Sinister Conspiracies against China or a Quest for Partnership?

A widespread belief in China is that the United States has a long term strategy to weaken China and prevent it from becoming strong. While professing good-will, friendship and a desire for cooperation with China, US policy actually seeks to limit the growth of Chinese power and influence, create domestic and international problems for China, and eventually over-throw the Chinese Communist Party-led government of China, all this in order to cast China into a condition of chaos and weakness such as characterized it before 1949. The US intends to “split” China, perhaps spinning off Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan as separate countries. US professions of good-will toward China are held to be duplicitous camouflage for more sinister policies and goals. The true objective of US policy is preventing China from becoming strong and thus constituting an obstacle to US global domination and hegemony. The United States seeks to dominate the world and weakening China is, from this common perspective, a core element of that over-riding policy objective.

While logical-sounding arguments can be made linking particular US policy moves to such an imputed strategy, a large array of empirical evidence rebuts this sinister anti-China interpretation of US China policy.   Three bodies of such refutatory evidence are:


1) Memoirs by top level US leaders who actually make and implement US China policy;

2) Authoritative statements of US China policy, and

3) Academic studies of PRC-US relations by reputable and independent scholars.


These multiple bodies of evidence show that the over-riding objective of US China policy, far from being to overthrow China’s Communist government and weaken China, is to win Communist-led China to long term and stable cooperation with the United States via pragmatic diplomacy. To trace US China policy to an objective of seeking to prevent China from becoming a great power or even a leading world power is simply wrong, a non sequiter, an invalid logical deduction.   The core objective of US policy remains essentially the same as it has been since the Open Door Notes of the 1890s: to work with China as a friendly power to maintain peace and economic opportunity.

A scientific explanation of events requires empirical evidence to substantiate a hypothesis.   Logical fit alone is inadequate. The famous case of the puncturing of the Aristolian theory of gravity demonstrates this principle.   Starting with the great 4th Century BCE Greek thinker Aristotle people believed that heavier objects fell faster than lighter objects. That made logical sense. How could it be otherwise?   Then in the 17th century the Italian investigator Galileo Galilei dropped a cannon ball and an orange at the same time, at least so the story goes, and empirically demonstrated to everyone’s amazement that objects of different weights fell at exactly the same speed.   Empirical evidence out-weighed perfectly logical reasoning. Galileo proceeded to formulate new empirically-based ideas about gravity upon which Isaac Newton built.

Pure logical inference in the analysis of politics is equally questionable. This type of thinking is a mainstay of conspiracy theorizing.   Again an example.   There are not a few people in the United States who favor conspiracy explanations of events —- say the 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. One common variant of this 9-11 conspiracy thinking holds that the attack on the World Trade Center towers was engineered by a secret cabal within the US government. Frequently Vice President Dick Cheney is identified as the king-pin of this secret group. The “evidence” offered to substantiate this “theory” is typically some curious circumstance combined with an inference to some interest of Cheney.   For example, some FBI field agents became aware shortly before the 9-11 attacks that some Arab men were studying to fly Boeing-747 aircraft but had expressed disinterest in learning how to land such aircraft.   But that crucial information was not passed on to the CIA who might have collated it with foreign information linking those suspicious aviation students to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization.   Why? Obviously, conspiracy theorists confidently assert, logic indicates that someone higher up in the US government, someone sitting atop those two Executive agencies, must have side-tracked the vital information.   Who? Why Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney wanted a war against Iraq to seize control of the global oil supply. Or perhaps Cheney wanted to push through intensified domestic police surveillance. Or maybe he sought war contracts for his previous corporate employer — all according to the faulty logic of sheer inference.   The abundant and plain evidence that the 9-11 attacks were engineered by al-Qaida is dismissed as an attempt to cover up the true conspiratorial nature of the attack.

A similar sort of conspiracy thinking based on pure speculation and logical inference leads people in China to see malevolent anti-China purposes behind US China policy. US policy becomes a vast conspiracy against China. Indisputable US pride in its current global preeminence, is linked to US apprehension about China’s future foreign policy direction, which is linked to US embrace of liberty and democracy, which is linked to various US China policies. It all fits together, logically.   In actuality, large bodies of evidence suggesting far simpler and less sinister explanations.   But before turning to examination of that evidence, a brief overview of the common Chinese “conspiracy theory” of US China policy is in order.


