be said to be the Chinese tradition of thought on that matter.

The language often is reversed. Consider "That's a pretty girl." In Mandarin, one says  "Zehige xioajie hen hao kan," which means "that girl very good look" literally translated word for word. To speak Mandarin isn't actually that big a deal by the way, although to write and read it, that's not a trivial thing for a native English speaker to accomplish, possible, but no way near as easy as say Spanish, French, or German. That is partly why some Chinese have thought of moving to full Romanization of their language in many contexts, like in effect is the case in Vietnamese, and to a certain extent in the alphabetization in Korean.

Consider political systems.

China has been a centralized highly authoritarian system since 220 B.C. and the conquest of China by the State of Qin under Shi Huang Di. Even before that it was pretty authoritarian to my reading of their history, "Death by Slicing," "all the Master's servants followed him in death," Sima Qian Histories and about the Zhou in 1000 B.C., but clearly since the time of the Han Empire, ideas of the role of individual and State are pretty reversed from American ideas.

And as to differences, think of how old that last sentence makes China compared to America. There were Chinese in the sense that we know them by 1000 B.C., almost seven times the length of the existence of our country, leading to one of the lovliest expressions of the nature of things in any language below:

"Do you think the French Revolution was a good thing Mr. Chairmen Zhou en Lai" ( in 1973)?

Response: Too early to tell. That's a little different mentality than ours culture in which many people would be challenged to state the date of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

That doesn't make Chinese bad, just really different, which can also make for fascination, something that historically has been the case for America for a long time.

That's an ideal as to a motive to have a relationship with a country so,so far away, as to people taking off from Boston in the 1770s to trade with them, even as it served Bostonian self-interest too.

The theory that "If I can just get all the Chinese to buy something I'll be rich" is an old one, if so is the theory as to idealism, "The Lord has so many Chinese souls needing to be saved," or "It's intolerable that so many people live without American freedoms and human rights..."

Some people of course have always worried "If every Chinese was in arms..." and Bonaparte wasn't wrong to say "When the Chinese awake from their slumber, the world will tremble."

On the other hand, an honest assessment of Chinese history would suggest caution on how far China is likely to fully resemble America and the West politically, which places some tension between our ideals and self-interest, even more complicated now by the increase in relative power of the People's Republic of China.

As to the history of this, for most of the nineteenth century, other than people in Boston making fortunes dealing opium in self-interest, most of our dealings with China had an idealistic quality, if not always effect.

As to the latter, a cautionary tale worth considering is that of the Tai'Ping Rebellion. 

We don't know about that usually in the West, but there was a figure in China who claimed to be the brother of Jesus Christ in the 1850s who rebelled against a decaying Manchu Dynasty in a civil war that killed at least 20 million Chinese. Note, the idealism of the West played out in  a rather different fashion on the ground in China, and that's not the most obvious example.

The most obvious example, if not an American ideal, Marxism-Leninism certainly was a Western ideal, one that produced in interaction with some peculiarities of the personality of Mao and Chinese authoritarian traditions dating at the latest to the Rise of Qin in 220 B.C. such lovely events as the Great Leap Forward, and another 30 million dead Chinese.

How do we know what a more democratic China would look like? It might work, or it might be the Warring States period prior to the rise of Qin, something most Chinese know as to history.

As to the history of our relationship with China, by the turn of the twentieth century, American political concerns acquired an ever increasing substance in Sino-American relations, as opposed to fantasies of missionaries about "a billion souls," with the political being self-interest, if still heavily tinged with idealism.

For example, for whatever reason, probably a lack of sufficient submissiveness to the white race frankly, Americans didn't really "cotton" to the Japanese prior to the 1950s.

Before that, in the American imagination, China was the good country needing American help, and Japan was the "uppity" Asian country, even though no one in the entire international system adapted to the Rise of the West better than the Japanese, almost beating the West at its own game perhaps if they had been even bolder on December 7, and gone back for seconds and thirds, and then landed and killed all the "Howlies" by allying with the Hawaiian natives and Japanese immigrants.

What did they have to really lose at that point, and if you exterminated the whites in Hawaii.... that's a plan for control of the Pacific, but I digress.

In any event, as the West divided China into spheres of influence in the nineteenth century, America always tried to act like it believed the Chinese were our dear friends in need of protection from bad old imperialists: hence policies such as "The Open Door" in 1903.

Of course there was self-interest in that policy too, as to trade, but still, idealism influenced American Chinese policy more than in many other realms, which did have a price; antagonizing Japan.

Thus, Franklin Roosevelt's pro-Chinese tilt never acknowledged that Japan might have interests in China worth considering, in fact the proximate cause of Pearl Harbor.

We ordered the Japanese out of China, even though the Japanese did invest rather a lot there, and they didn't do that, and so we sanctioned them with increasing intensity, and then one day... .

That's what happened, as to idealism sometimes not being a good thing, and therefore really cold-blooded Realism like Nixon having a place too.

Nixon was rabidly anti-commmunist when he was young, becoming famous for prosecuting my alma mater's most famous alumni, Alger Hiss. Plus ca change, c'etet la meme chose that a conservative Southerner wouldn't really be the same.

