[About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton]

Article excerpt

Three related themes run through James Mann's history of United States relations with China. The first is secrecy. From President Richard Nixon's initial overtures to Beijing to President Bill Clinton's private letter to President Jiang Zemin promising to oppose Taiwan independence, China policy has been made without significant -- or in some cases any -- public debate.

The second theme is that China policy has been the preserve of a small group of officials centred in the White House/National Security Council apparatus. This means that within the wider foreign policy establishment there has been no real consensus on how to deal with China and no agreement on American goals.

The third theme, less overtly stated, is that these officials, even those with grand reputations as foreign policy experts, have tended to be poorly informed about China. The result has been a series of gaffes, miscalculations, and unintended effects.

Mann begins with Nixon, convincingly portraying him, rather than his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, as the initiator of the China opening. Nixon's goal was a subtle one. He did not want an alliance with China against the Soviet Union. He wanted Washington to enjoy better relations with Moscow and Beijing than the two communist giants had with each other. The result would be greater freedom of action for America world-wide. In Nixon's view, detente with Moscow and the China opening were complementary, not contradictory, policies. More specifically, Nixon wanted China's help in extricating the United States from Vietnam.

Although Nixon acted in secret, Mann shows how he carefully prepared public opinion and the Republican party, particularly the right wing, for his demarche. The result was broad public support, or at least acquiescence.

Nixon's successors adopted his secretive methods but ignored the importance of cultivating public opinion. They also lost sight of Nixon's goal of engaging with both the USSR and PRC, moving instead into a de facto alliance with China. As a result, China gained a measure of control over United States policy and gradually became adept at manipulating issues in its favour. …