The Putative Anti-China Essence of US Policy

The Dean of Beijing University’s School of International and Public Affairs Wang Jisi laid out in a recent report a gloomy but dominant Chinese view of the objectives inspiring US China policy.[1] “It is strongly believed in China,” Wang wrote, “that the ultimate goal of the United States in world affairs is to maintain its hegemony and dominance and, as a result, Washington will attempt to prevent the emerging powers, in particular China, from achieving their goal and enhancing their stature.” The perception that the United States “is China’s greatest national security threat” is “especially widely shared in China’s defense and security establishments and in the Communist Party’s ideological organizations.” Washington is deemed to be using “sinister designs” involving human rights issues to “sabotage the Communist leadership and turn China into [a] vassal state.” Washington has also “strengthened security ties with a number of China’s neighbors” including two states [India and Vietnam] that once fought border wars with and still have territorial disputes with China.” A desire to encircle China has inspired the “pivot of U.S. strategic forces to Asia” under Obama, the dominant sinister view of US policy maintains. Non-proliferation concerns, human rights or climate-change were mere ploys serving to undermine China in order to prop up U.S. global domination. Following the 9-11 attacks, Wang reported, “China foresaw a twenty year long strategic opportunity in foreign affairs, during which it could focus on domestic tasks centered on economic growth.” Now, however, with the Obama Administrations withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, “there has arisen a stronger Chinese suspicion that the United States will move its strategic spearhead away from the Greater Middle East and redirect it at China as its greatest security threat.”

The theme of the US as a hostile power engaged in a multi-faceted and long term strategy to cast China into chaos and weakness by engineering the Chinese Communist Party government was the organizing theme of a six part 100 minute video program titled “Silent Contest” and leaked to the media in 2013.[2] Apparently intended for viewing for military officers and CCP cadre above a certain level, the program was produced by the General Staff Department of the PLA along with the PLA’s National Defense University. The program argued in detail that the US had defeated its greatest enemy, the Soviet Union, by non-military means, including especially ideological subversion, The U.S. was now trying to do the same thing with China. Gorbachev’s “New Thinking” had erased Soviet Communist Party members’ awareness of domestic and foreign class enemies, and attempted “westernization” that produced Soviet weakness had all facilitated a sustained and long term campaign of US subversion.   The result was the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Now the US had shifted it’s spearhead toward China. It was applying to China the same vast subversive strategy that had worked against the USSR. The United States was using a vast array of weapons to subvert China: radio and television broadcasts, cultural and academic exchanges, the internet, support for Tibetan or Xinjiang rebels and political dissidents, pressure in international organizations, business operations, and even the village election program of the Carter Center in Atlanta.


Memoirs of Presidents and their Secretaries of State

A large body of empirical evidence refutes the common China “conspiracy theory” of US China policy. The memoirs of US Presidents and Secretaries of State depict US China policy as a struggle, often difficult, for cooperation with China within a larger strategy of nudging China’s long term foreign policy course along a peaceful, non-confrontational direction. Of the dozen or so Presidential and Secretary of State memoirs published since the end of the Cold War, none depicts or even alludes to China as an obstacle to US global preeminence or hegemony that must be brought low. Not one even hints at an effort to overthrow the CCP, create chaos in China, or prevent China from becoming rich and strong.

Top officials of the Executive branch of the Federal (Central) government often write memoirs after leaving office.   They do this for several reasons, including the often substantial royalties and fees earned by such publication, leaving a historical record of their time in office, and of course, presenting their version of events either vindicating or, more rarely, apologizing for their role in history.   Ex US presidents and Secretaries of State, like all US citizens, enjoy freedom of speech and publication. In their memoirs ex-Presidents and Secretaries of State often reprise the nature, logic and objectives of US policies.   Regarding China, these memoirs uniformly portray US policy as a quest, often difficult and troubled, for cooperation and partnership with China.   Not one depicts US China policy in terms of blocking or undermining China’s rise.

Memoir writers among post-Cold War US Presidents include George H.W. Bush, William Jefferson Clinton and George W. Bush. Memoir writers among post-1989 Secretaries of State include James Baker, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice — two Republicans and two Democrats. These memoirs converge in depicting a quest for cooperation and partnership with China.

