For the past 30 years, every candidate of whatever persuasion has loudly claimed he or she, unlike the opponent, will get “tough” with China. Bashing is what some call it.
These days, this means candidate Hillary Clinton proudly recalls championing the rights of women when, as first lady, she attended the UN Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. She also likes to wave Donald Trump products with “made in China” labels to her audiences as evidence of the hypocrisy of his claimed support for the American worker.
For his part, Trump attacks China for ripping off Americans through currency manipulation and stealing millions of jobs from the country. He promises to get “tough” with Beijing.
And we haven’t even got to the candidate debates where national security issues always get prominence. Stay tuned for the politicisation of the South China Sea dispute.
China provides much political fodder. Americans today are obsessed with their country’s relationship with China and what it means for their futures. The politicians know it.
There is an obvious and good explanation for this: China has become an economic global superpower. From Africa and Central America to middle America, China is establishing an unprecedented economic presence.
But all this attention and emotion is not entirely new in the America-China relationship. The current American preoccupation with China draws from a turbulent and long history of relations between the two countries.
China has always occupied a central place in American conceptions of its identity and national destiny, as friend or foe
The China-America connection started at the earliest beginnings of America. China has always occupied a central place in American conceptions of its identity and national destiny, as friend or foe.
There was China before there was an America, and it is because of China that America came to be and, in a sense, China helped define America. Christopher Columbus sailed west from Spain in search of a new route to China and Asia. He never found it but he did “discover” America and the world has never been the same since. Marco Polo’s fantastic account of China had inspired Columbus.
In the early 17th century, the first English colonists who settled in what was to become Virginia were tasked to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean so England could better engage in trade with China. Americans themselves understood their special connection with China. The tea at the famous Boston Tea Party that sparked the American War of Independence was from southern China. Tea and the lucrative China trade enriched the merchants of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
George Washington and other early presidents and elites were proud of their large collections of chinaware and were keenly interested in learning what they could borrow from China. John Quincy Adams closely studied the Opium War and declared that he favoured Britain in the war, outraging many fellow Americans who condemned the predatory British. Adams hoped the British would help pry open China’s doors for American traders.
The lure of China was there in the American purchase of the Louisiana territory; in the legendary Lewis and Clark expedition; in the coveting of California and the Oregon territory; in the waging of the Mexican-American war; in the purchase of Alaska; in the construction of the transcontinental railroad; and in the conquest of an insular empire in the Pacific, including Hawaii and the Philippines.
Beginning in the early 19th century, thousands of Americans went to China as missionaries, travellers, soldiers and entrepreneurs. Tens of thousands of Chinese went to America in search of work and fortune. Their labour was welcomed by some but feared by others. They were a “yellow peril” that threatened America’s existence. Today’s “China threat” is the current incarnation of that deep fear.
But president Woodrow Wilson also enthusiastically hailed Sun Yat-sen’s young republic. Franklin Roosevelt forged a close wartime alliance with Chiang Kai-shek’s government and hoped it would anchor American interests in Asia. Every American president since Harry Truman had to contend with a difficult China challenge. In the cold war, Chinese and Americans even killed each other in the mountains of Korea. America went to war in Vietnam in large part because of its fear of Chinese expansionism.
In 1972, president Richard Nixon and chairman Mao Zedong (毛澤東) finally ended that confrontation and began a new era in relations. Soon after, American presidents would have to contend with a growing Chinese economic behemoth.
What is the significance of this short review of history? It is that our present has a long past. America and China have been linked for centuries. The connections are many and go beyond commercial interaction and geopolitics. They are also social and cultural and emotional.
Neither has a monopoly on virtue. Both need to rise above insecurity
America and China, from a historical viewpoint, are closer today than they have ever been.
Today, Americans and Chinese have much more than a common enemy, as they did in the 1940s: they have a linked fate. Both have a deep and fundamental interest in forging a constructive, peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship. Problems and conflicts there are aplenty, but at stake are their destinies as linked great powers.
History cannot predict the future but it can help us understand where we are: China and America are in the midst of constructing a relationship of global significance that is likely to decisively shape the future of the entire world. Their historical engagement is longstanding. Neither is going away soon. Learning how to just get along will not be enough. They will have to find ways to go forward into the future together peaceably and constructively.
Neither has a monopoly on virtue. Both need to rise above insecurity born of victimhood or defensiveness from pride of place. The people of each country need to build on the deep connections made by travellers, missionaries, businessmen, students and intellectuals, artists, and migrants through the centuries. They helped bind the two countries together in ways that have endured beyond any particular political order or administration.
The current presidential race, with its simple characterisations of China, will end, but the relationship will continue. Let us hope that the cooperative venture of Shanghai Disney better represents the future than the current political fearmongering on the campaign trail.
Gordon H. Chang is professor of history at Stanford University
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