U.S.-Chinese Relations: Perilous Past, Pragmatic Present

U.S.-Chinese Relations: Perilous Past, Pragmatic Present

Author(s):  Robert G. Sutter

ISBN:           9781442218079

Publisher: The Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Year:           2013

Edition:       Second Edition

Price:            $20.72


Reviewed by Lei Duan, Ph.D. Candidate in History, Syracuse University, United States.

China’s rapid and continuous economic growth in the last three decades has helped secure its great power status. As the world’s largest developing country, China’s relations with the United States, the largest industrialized nation and the world’s sole superpower, have arguably become the most important bilateral relationship in the world. Both sides are eager to create an aura of positive momentum, identifying the U.S. – China relationship as cooperative and comprehensive, though mutual distrust and suspicions continue to exist. The policymakers are extremely cautious in dealing with differences, in particular with respect to the issues of human rights, security, and economics. Given the realities of China’s rise as a new political and military power, accompanied by geopolitical uncertainty, how will the new issues generated by this power transition affect the trends in U.S. – China relations? Will U.S. policymakers conceptualize China’s role in the world, as a challenge or an opportunity for the U.S.? Will the future of U.S. policy toward China be accommodation or containment? In the book under review, Robert G. Sutter, a leading expert on U.S. foreign policy aims to answer these questions by assessing the legacies of historical experiences and their implications for current circumstances, and the core factors in shaping the trends of Sino – American relations.

As indicated by the title of this book, Sutter argues that differences and mutual suspicions between the two countries have persisted from the beginning. In the long term, the complexity of global politics and economic interdependence prompt the two countries to adopt a pragmatic approach towards their relations. Melding current realities with historical developments, Sutter’s book contributes to our understanding of the development of U.S.-China relations in two correlated aspects. In the first part (chapters 2 through 7), the author chronicles the evolution of the bilateral relationship over the past two centuries. Sutter argues that the fierce disputes between the U.S. and China are deeply rooted in tradition and historical experience. While some politicians and China scholars use a bevy of adjectives, such as constructive, positive, and cooperative to characterize the trajectory of U.S – China relations, and choose to enumerate remarkable facts, such as the maintenance of the “open door” policy, the work of American missionaries, and military cooperation in World War II, Sutter captures the complexities of U.S.-China relations, arguing that, historically, the two nations were mutually suspicious and distrustful.

In proving his thesis, Sutter in the book’s chapter 2 through 7 surveys the evolving bilateral relations from America’s initiation of direct trade with China in the late 18th century until three decades after the rapprochement in late 1960s. One legacy of the pre-1840s China trade, which helped many American traders amass vast wealth, was that it allowed the U.S. policy makers to pursue a policy of diplomatic pragmatism in the following more than century-long period, which helped ensure American political and economic interests. When China was at the mercy of European powers (and later Japan starting from the late 19th century), U.S. government actions were “mainly symbolic, using diplomatic notes, agreements, and other nonbinding measures to support the principles of free access to China and Chinese territorial integrity” (p.18). Chinese officials and elites, who tended to align with the less-aggressive America against their European counterparts and Japan, were always disappointed given that American foreign policy had “little meaningful concern for China,” which made China more cynical about America (p.18).

Even after America became involved inWorld War II, the path to all-round cooperation between the two countries was unobtainable. Sutter argues that “waging war in China” only received secondary attention for the United States, given the weakness of Chinese armies and the “bitter rivalry” between KMT and CCP forces (p.11). In the eyes of American politicians, who focused their attention on the European battlefield, China was merely a place to “tie down the one million Japanese soldiers” (p.42). In this way, Sutter echoes the generally accepted opinion of other scholars like Tang Tsou (1968) and Warren Cohen (2010) who describe China’s role as American ally during the World War II as purely a symbolic one. Sutter also evaluates the U.S. leaders’ positions towards both the KMT and CCP forces. He argues that the American staunch pro-Chiang Kai-shek position during and after World War II  led to its failure in China in 1949. Sutter deals effectively with the CCP’s endeavors in World War II, including the establishment of an American liaison mission to Yenan that indicated the CCP’s aspirations for closer relations with the U.S. However, Sutter leaves little space to explore how the Communists responded to the Marshall Mission in 1945 and whether the CCP wished to reach an accommodation with the U.S. on the eve of the CCP takeover in 1949.

American suspicion of the CCP, which stemmed from ideological conflict as well as the CCP’s alliance with the Soviet Union, continued to prevent the establishment of a formal bilateral relationship until the early 1970s when both sides had come to realize the necessity of rapprochement to deal with changed respective circumstances (e.g. the demise of the Sino-Soviet Alliance and U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War). Sutter provides an extensive assessment of the rapprochement, by analyzing domestic politics and the international situation that made the leaderships of both sides seek to establish an amicable relationship. However, Sutter rarely discusses barriers to normalization, including America’s support for the Dalai Lama and arms sales to Taiwan. Events such as these delayed the finalization of normalized relations until early 1979.