George H.W. Bush was President during the epic upheavals of 1989-1991. He was also the President who condemned the repression in China in June 1989, ordering sanctions in response to that repression, leading the world in voicing such condemnation.   Did these moves arise from a desire to create chaos in China or otherwise bring it low?   In his memoir Bush explains his moves as politically unavoidable moves mandated by the “simple faith” of the American people in “the enduring value of [their] principles and their universal applicability.” The “shock and brutality of the [televised repression of 3-4 June] produced waves of protest around the world. The outrage in the United States was especially sharp and widespread.”[3]   Bush asked Deng Xiaoping in a personal letter, “to remember the principles on which my young country was founded … democracy and freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of assemblage” and so on.   Those principles “inevitably affect the way Americans view and react to events in other countries.” Given this, Bush continued, “The actions … I took as President of the United States could not be avoided.”   Bush believed “with a passion that good relations between the United States and China” were “ in the fundamental interests of both countries.” Bush explained that “I certainly did not want to … completely break the relationship we had worked so hard to build since 1972.   Continued engagement with the Chinese government was essential “if we were to have any influence … to work for restraint and cooperation, let alone for human rights and democracy.”[4]

Clinton was the US President who threatened revocation of China’s Most Favored Nation trade status in an attempt to pressure Beijing to adopt sweeping human rights reforms: better treatment for political dissidents, labor rights, religious freedom, and so on.   Loss of MFN status would have been a devastating blow to China’s exports to the United States and, thus, to China’s development drive.   The Chinese conspiracy theory interpretation of US China policy sees this attempt at MFN linkage as a quintessential attempt to undermine China’s state and throw it into chaos. Clinton’s memoir, however, explains his MFN linkage attempt in terms of US politics. The ”violence in Tiananmen square and the crackdown on dissidents that followed” caused “Americans from across the political spectrum [to feel] the Bush administration had been too quick to reestablish normal relations with Beijing. During the [1992 Presidential] election campaign I had been critical of President Bush’s policy.” [5]  In line with those campaign promises, Clinton issued an executive order in early 1993 linking MFN and human rights reforms. In short, Clinton’s embraced MFN linkage because it was popular with American voters who had just elected him President.

Clinton gives a half-dozen reasons for scrapping MFN linkage in early 1994. Prominent among these reasons were the importance of securing China’s cooperation on various issues. “The United States had a big stake in bringing China into the global community …… more cooperation on problems like North Korea, where we needed it, greater adherence to the rules of international law …” Describing a meeting with Jiang Zemin in late 1993 Clinton noted that despite “differences over human rights, Tibet and economics … we had a shared interest in building a relationship that would not isolate but integrate China into the glo0bal community.”[6]   Clinton was deeply concerned with North Korea’s drive for nuclear weapons and recognized that he needed China’s help in preventing North Korea becoming a nuclear weapon power.

George W. Bush’s memoir places advocacy of freedom and democracy around the world — what Bush calls “the Freedom Agenda” — at the center of his account. That created difficulties in maintaining a cooperative relation with China.   The problem, as laid out by Bush, was to uphold US advocacy of “freedom” while not allowing that to spoil the cooperative relation with China that had developed over several decades and which served US interests quite well. Bush wrote:


The freedom agenda was a sensitive subject with China. My policy was to engage the Chinese in areas where we agreed and use this cooperation to build the trust and credibility we needed to speak plainly about our differences. I worked to develop close relations with China’s leaders, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao President Jiang and I got off to a rough start [when] an American surveillance plane … collided with a Chinese aircraft … When Hu Jintao took office, I was determined to forge a close relationship with him as well … I worked with President Hu to find common ground on issues from North Korea to climate change to trade. Expanding American access to China’s one billion potential consumers was a high priority for me … I also saw trade as a tool to promote the freedom agenda. I believed that, over time, the freedom inherent in the market would lead people to demand liberty in the public square. One of my first decisions was to continue President Clinton’s support for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization.   To solidify our economic relationship, I asked Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Condi [Rice] to create the Strategic Economic Dialogue.[7]


