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The development of the most challenging relationship of our times

Dong Wang, The United States and China: A History from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013, 377 pp. (ISBN 978-0742557826)

The relationship between the United States and China is likely the most studied and analyzed topic of the post-bipolar world. The growing interest towards the Sino-American issue arose since the rapprochement of the two governments and the historical visit of Richard Nixon in 1972. During the last fifty years, both Western and Chinese scholars have written extensively on Chinese history and foreign relations, American history and the narrow overlapping slice of US-China Relations. Dong Wang’s book is very ambitious, because it almost covers the entire time span of the bilateral relationship but also very clearly combines history and international relations to give a powerful account of how the two countries first encountered each other and why their interaction matters so much in the present day. It could be said that the present years are a very peculiar time to revisit the history of relations between the United States and China. That could be said because Washington has arguably reached the apex of its power and is likely to decline, whereas China’s wealth and strategic power are on the rise, and the two states and systems seem destined to compete for regional and global leadership in the years ahead.

The author’s approach stems from a long historical perspective, in which the relationship between the United States and China is seen as passing through three phases, whose watersheds are roughly the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. Relations shifted significantly, from the interaction between an old empire (under the Qing Dynasty) and a young nation-state to the interplay between two-nation states, and then to wide-ranging encounters between a nation-state (the People’s Republic of China) and a modern empire (the post-war United States).

Consequently the book is divided into three main sections, which are set in chronological order and cover a large spectrum of topics: from the diplomatic and political realm to the social, religious and cultural fields. The first part focuses on the early stages of the relation, from 1784 to 1911, and describes the inception of the economic and political mechanisms between the two countries. The early economic relations between the United States and China reflected the pre-industrial nature of the American economy, which was yet to produce major manufactures to export. The American debut on the Chinese stage constituted the triumphant entry of a new nation into an expanding international system of politics and trade, controlled by the then hegemonic British Empire and other major European powers. The outbreak of the Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60) and the consequent unequal treaties forced on China by the Western powers almost blocked the development of the bilateral trade between the US and China. Washington maintained a neutral stance and didn’t advance any requests until 1899, when the United States proposed the so-called Open Door policy, espousing equal commercial opportunity and respect for China’s administrative and territorial integrity. This policy could be seen as a major countermove against the European territorial scramble and a sign of independent diplomacy. America’s rising presence in East Asia fell within the ambit of its consistent pursuit of national greatness. This presence was reinforced by the constant work of the Christian missions, which suffered the widespread anti-Christian xenophobic violence but were also able to conquer the appreciation and achieve accommodation and collaboration with a consistent part of the population.

The second part examines the different paths followed by the United States and China in the era of the World Wars and revolutions, from 1912 to 1970. The Celestial Empire and the Qing dynasty were overthrown in 1911, marking a major shift in the East Asian environment. In this intricate scenario, the two countries were brought closer, both as a result of their divergent stages of national development and as a consequence of the adoption of particular geopolitical strategies. The author outlines the evolution of this pattern and explains how World War I stimulated the relations between China and the United States. Respect for Beijing’s neutrality and the preservation of the status quo in China were «most important in American interests» (pp. 128). The disappointment and the rejection of China’s «seven aspirations» at the Paris Peace Conference (1919) fuelled political resentment in China. The ascendency of Japanese imperialism and the rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) shaped the Sino-American relation in 1930 to 1940. The Pacific War and the inability to provide a strong support to Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang against the Japanese forces caused what is known in American historiography as «the loss of China». In 1949, the CCP defeated Chiang and declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China. President Truman described it as an «avoidable catastrophe» and Dong is particularly adept at describing and connecting the causes and the events that led to the final denouement. The United States and China share responsibility for the unsettled post-World War II order in the Asia-Pacific. Washington wanted to handle Southeast Asia by «liquidating colonial regimes and replacing them by new and stable independent governments» (pp. 207). The Korean War and the Vietnam War were the major sources of acrimony in the early Cold War period. However, by the end of the 1960s, both countries realized that they needed to work together and were ready to enter a new phase of their relationship.

The third and last section covers the period from 1970 until the present day, describing the rapprochement and the renewing of the bilateral relationship. The normalization of Sino-American relation was a gradual process, taking three American administrations and two generations of Chinese leaders to bring it to completion. The core of President Nixon’s strategy was to pull China back into the world community, but as a great and progressing nation and not as the epicenter of world revolution. The US offered China some tangible stakes in a future relationship, as Beijing’s entrance into the United Nations Security Council in place of Taiwan. The secret meetings between Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai prepared the ground for Nixon’s visit in February 1972. Despite this political breakthrough, official diplomatic relations did not become reality until 1979. The late 1970s and 1980s witnessed China’s historic domestic reforms under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, but the impressive economic growth was almost put in jeopardy by the Tiananmen Crisis in 1989. As a result, Sino-American relations were severely strained over the issue of human rights, and the Tiananmen incident has had major repercussions, particularly in the fields of policy making and mutual perceptions, right up to the present. A spirit of wariness and anxiety on both sides characterized the geopolitical relationship between the two governments in the first decade of the 21st century. This paradigm changed after 9/11, when the US perception of China shifted from a potential military competitor to an important strategic partner in the war against terror (pp. 290). Despite the increasingly comprehensive links, in recent years, both countries have grown wary on each other, and the American-inspired rhetoric of the «China Threat» keeps emerging, adversely affecting the political environment. China’s desire to reassert itself in the Asia-Pacific region, after its «century of shame» at the hands of Western powers, has broader implications, particularly for the United States, which appears to have the most to lose if China’s emergence comes at their expense. Dong, however, states that although the two countries have quarreled, often bitterly, most of the time they have managed their uneasy relationship in a rational manner (pp. 297). Accordingly, she is confident that the ties between the two countries will strengthen rather than deteriorate, among other reasons, because strategic rivalry and military confrontation, in today’s entangled world, are not only too expansive but also bring no benefits to the countries involved.

The author closes her book by assuming that the US-China bilateral relationship is a major security concern for each side, but both countries need to work together on friendly terms to secure a better future, both for themselves and for the entire international community.

The monograph under review is an outstanding book that offers the first comprehensive synthesis of the history of US-Chinese relations from the initial contact to the present. Dong’s aim is not to generate new findings on specific aspects of the Sino-American relationship but to produce a very detailed epitome of the most important international relationship of our time. She has also reached her objective by grounding her analysis on a congruous number of Chinese sources in order to give a better understanding of Chinese views and behaviour.

Not only is the book addressed to students who need an introduction to the topic and academics, but it is also an extremely useful read for any educated person who might decide to approach the issue, such as journalists and media commentators.


Giorgio Borsa

The Founder of Asia Maior

Università di Pavia

The "Cesare Bonacossa" Centre for the Study of Extra-European Peoples


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