I remember at SAIS taunting people over the correctly predicting the fall of the Soviet Union, where some people looked like their favorite uncle died, get it? The pro-Ivan faction, if there's a pro-Jerry the Shepherd Faction etc... . And, look how Ivan hitting a bump in the road on the way to Putin turned out: not all unambiguously to the good, if its a work in progress too.The point is that our ideals tell us democracy is always an unambiguously good thing, sometimes to the detriment of not seeing how some soil is more fertile for democracy than others.

So in any event, Nixon was pro-Chiang, talking about nuking China over Qemoy and Matsu in the fifties, and what did he do?

Go to China, to balance who he thought was the biggest threat: Ivan.

Nowadays as to ideals, of course we care about human rights, if religious freedom has its constituency too,as a related semi-subset, but, we also care about Chinese military power in a way that makes us antagonistic, and on economics, we're sort of szhizophrenic really, as to ideals and self-interest.

We like cheap goods, just not so much having not produced them here, and certainly not the Chinee pilfering of our intellectual property.

As to the production of goods, in reality, half the time at least they would have been made somewhere else, unless we really want to move to a Fortress America with very limited trade. Look how that worked out in the 1930s.

What Nixon would say now is who I'd like to hear, because he represented the best intellect in foreign policy we ever produced in many ways.

I think what Nixon would say is this with respect to Sino-American relations:

"Be careful, be very watchfu as their relative power increases, and be firm, but also be patient. Look at their history as to rights as we see them. If they mess with us or Japan, Korean or Taiwan, then turn all the keys on the Tridents. But, if you collapsed China, Ivan would win, especially if the Chinese try to take us with them. You have to balance among Ivan, China, and Japan for survival, although Korea is now a huge part of that process too. Blow that politico-military balance as the ultimate self interest, and nothing else matters. Human rights, that's a tough one, although China today, it ain't Mao, and even I visited Mao when I had to. At the same time, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan have proved democracy can work in East Asia where most said it could not because of cultural values one can infer from history. We can't just abandon ideals either, because that's who we are as a people. That's why my hero was Wilson, who one thing could be said of for sure, namely that when States tried to bully States with our ideals, then everything comes on the table, e.g. Korea and Taiwan, and of course, a Japan that should always remember that what it never wants to see is China allied with Ivan without America as the balance."






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Good essay, Don. Great research.

Bonaparte wasn't wrong to say "When the Chinese awake from their slumber, the world will tremble."

I am beginning to think China is awake.

I suspect (perhaps “hope” would be a better word) that it will not grow into a muscle flexing society. I think its strength will be economic…and I think the day will come (in the not to distant future) where its economic might will make ours seem puny.

For some reason (I cannot easily put my finger on it) I think a burgeoning China will be good for the world in general.
fRANK is "beginning to think China is awake."

ANOTHER unforgettable apisaism


Are you also beginning to "think" gingrich won't be the nest president?

rated for allowing me too see fRANK'S chronically misfiring neurons, in a place he rarely ventures (too many multi-syllabic words, Don).
And I agree with Frank (get ready with a good one, mark) about China not necessarily being the evil monolith. Wasn't everyone surprised in 1999 when Hong Kong reverted to China? No Mao uniforms in the British schools there, no nationalizing the huge financial industry, no abolishing the HK dollar.

They probably will figure out ways to exploit other countries as they gain economic dominance, but that's been the name of the game since ancient times.
rw - thanks also for your incisive commenting. We better start getting realistic and facing up to the fact that there are a whole lot more of "them" than there are of "us", and that their authoritarian system and corporate state, and economic results are more appealing to poor countries than democracy in the abstract. And let's not forget their willingness to work hard and sacrifice in the present for a better future. I had just started to write a blog post tentatively titled, "To China With Love... and other movies you'll never see". But many of the same themes have been discussed here so I might shelve it. Thanks Don Rich and rw for sharing your knowledge.
not worth my time, . . . . ordinary.
Oh and by the way, the world was not surprised when Hong Kong reverted to China in 1999. Perhaps, you were.

The world may or may not have been surprised at the reversion in 1997.

With all due respect, I suggest we agree now, not to comment to each other -we have NOTHING in common.
markinjapan, since you clearly feel it is necessary to point out my errors, I will also, and I will also comment on your frequent distortions and occasional whopper if I feel it is useful. Otherwise, I appreciate the compliment that we have little in common, and will try hard to desist.
Many have tried, during my three years, to find distortions; few have succeeded.

I appreciate your agreement that we avoid each other.

In any case, I promise to never comment on your blog and hope you will reciprocate.
This freaking ordinary character who claims his only fault is he is intolerant of bad spelling, yet inaccurate history hardly bothers him.

Furthermore, he like his hero fRANK is a compulsive, unrepentant liar.

He claims that I "admit when I'm wrong."

Anybody see any admission of an error by mr. . . . ordinary?

Spelling matters, but history, what the heck!!!

PS - I meant NO compliment when I said we had nothing in common. It was a simple statement of fact, fact being something that you are woefully unconcerned with nor about.
You know, if I got Aspisa and Frank to have a beer summit, I think I'd get the freaking Nobel Peace Prize. LOL