But perhaps Bush’s effort to “engage the Chinese in areas where we agreed and use this cooperation to build the trust and credibility we needed to speak plainly” about “the freedom agenda” really meant that “trust and credibility” gained via “cooperation” would be used to induce China to implement free labor and student organizations, independent media, judicial organs and such that would lead to a 1989 East European-style overthrow of the CCP government.   This sinister interpretation does not fit with Bush’s explanation of his “freedom agenda.” Speaking of Afghanistan Bush wrote “I believe the human desire for freedom is universal. History shows that, when given the chance, people of every race and religion take extraordinary risks for liberty.” Applying this optimistic faith to China Bush recalled conclusions drawn from a 1975 visit to China during the period his father headed the US liaison office in Beijing:


China’s experience reminded me of the French and Russian revolutions. The pattern was the same: People seized control by promising to promote certain ideals. Once they had consolidated power, they abused it, casting aside their beliefs and brutalizing their fellow citizens. It was as if mankind had a sickness that it kept inflicting on itself.   The sobering thought deepened my conviction that freedom — economic, political and religious — is the only fair and productive way of governing a society.[8]


Bush’s belief that all peoples long for and are intrinsically entitled to “freedom — economic, political and religious” is deeply rooted in Enlightenment political philosophy and American history. This conviction may fairly be criticized as naive, ethnocentric, imprudent for the US to foster, or inappropriate for China. But to judge this political faith as mere political camouflage entails gross misperception.   Bush and other US leaders want “freedom, economic, political and religious” for China because they believe the Chinese people are heir to a common human heritage, not because they want to cast China into anarchy and weakness.

Turning to Secretaries of State, James Baker held that office January 1989 to August 1992 under George H.W. Bush. This was the critical end of Cold War period when, in line with the common Chinese conspiracy misperception of US anti-China policy, US leaders would presumably have been working out how to bring China low just as the Soviet empire had been undone.   But contrary to this sinister image of US policy, Baker spoke in his memoir of an effort to sustain a cooperative US-PRC relation in the aftermath of the Beijing massacre. Baker headed the section of his memoir discussing Sino-US relations “Saving a troubled marriage” — an allusion to an effort to sustain the strategic partnership tracing back to 1972. The June 1989 bloodshed had had an “overwhelmingly hostile climate toward China” in the US that made “significant overtures to thaw the Sino-American relation … neither justified nor possible.” [9]   In spite of intensely negative public opinion in the United States because of “the Tiananmen Square massacre,” Baker wrote, “We were not willing simply to write China off.”   Cooperation with China on various issues of common concern was simply too important to permit. Consequently, “our policy shifted toward multilateral opportunities where we could deal with the Chinese in a larger and less confrontational context on issues of mutual concern.”   Issues of “mutual concern” outlined by Baker included: securing Security Council authorization for a US-led military campaign to undo Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait; securing PRC, Taiwan and Hong Kong’s entry into the “APEC regional economic process;” achieving a end to the civil war in Cambodia; and ending the proliferation of advanced missile technology to Pakistan and Iran.

Baker presents Beijing’s agreement to initiation of an on-going bilateral dialogue on human rights as a “small but important victory, the first time the Chinese had agreed to talk about these matters they considered their internal business on a continuing basis.”   But the Importance of this “small but important victory” was that it “proved sufficient to … ward off subsequent congressional attempts to remove most-favored-nation status for China.” In other words, Chinese concessions on human rights were important not because they would foster chaos in China, but because they would contribute to continuation of a cooperative relation with the PRC by addressing the concerns of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress. “In a larger sense, Baker continued, “our policy was also successful in establishing the reality that, no matter the gulf between our two systems … Over-riding strategic interests of the United States require engagement, not isolation. Happily, that is a lesson our successors finally seem to have learned, but only after a policy flip-flop that seriously damaged U.S. credibility.”

