The US’ strategy in Asia for more than a century has sought a stable balance of power to prevent the rise of any hegemon. Yet the US, according to its official National Security Strategy, is also committed to accommodating “the emergence of a China that is peaceful and prosperous and that cooperates with us to address common challenges and mutual interests.”
So the US’ Asia policy has in some ways been at war with itself.
In fact, the US has played a key role in China’s rise. For example, rather than sustain trade sanctions against China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the US decided instead to integrate the country into global institutions. However, US foreign policy had been notable for a China-friendly approach long before that.
In 1905, then-president Theodore Roosevelt, who hosted the peace conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, after the Russo-Japanese War, argued for the return of Manchuria to Manchu-ruled China and for a balance of power in East Asia. The war ended up making the US an active participant in China’s affairs.
After the Communists seized power in China in 1949, the US openly viewed Chinese Communism as benign, and thus distinct from Soviet Communism. And it was after the Communists crushed the pro-democracy movement in 1989 that the US helped to turn China into an export juggernaut that has accumulated massive trade surpluses and become the principal source of capital flows to the US.
The US’ policy toward Communist China has traversed three stages. In the first phase, the US courted Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) regime, despite its 1950 to 1951 annexation of Tibet and domestic witch hunts, such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the brief liberalization that many Western observers believe was a ploy designed to flush out opponents. Courtship gave way to estrangement during the second phase, as US policy for much of the 1960’s sought to isolate China.
The third phase began immediately after the 1969 Sino-Soviet military clashes, with the US actively seeking to exploit the rift in the Communist world by aligning China with its anti-Soviet strategy. Although China clearly instigated the bloody border clashes, the US sided with Mao’s regime. That helped to lay the groundwork for the China “opening” of 1970 to 1971, engineered by US’ then- national security adviser Henry Kissinger, who until then had no knowledge of the country.
Since then, the US has pursued a conscious policy of aiding China’s rise. Indeed, former US president Jimmy Carter sent a memo to various US government departments instructing them to help in China’s rise – an approach that remains in effect today, even as the US seeks to hedge against the risk that Chinese power gives rise to arrogance. Indeed, even China’s firing of missiles into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 did not change US policy. If anything, the US has been gradually loosening its close links with Taiwan, with no US cabinet member visiting the island since those missile maneuvers.
Seen in this light, China’s spectacular economic success — including the world’s largest trade surplus and foreign-currency reserves — owes much to US policy from the 1970’s on. Without the significant expansion in US-Chinese trade and financial relations, China’s growth would have been much slower and more difficult to sustain.