America’s interests in China began as early as the antebellum period when President Millard Fillmore spoke to Congress about “the great trade which must at no distant day be carried on between the Western coast of North America and Eastern Asia.” In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when the United States was beginning to become a global power by establishing a presence in the Philippines, the United States began its focus on China by developing an “Open Door Policy” vis-à-vis China, which sought to prevent China from fragmenting into different spheres of influence controlled by European powers. America’s interest in keeping China together and fostering its rise was meant to curry favor from the Chinese in terms of trade ties once China began rising as an independent power, based on the narrative of US-Chinese relations provided by Walter Lippmann many decades ago.
During World War II, the United States also fought diligently to prevent Japan from colonizing China, which led to the Japanese defeat in 1945. America’s support for Chinese assertions of independence and sovereignty since the 19th century stems from its own experiences with colonial imperialism under the British. As a result, it took very little effort on the part of the United States in persuading Communist China to open its doors to American commerce and diplomatic relations in the 1970’s, despite a temporary lapse in relations between the two countries after the Maoist revolution in 1949. Mao had nonetheless told his advisers shortly before the resumption of US-Chinese relations in the 1970’s that the Americans were different than Europeans because the Americans never sought to colonize China.
After all, freedom and liberty were the core principles of the American way of life, and as a core element of US foreign policy, Americans seek to promote these principles everywhere. Amidst the process that led to the normalization of relations between Washington and Beijing in the 1970’s, the issue that is now at the heart of the friction in US-Chinese diplomatic relations was cast aside in order to be dealt with at a later time, namely, the issue of Taiwan. What was agreed upon, however, was the “One China Principle” that paved the way for US recognition of Beijing as the capital of a unified China. In sum, it appears that all issues have been settled between the United States and China with the exception of the Taiwan issue.
It makes sense, however, that it would be difficult from an ethical standpoint for the United States to relent in its support for Taiwan, which on the surface appears to have a vibrant economy and democracy. But the question is whether the United States can continue holding two watermelons in one hand; in other words, is it possible to maintain economic and diplomatic ties with Beijing while continuing its support for Taiwan? What incenses Beijing the most, however, is continued American arms sales to Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a provocation on the part of the United States. Only one other issue besides the issue of Taiwan looms over US-China relations due to Xinjiang and Hong Kong coming onto the Western radar, namely, the issue of freedom and human rights.
Can China continue its exponential economic growth without making headway on the issue of freedom and human rights, thus retaining its authoritarian-socialist model of governance? As the late Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote: “The Chinese political elite remains organized as a self-contained, rigid, disciplined, and monopolistically intolerant hierarchy, still ritualistically proclaiming its fidelity to a dogma that is said to justify its power but that the same elite is no longer implementing socially.” Brzezinski added: “At some point, these two dimensions of life will collide head-on, unless Chinese politics begin to adapt gradually to the social imperatives of China’s economics.”
But if China is able to sustain economic growth without political and social reforms, it would defy everything that the United States stands for, namely, capitalism and democracy, and this could pose an image problem for the United States not only globally, but also domestically. Or what if the United States is slowly becoming more like China? Mao argued that the final stage of capitalism is “communism.” With more power and wealth being accumulated in the hands of the top 1 percent day by day, censorship, the development of surveillance technologies, police brutality, an incredibly corrupt and flawed criminal justice system (I can attest to this based on personal experience), along with an overbearing state apparatus that seeks to raise taxes despite the fact that the American people once had a revolution over the issue of taxes inter alia, what if Mao’s prediction actually becomes a reality?
China’s rise in the 21st century is overseen by Xi Jinping, who resembles the “Philosopher-King” figure envisioned by the Ancient Greeks. Plato and Aristotle argued that only “Philosopher-Kings” were fit to rule over a society, and as a well-traveled author, Xi certainly fits that particular mold. The “Philosopher-King” figure is clearly absent in American society despite the need for such a figure in America, and this is perhaps the key factor that differentiates China from America at the moment. Moreover, the American system does not permit the rise of a “Philosopher-King” due to the experience of British colonial rule and the Napoleonic experience in Europe.
In 2013, shortly after becoming China’s leader, Xi wrote: “China and the US should work together to push forward the new model of major-country relationship by increasing dialogues, promoting mutual trust, expanding cooperation and controlling disputes.” As Mao said, if the “dialectic” is reconciled, all the world’s problems can be resolved. But by making this statement, Xi signals something even deeper to the United States, which is actually an offer of friendship. Anyone who understands Asian culture can understand that it is friendship which the Chinese seek from the United States. Chinese offers of friendship to the United States began during Mao’s tenure, according to Henry Kissinger. The Chinese and the people of Asia at large have long extended an offer of friendship to the United States, mainly because friendship is the greatest virtue that exists not only within diplomacy, but also within humankind in general and especially in traditional cultures like the ones found in Asia. At one point, Americans actually had the courage and the honor to reciprocate offers of friendship. But this no longer seems to be the case, unfortunately.