Secretary of State Warren Christopher, President Clinton’s first Secretary of State (January 1993 to January 1997), was one of the architects of the linkage of MFN and human rights status. During the year-long effort by the Clinton Administration to use MFN to pressure China on human rights issues.   China’s media depicted this as an effort to create chaos and social instability leading to collapse of the CCP state.   Christopher discussed the logic of MFN linkage in a very different fashion. In his memoir Christopher explained the US decision to link MFN and human rights in terms of US domestic politics. During Clinton’s 1992 campaign for President, “Relations with China had become a major issue when:


Governor Clinton repeatedly lambasted President Bush for coddling China’s Communist dictators by refusing to use American leverage to force improvements in china’s human rights record. He criticized bush for dealing to generously with the “butchers of Beijing” and said that granting low-tariff trading privileges to China was “unconscious able.”[10]


As soon as Clinton assumed the responsibilities of the office of President which required furtherance of US economic and political interests via cooperation with China,” Christopher wrote, “ he began to draw back from candidate Clinton’s sweeping campaign statements.” Yet to block a Congressional move to swiftly link MFT and human rights, Clinton promoted a compromise that allowed deferral of such linkage for a year during which the Administration would press Beijing on the issue.   This led to Christopher’s confronation with China’s leaders during his March 1994 visit to Beijing.   A central reality Christopher attempted to press on China’s leaders during that visit was that “Whether a government respects the fundamental rights of its citizens will always have a significant influence on whether our bilateral relations reach the highest levels.”[11] If the United States “abandoned the effort to promote the hallmark of democracy the importance of individual civil rights, what would distinguish us from the undemocratic?” Christopher wrote. [12] In other words, MFN linkage was about US national identity, not about undermining China’s social order.

Madeleine Albright followed Christopher as President Clinton’s Secretary of State between January 1993 and January 1997. Albright begins her account of US China policy with the accidental US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, a “fateful error” caused by CIA bungling which “the Chinese found it hard to believe we could make such a mistake.”[13]   The initial conclusion of China’s top leaders about the embassy bombing was, in fact, that it was a deliberate US attack intended to produce angry street demonstrations in China that might be turned against the CCP regime.[14] This reflex response of China’s leaders was testament to the wide and deep belief in China of the “conspiracy theory” nature of US China policy.   Albright’s memoir, on the other hand, portrays US China policy as a quest for cooperation on common interests in an effort to build a broader, long-term cooperative relation with China.   Common interests discussed by Albright include: mutually satisfactory arrangements for the twin Clinton-Jiang Zemin summits of 1997-98; a modus Vivendi on the Taiwan issue in the aftermath of the 1996 military confrontation over Taiwan; and China’s WTO membership and award off Permanent Normal Trade Relation” status.  Toward the end of her discussion of China policy, Albright searches for fundamental principles.   “It would be a mistake to base U.S. policy toward China on any fixed assumptions, positive or negative, about the future,” Albright wrote.   China could concentrate on dealing with daunting domestic problems and seek a stable international environment. Or, “ they may go looking for international distractions that will enable them to blame outsiders for whatever hardships their people face. The question … is how will the deep pride of the Chinese be manifested.” Albright continued:


In managing our relations with Beijing, we … need to think long term.   … we should be in no hurry to cast China in the role of enemy.   We should hope that China’s economic reforms succeed, while welcoming contacts at all levels.   … We can’t bully Beijing into acting against its own perceived self-interest. We can, however, appeal to the pragmatism of a new generation of leaders to find areas here our interests coincide.”[15]


Again the gist was a quest for partnership and cooperation with CCP-led China. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice served as National Security Advisor from January 2001 to January 2005 and then as Secretary of State from January 2005 to January 2009.   In both capacities she shared responsibility for implementing the President Bush’s China policies. In her memoir, Rice wrote that “The task of managing China’s rise as an economic and political power was critical to the future of the international system.”[16]   Rice asked Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick to “take special responsibility for nurturing the U.S.-China interaction.”   This led to Zoellick’s September 2005 speech calling on Beijing to be a “responsible stakeholder” playing a larger role in international relations in cooperation with other world powers. Zoellick’s speech was in effect a call for wider, more effective, and more stable Sino-U.S. partnership. Rice’s major U.S. criticism of Chinese policy was that Beijing was not willing to go far enough in cooperating with Washington even in areas of common concerns.   Rice expressed this frustration in her memoir. Cooperating with China on areas of common concern was “easier said than done.” The problem wasn’t that Beijing was too active, Rice wrote. Rather, the Chinese “exhibited a studied passivity that was detached in an almost Socratic way: they commented on issues but rarely worked to resolve them.   … I once asked a Mandarin-speaking colleague if there was something about the language that made the Chinese always seem to be speaking in slogans. He assured me that there was not.[17]

