Sino-American Rivalry during the Cold War deals with the evolution of China throughout most of the 20th Century, on the one hand, and America’s attitude toward Beijing, on the other. During this critical period, China transformed itself from a feudal society into an industrial giant. And all this time, Beijing championed the right to independence of Asian and African countries. The United States watched this transformation with apprehension and grudgingly adjusted its policy from denying Beijing international legitimacy to eventual full recognition. Gregg A. Brazinsky did a scholarly work, but his book is too detailed for average readers and it requires their total attention. Thus, the reader must keep in mind the big picture: What did China want during the studied period and what did the United States pursue?
The book is organized chronologically, but it also pursues the topics thematically. The introduction offers a brief historical background and clarifies some important ideas. After being humiliating by Japan and the Western Powers throughout much of the 19th Century and the first part of the 20th Century, China wanted to reassert itself and to reacquire a legitimate international status. Siding with nationalist China and rejecting communism, America tried for decades to deny communist China any legitimacy. This stand led to mutual recrimination and confrontation.
The chapters are organized by time periods dedicated to major changes in Beijing’s policies and in Washington’s reactions: Emergence of a Rivalry (1919-1950); Cultural Competition; Diplomatic Campaign; Economic Competition; and finally, Competition and Cooperation (1968-1979). The Conclusions are also important because they relate to the present situation.
The central theme of the book is that Sino-American rivalry was in essence a competition over status. It should be added, however, that no great power accepts a challenge to its status, and no ascending power can rise without struggling to get to the top. As for the meaning of ‘status’ analysts disagree on what it exactly means. One definition is ‘a recognized position within a social hierarchy, implying relations of dominance and deference…’ (p. 4) Following a century of humiliation, China wanted to regain its status in the world. And communist China (PRC) never lost sight of this goal. Other than that, and to gain international support, Beijing made itself a champion for the struggle against Western colonialism and American imperialism. This attitude brought Beijing in direct opposition to Washington.
The policies pursued by Communist and Nationalist China were irreconcilable. However, even the communists promoted ‘the idea that China once stood at the center of world civilization,’ a place that Beijing reclaimed. From this point of view, the author attributes the rise of new China mostly to Mao Zedong and his policies. The United States opposed firmly the new regime, but in the end it had to adjust its policies and accommodate communist China. As one can learn from this study, continuous arguing, in-fighting, maneuvering behind the scene, luring allies and punishing foes, were mind boggling. Accordingly, the evolution of the Sino-American relations, from diplomatic exchanges, cultural contacts, trade and business interests, to real war in Korea or by proxy in Vietnam, was immensely intricate. Most of the struggle, postures, actions and reactions, occurred behind the scene, but they affected virtually the entire world. The United States, for example, wanted an orderly transformation of Asia and aimed at promoting Washington’s political and economic agenda. China wanted to re-establish itself as the central power of Asia and fomented revolutionary changes. The overt and covert struggle lasted untill unexpectedly Washington and Beijing reset their relations, and the two giants gradually moved from confrontation toward mutual acceptance and cooperation.
The road for a status change was very bumpy. While America showed determination, China displayed typical oriental patience. In this regard, Zhou Enlai, Mao’s trusted Prime Minister, showed flexibility and diplomatic tact, yet was firm toward Washington. When the Geneva 1954 conference tried to find some peaceful resolutions in South-East Asia, Washington was reserved. To be on the safe side, President Eisenhower declared that the U.S. ‘had not been party to or bound by the decisions taken by the conference,’ but would ‘not use force to disturb the settlement.’ (p. 92) America was right to be suspicious. Beijing promised not to interfere in Indo-China, but it never intended to do so. Then, at the Bandung Conference in 1955, Zhou Enlai stated that in the future ’not even a few countries would be left on America’s side…’ (p. 78) Then, gradually and unexpectedly, Washington changed its policy and ‘by 1958, even American officials were acknowledging that the PRC would inevitably play an important role in shaping Asia’s future.’ (p. 107)
The 1960s and 1970s were crucial for the dramatic change of the Sino-American relations. The relevance of the Korean War began to fade and new conflicts led to new geopolitical configurations. After the Sino-Soviet military skirmishes of the period, Washington and Beijing began to discover common ground and mutual interests. China denounced officially the Soviet Union and called it a ‘social-imperialist country.’ Suddenly, the two countries found a common geopolitical imperative – to contain the Soviet Union. For years previously, however, the two sides had intense back-and forth exchanges that were kept secret. Sensing an opportunity for a radical change, President Nixon dispatched Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Beijing. This first step opened the way for Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972 and later for full Sino-American diplomatic relations.
Many thorny issues were discussed between the two sides confidentially or in different open forums. Among them there was the fate of Indo-China, where America was embroiled in a protracted conflict, the future of Taiwan, and the question of China’s seat at the United Nations. The author rightly concludes that ‘Nixon’s China visit reconfigured both Sino-American relations and international politics.’ (p. 329). Nevertheless, Beijing always put China’s interests first and through shrewd negotiations and duplicity attained most of its goals. Beijing promised to moderate Vietnam’s bellicose stand and to respect the neutrality of Indo-China. Yet, Vietnam was abandoned by Kissinger to the communists, and Beijing continued to help the anti-American insurgencies in Laos and Cambodia.
Reality is that the realignment that occurred in Asia during the second part of the 20th Century was complex and in many ways unavoidable. In the opinion of the author neither the United States nor China won the cold war, and Sino-American relations have remained intricate and unpredictable. Despite finding some mutual interests, the author continued, ‘China and the United States remained very dissimilar countries with different histories and perceptions of their roles in the world.’ (p. 344).
There is something to learn from the evolution of Sino-American relations throughout much of the 20th Century. First and foremost: never say never to change. The world is in a perpetual state of change and so was Asia. America, a superpower, had to make room for China, a power in the making.
Reconfiguring the geopolitical and economic spheres in Asia was a complex process. During the process, Sino-American relations moved from friendly to hostility and war and eventually to mutual acceptance, economic competition and cooperation. By the turn of this century, a new status quo was achieved and for the time being order has been established. Nevertheless, there are still some hot spots, especially in East Asia and the South China Sea. These very days, America and the world need China to contain North Korea, but Beijing will cooperate only as long as it suits its interests. On the other hand, the very neighbors of China are apprehensive and need the United States to countervail the growing military power of Beijing. To avoid further escalations more behind the scene contacts, negotiations and compromises are needed. What we learn from this book is the huge amount of work and effort that took place during the 20th Century to avoid even worse catastrophes. Maybe similar efforts would save us during this century.
Nicholas Dima, Ph.D, is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. He currently lectures and is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the online-conservative-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.