During the US-China rapprochement of the 1970s, China’s goals were clear. It wanted to break through its diplomatic isolation, partly self-imposed, develop the economy and enhance its international standing, all with the ultimate goal of national reunification, with Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan returning to “the embrace of the motherland”.
The United States, on its part, didn’t appear to have long-term goals. Richard Nixon’s major problem was the Vietnam war and domestic protests. He promised during the 1968 presidential campaign to end the war.
One reason for his overture to China was to seek its intercession with Hanoi. But China refused to get involved.
However, the US found China useful in another way. With triangular diplomacy, it got a reluctant Soviet Union to sign arms control agreements. But China’s usefulness ended with the Soviet disintegration. Many in America thought the rationale for a US-China relationship no longer existed.
After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, there were several years of intense debate in the US on China policy. They exposed an attitude that the relationship was of value to China but not really to the US.
The senior President George Bush insisted on continuing normal trade relations because, he said, commercial ties would lead to the “quest for more freedom in China”. There was the idea of ending China’s isolation and making it part of the international system. There was little discussion of the relationship’s intrinsic importance.
But China couldn’t be ignored. As a veto-carrying UN Security Council member, China could thwart US resolutions if it so chose. This power helped China end its pariah status after Tiananmen.
In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The US lobbied for a resolution authorizing the use of “all necessary means” for removing Iraqi forces from Kuwait. In return for not casting a veto, the Chinese foreign minister, Qian Qichen, was invited to Washington and granted a presidential meeting. This heralded the end of sanctions.
In 2005, then deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick hailed the success of the American policy of integrating China into the international system and called on China to be a responsible stakeholder.
Zoellick said that while all nations conduct diplomacy to promote their national interests, responsible stakeholders recognize that “the international system sustains their peaceful prosperity, so they work to sustain that system”.
But China insisted on exacting a price for its cooperation.
Thus, in January 2010, after the US announced an arms package for Taiwan, the Chinese foreign ministry responded: “It will be unavoidable that cooperation between China and the United States over important international and regional issues will also be affected.”
This made clear that China was focused only on its own interests and was prepared to sacrifice those of other countries and of the international system.
Meanwhile, China’s economic power was growing. In 1993, US President Bill Clinton warned: “China runs an US$18 billion trade surplus with the US, second only to Japan. In the face of this deficit, China continues to block American goods.”
In 2001, George W. Bush entered office with the idea that with the demise of the Soviet Union, China would pose the next major security threat to the US. However, after the 9-11 attack, he focused on the war against terrorism and even enlisted China in those efforts.
Zoellick pointed out in his 2005 speech that the US market is particularly important for China. “No other country,” he said, “would accept a US$162 billion bilateral trade deficit.” The deficit had increased nine-fold in 12 years.
Twelve years later, in 2017, the US trade deficit had soared to US$375 billion.
Over the years, US political leaders saw China’s rapid rise and insisted there was no threat. But, as the scholar Michael Swaine pointed out recently, the Trump administration has made a fundamental shift away from the focus on terrorism back to an emphasis on great power rivalry and the threat of a rising China.
Hitherto, China was neither foe nor ally, seemingly adopting capitalistic ways. Today, with China’s rapid growth in all spheres – economic, political and military – the US can no longer afford to ignore it.
True, the US continues to hope China will help pull American chestnuts out of the fire, as with North Korea. But, as the Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore shows, the US is prepared to deal with North Korea on its own.
Forty years after normalization, it appears, the US is finally looking at China realistically and dealing with China on its own terms, rather than what it would like China to become.
China is finally getting the serious attention it deserves from the US.
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