There are scores of memoirs by US leaders discussing the logic of US China policy. Not one even hints at an effort to create disorder or anarchy in China, to malign or diminish China’s international status, to torpedo its economic development, or overthrow the Chinese Communist Party government of China. Uniformly US elite memoirs depict US policy as a difficult struggle for continued and expanded cooperation and partnership with the People’s Republic of China. The reason typically given for this is that China is very influential and thus able to either hinder or facilitate US accomplishment of American policy objectives.   Over a longer term, the objective is to build a stable and positive relation which may help China and the US avoid becoming hostile powers.


Authoritative Statements of US China and Asian Policy

The United States government regularly issues statements on “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America” and “United States Security Strategy for the East Asia-Pacific Region.” These statements are the product of consultations between several departments of the Executive Branch and with Congressional leaders. The carry respectively the imprimatur of the President of the United States and the Office of International Security Affairs of the Department of Defense. While these statements profess support for global spread of political freedoms and democracy, including in China, none of them treat China as a hostile power and, to the contrary, treat China as an essential partner in building a good world order.

The August 1991 National Security Strategy statement was drafted amidst the anti-Communist revolutions sweeping Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and while George H.W. Bush was President.   It stressed the importance of continuing “consultations and contact” and “links” with China in the developing situation of collapse of the old Cold War order:


China … poses a complex challenge as it proceeds inexorably toward major systemic change.   China’s inward focus and struggle to achieve stability will not preclude increasing interaction with its neighbors as trade and technology advance. Consultations and contact with China will be central features of our policy, lest we intensify the isolation that shields repression. Change is inevitable in China, and our links with China must endure.[18]


A similar statement a decade later, drafted under the tutelage of President George W. Bush and issued in September 2002 the aftermath of the 9-11 terror attacks, contains the same themes of support for China’s democratization and search for cooperation with China:


Chinese leaders are discovering that economic freedom is the only source of national wealth. In time, they will find that social and political freedom is the only source of national greatness. America will encourage the advancement of democracy and economic openness in both nations [Russia and China] because these are the best foundations for domestic stability and international order. We will strongly resist aggression from other great powers — even as we welcome their peaceful pursuit of prosperity, trade, and cultural advancement”.


US engagement with China was “an important part of our strategy to promote a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Asia-Pacific region.” The statement continued:


We welcome the emergence of a strong, peaceful, and prosperous China.   The democratic development of China is crucial to that future.   … The United States seeks a constructive relationship with a changing China. We already cooperate well where our interests overlap, including the current wry on terrorism and in promoting stability on the Korean peninsula.   Likewise, we have coordinated on the future of Afghanistan and … similar transitional concerns.”


The statement was quite open about supporting China’s further democratization. But it made equally clear that Communist-ruled China was deemed as an essential partner in achieving a peaceful, stable and prosperous Asia-Pacific region.

Another statement eight years later while Barak Obama was President listed “comprehensive engagement” along with domestically focused “building our foundation” as one of two pillars of US strategy.[19]   The United States would “continue to deepen our cooperation with other 21st century centers of influence — including China, India, and Russia — on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect.”   The advance of constructive cooperation with such countries was “essential to the security and prosperity of specific regions” and to “facilitating global cooperation” on a wide range of issues.    “Comprehensive engagement” included “principled engagement with Non-Democratic regimes.   Regarding China, “principled, comprehensive engagement” meant that the US would “continue to pursue a positive, constructive and comprehensive relationship.” The US welcomed “a China that takes on a responsible leadership role in working with the United States and the international community to advance priorities like economic recovery … climate change and nonproliferation.” China and the United States “will not agree on every issue,” “But disagreements should not prevent cooperation on issues of mutual interest, because a pragmatic and effective relationship between the United States and China is essential to address the major challenges of the 21st century.”[20]

Again the point: multiple authoritative statements of US China policy point toward a US effort to build and maintain a cooperative relation with the People’s Republic of China. There is simply no intimation of the PRC as a hostile power who must be undermined and weakened.


Conclusions of Reputable Academic Investigations

A number of solid academic studies have looked in depth at US-PRC relations and found that US policy since 1972 has sought strategic trust and business-like cooperation with the PRC in areas of common interests.