As summarized by Sutter, the pattern of bilateral relations between the U.S. and China was always based on geopolitical self-interest. For example, in the early 1980s when the U.S. felt confident enough to outstrip the Soviet Union, the Reagan Administration shifted its pro-China stance and adopted the Pan-Asian Approach promoted by Secretary of State George P. Shultz. Sutter speaks highly of the approach, which gave “much higher priority to U.S. relations with Japan, as well as other U.S. allies and friends in East Asia,” and deemphasized China’s strategic importance to the U.S. (p. 82). The Pan-Asian Approach was successful, because, according to Sutter, it forced Chinese policy makers to become “grudgingly adjusted to the new U.S. stance, viewing their interests best served by less pressure and more positive initiatives to the Reagan administration” (p. 94).

The book’s second part (chapters 8 through 11) extensively surveys the four major issues relevant to contemporary U.S.-China relations, including the issues of security, economics, Taiwan, and human rights. The most fundamental change vis-à-vis security issues following the rapprochement has been the transformation from the convergence against the Soviet threat before 1980s to divergence and mutual distrust, especially after the Tiananmen incident in 1989. The U.S. intervention in the third Taiwan Strait Crisis and its support for Tibetan autonomy led Chinese policymakers to believe the urgent necessity to build the military capability to “impede or deter U.S. military intervention” (p. 187).  Sutter offers a detailed exploration of Chinese military modernization efforts, the objectives of which include preventing Taiwan’s independence, spreading Chinese international influence, and deterring the U.S. and other potential adversaries. The main weakness of this chapter on security is the lack of analysis of the U.S. military strategies of deterrence against China, such as US missile defenses, the consistent arms sales to Taiwan, the Obama administration’s reengagement policy in Asia, and many others.

China has emerged as a major economic and trade power, benefiting from its economic reforms starting from the late 1970s that paved the way for the transfer of goods and technology. In the chapter on economic issues, Sutter briefly discusses how economic factors assume a weight on foreign relations. He contends that the Sino-American economic interactions gradually became an important foundation of bilateral cooperation in the post-Cold War period, leading to “increasingly interdependent” ties (p.203). Closer economic links and frequent interaction also brought resentment and backlash. Sutter presents a review of major economic challenges facing both sides, such as the imbalance of the bilateral trade, China’s protectionist industrial policies, and the disagreement over intellectual property rights (IPR). However, this chapter views these economic challenges primarily from an American perspective, and lacks a deep analysis ofthe dynamics of Chinese domestic factors that impacted China’s foreign economic policies.

The two most sensitive issues are described in the chapters 10 and 11, which examines the developments of the U.S.-China-Taiwan relations, and the substantive differences over human rights issues that have continued to hinder the progress of bilateral relations. Sutter reviews how the triangular relationship has evolved remarkably since 1950s and presents a timely analysis of the recent positive trend of improving cross-straits relations. The period under the Ma Ying-jeou administration witnesses increasingly cultural and economic interactions between China and Taiwan. The positive cross-strait engagement endorsed by the current Taiwan government, argued by Sutter, may lead to “greater Chinese influence over Taiwan’s future options,” and finally “reduces the island’s need for a U.S. counterweight” (p. 247). Despite the depth of the assessment on both America and China’s propositions towards the Taiwan issue, other central topics, such as Taiwan’s democratic transition and the formation of Taiwanese national identity, are neglected. In this regard, Sutter could have said more about the political democratization in Taiwan, along with the focus of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) endeavors in shaping the dynamics of U.S-Taiwan-China relations. Chapter 11 offers a comprehensive survey of the differences over human rights issues that have characterized U.S.-China relations for a long period. Through elaborating the issues ranging from China’s persecution of political dissent to Chinese religious and ethnic policies, Sutter reflects on how the Chinese government endeavors to adopt practices “in line with the international values and norms” that are supported by the U.S. These reforms, Sutter argues, are designed to “sustain and strengthen one-party rule in China” (p. 250).

In sum, one great strength of this book is that Sutter successfully integrates the historical experiences and contemporary issues that help determine Sino-American relations. In the meantime, some possible criticisms may also be raised. Sutter’s book is mainly descriptive and declines to construct an analytical framework to explore the historical facts deeply. That means this book pays more attention to the “facts,” rather than the reasons behind them. In his chapters on historical development, Sutter’s narrative is not documented by historical sources. For the readers who are interested in the detailed historical exploration, Warren Cohen’s America’s Response to China (2010) and Dong Wang’s The United States and China: A History from the Eighteenth Century to the Present (2013) would meet the needs. Despite these weaknesses, the book is a welcome contribution to the field of international relations. It will serve as a useful reference for researchers who are interested in the development and trend of the U.S. – China relations.

Suggested citation: 

Lei Duan (2014), Review of  “U.S.-Chinese Relations: Perilous Past, Pragmatic Present”, by Robert G. Sutter, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 7, no. 39.