The Russo-Sino Role Reversal: U.S. Views on China and Russia Twist Reality by Ignoring Their History

By Pfaff, William | The Nation, June 23, 1997 | Go to article overview
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The Russo-Sino Role Reversal: U.S. Views on China and Russia Twist Reality by Ignoring Their History


Pfaff, William, The Nation


The United States has a long and distressing record of miscalculating its friends and enemies. The sometime friends have included Stalin's Russia, Chiang Kai-shek's China, Syngman Rhee's South Korea, the Shah's Iran, the colonels' Greece, the generals' Vietnam, Lon Nol's Cambodia, Mobutu Sese Seko's Zaire and a rich collection of petty despots in Central America and the Caribbean. Some, we insisted at the time, such as Stalin's Russia and Chiang's China, were great democracies in the making. Some fell into the more refreshing category of Franklin Roosevelt's "S.O.B.s, but our S.O.B.s," but even then their importance was usually overestimated. The enemies have included, as all-time favorite, Fidel Castro, and a number of mainly Near and Middle Eastern figures formerly described as Soviet or Chinese puppets and now identified in Washington terminology as leaders of "rogue" regimes.

Washington is currently working out where China and Russia fit into the latest hierarchy of the good and the bad. Since 1989 Russia, with a highly imperfect democratic political structure but free elections, has tried with indifferent success to be counted as one of the industrial democracies. America's NATO expansion policy, despite conceding an advisory role to Russia, implicitly cuts it out of that company. Meanwhile, the Clinton Administration, lobbying to give China -- which is not a democracy and, its leaders vow, will never become one -- most favored nation trading status, makes large political concessions in order to bring it into our international system. The Administration's current assumptions and, to a significant extent, those of the policy community in general about these two countries place China in a privileged position as a superpower of the future and a coming democracy as well, while treating Russia as a spent nation.

America's political engagement with China began with the principle of the Open Door, a high-minded way of demanding equal access for U S. traders in China's markets, in the Treaty of Wanghia of 1844. This led to a U.S. commitment in principle to the defense of Chinese territorial integrity, first directed against the Europeans, but in the twentieth century, with fateful consequences, redirected against Japan.

At the same time, U.S. missionary energy (for a century China had been seen as a vast Christian mission field) was displaced from religion to politics, producing the idea, dominant during World War II, that China was about to become a great democracy under the sponsorship of the United States. As late as 1944, Walter Lippmann wrote, "The Open Door is at bottom a short name for the American way of life projected abroad." Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist China was nominated by Roosevelt to the rank of wartime Big Four and to a permanent seat and veto in the U.N. Security Council.

When the dominant political force in China proved to be a Communist movement with totalitarian ambitions, which drove Chiang into Taiwan exile and declared the United States its enemy, Americans felt betrayed. The U.S. emotional and moral investment in China produced, in frenzied reaction, a witch hunt in Washington to identify those in the government responsible for having "lost" China. The idea that the Chinese themselves were responsible for what China did was unacceptable; there had to be a better explanation.

Thus the Washington conviction during the fifties that China's Communists were Soviet puppets, and during the sixties that Vietnam's Communists were in turn the puppets of a Chinese Communist regime in thrall to Russia. The bizarre corollary that the Sino-Soviet split of the late fifties was a K.G.B. disinformation hoax continued to be seriously entertained by an influential element inside the C.I.A. until well into the seventies.

In 1914 Woodrow Wilson had said that "the awakening of the people of China to their possibilities under free government is the most significant, if not the most momentous, event of our generation.

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