Henry Kissinger, one of the United State’s leading strategic analysts, concluded his magisterial study of Chinese foreign policy by outlining several realities upon which US-PRC relations should be premised — and which would best serve US national interests.[21]   Both China and the United States were too large to be dominated, too unique to be transformed, and too influential in world affairs to be ignored or remain inactive.  In other words an effort by the United States to remake China along Western lines and thereby dominate China was simply unrealistic.   US and Chinese leaders had recognized this over the past forty years, Kissinger wrote, and the two sides have generally been able to identify and work together pragmatically to address common problems. China’s power in Asia and the world was growing and would continue to grow, Kissinger concluded, and this rise of China was bound to create uncertainty and friction with the US.   In this situation, diplomatic skill and prudence would be required in both Washington and Beijing to keep the relationship from sliding into one of mutual threat with each side arming to outmatch the other, building alliances where ever they could, and attempting to undercut each other diplomatically. In both the US and Chinese there were people who viewed the relationship as inherently antagonistic and who would direct the relationship along such negative lines. On the US side, which if the concern of this essay, Kissinger wrote that there were ideologically minded people who believed that as long as China was under CCP rule, Chinese hostility and a struggle with the US for strategic preeminence was inevitable. Only China’s democratization could lead to peaceful relations with China, in this view, and the US should exercise its maximum influence to bring about more pluralistic institutions in China.   For these people, regime change should be the ultimate goal of US policy.

Fortunately, Kissinger concluded, neither this US ideological approach of an equally pernicious “triumpthialist” view in China has been endorsed by the respective governments.   Should they be adopted by either side — and adoption of a sinister threat image by only one side would probably be adequate to push the Sino-American relation onto a negative downward spiral, Kissinger wrote — the US-PRC relationship could “easily fall into a kind of escalating tension” in which “sooner or later one side or the other would miscalculate” — as Berlin and London did in 1914. In other words, exactly the hostile anti-China policies outlined in the first paragraph of this essay and widely attributed to the US by Chinese opinion, must be, and thus far have been, avoided by the United States.

Warren Cohen authored one of the most authoritative histories of US policy toward China, published in its 5th edition in 2010.[22] Cohen dubbed the 1949 to 1971 period of Sino-US relations “the great aberration” — a twenty-two year long deviation from a broader pattern of cooperation between the two countries. Starting in the late 19th Century — as American began to emerge as a world power at roughly the same time that China’s imperial system was sliding toward its terminal decline — US leaders began to look on a strong, united and stable China as both in US economic interest and as a positive factor checking Russian and/or Japanese aggrandizement that could threaten United States interests.   This search for cooperation with China translated into both the Open Door Notes circa 1899 and the Washington Nine Power Conference of 1922, both of which were welcomed by China’s government. The policy of support for China continued in response to Japan’s aggression in the 1940s. The US tried to continue its traditional policy of seeking cooperation with China by seeking a modus Vivendi with CCP-led China after Communist victory in 1949. But Beijing’s dual choices of alliance with the USSR and war in Korea closed that door for twenty years.   The two powers found their way back to partnership circa 1971-72, and have been able to sustain that more-or-less cooperative partnership over the subsequent three decades. In short, Cohen depicts US China policy as founded on a quest for cooperation.   Only during “the Great Aberration” did the US seek to injure China, stifle its growth, overthrow its government, and block its international rise.

Scholars highly critical of current US China policy target as misguided the US search for engagement and cooperation with China.   James Mann authored a sharp attack in 2007 on the mainstream policy of engagement.[23] Mann argued that the US policy of engagement with China since June 1989 had been premised on the idea that such engagement would move China toward political liberalization and ultimately democratization. In fact this had not happened and was not likely to happen. Yet the “fantasy” or “illusion” of China’s liberalization was kept alive by businesses with operations in China and by US academic China hands who had an interests in maintaining access to China.   In fact, Mann argued, China was unlikely to liberalize and democratize. Rather, it would continue to grow ever stronger while remaining a repressive one party state.   Mann’s tract was weak on policy prescriptions, but it could be taken as a call for the US to implement a policy along the lines of the imagined anti-China conspiracy vision. The point here, however, is this: Mann was damming the actual US policy of engagement and cooperation with China.

Mann’s critique of engagement led to a rebuttal by Mike Lampton, currently Dean in John Hopkins University for Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.[24] Lampton argued that engagement and a search for cooperation with CCP-led China had been US policy over the course of seven consecutive Presidents of both Republican and Democratic affiliation and with very different perspectives on world affairs, not because they embraced a chimera of Chinese democratization, but because such cooperation served US interests.  Lampton wrote:


Given the responsibilities of being in office, they [US Presidents] each concluded that in a world of limited U.S capabilities, America cannot alone solve all the globe’s problems and it needs cooperation from the 20 per cent of mankind that lives in China. There are economic, security and intellectual gains to be made from cooperation; these require no apology.”[25]


US leaders might wish China would become a liberal democracy, but they also understood US policy toward China had to be founded not on their wishes, but on the hard-headed pursuit of US interests.   China was a power of substantial capabilities who could obstruct or facilitate various US interests given appropriate US policies. Again the main point: eminent scholars like Lampton, Mann, Cohen and Kissinger understand US China policy not as an effort to topple China’s Communist-led government and bring China low, but as a pragmatic search for cooperation in areas of common interest within a broader framework of engineering a broadly cooperative Sino-American relation.


Chinese Misperception of US China Policy

The memoirs of successive US President and their Secretaries of State indicate that US policy is to seek pragmatic cooperation with China.   Successive top level declarations of US China policy point in the same direction. So too do studies by reputable scholars — both supporters and critics of current US policy.   In all these documents there is no evidence that the US designs to injure China, overthrow its government, split it up, block its rise or otherwise generally bring it low. In fact, a policy approach along those lines is typically ruled out as antithetical to a pragmatic search for US-PRC cooperation. The overarching strategic objective of US China policy remains what it was from 1898 to 1949 and again from 1971 to today:   build a long term cooperative partnership with China that serves the interests of both countries and the maintenance of peace and prosperity in Asia and the world.



[1]           Kenneth Lieberthal, Wang Jisi, Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust, John Thornton China Center Monograph Series, No. 4, Brookings Institution, March 2012.

[2]           Jeremy Page, “China Spins New Lesson From Soviet Fall,” Wall Street Journal, 11 December 2013, p. 1, 18.  Jane Perlez, “Strident Video by Chinese Military Casts U.S. as Menace,” New York Times, 31 October 2013.  The program was available on November 2013  at but was later removed.

[3]           George bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed, New York:  Knopf, 1998,  p. 86.

[4]           Ibid. p. 89.

[5]           Bill Clinton, My Life, New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2004, p. 598.

[6]           Ibid. p. 561.

[7]           George W. Bush, Decision Points,  New York:  Crown, 2010, p. 426-427.

[8]           Ibid., p. 23.

[9]           James A. Baker, The Politics of Diplomacy” Revoution, war and peace, 1989-1992, New York:  G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995, p. 588-594.

[10]         Warren Christopher, Chances of a Lifetime, New York:  Scribner, 2001, p. 236-37.

[11]          Ibid.  p. 240.

[12]         Ibid. p. 240.

[13]          Madeleine Albright, Madam Secretary, New York:  Miramzx Books, 2003, p. 417-436.

[14]          “The Bombing of China’s Embassy in Yugoslavia,” Chinee Law and Govetnment, January-February 2002, p. 73-99.

[15]          Albright, Madame Secretary, p. 436.

[16]          Condoleezza Rice, No Higher Honor, A Memoir of My Years in Washington,   New York:  Crown Publishers, 2011, p. 517.

[17]          Ibid, p. 517.

[18]          National Security Strategy of the United States, August 1991, p.  9.

[19]          National Security Strategy of the United States, May 2010.

[20]          Ibid, p. 43.

[21]          Henry A. Kissinger, China, New York:  Penguin Press, 2011, p. 487-530.

[22]          Warren Cohen, America’s Response to China; A History of Sino-American Relations, 5th edition, 2010.

[23]          James Mann, The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression, New York:  Viking, 2007.

[24] David M. Lampton, “The China Fantasy, Fantasy,” The China Quarterly, No. 191, September 2007, p. 745-749.

[25]          Ibid, p. 747.

By John W Garver, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology