The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28 June 1919. Courtesy of William Orpen in the public domain of https://commons.wikimedia.org
As China’s growth continues economically, politically, and militarily, many watch with alarm, especially by Congress, as its behavior has become commensurately more assertive. Since the days of President Richard Nixon’s ping-pong diplomacy and Deng Xiaoping’s opening-up of China in 1979, its agrarian past to Beijing’s arrival on the world stage in just over thirty-five years is nothing short of historical and developmental fission.
The West’s treatment of China as a parvenu comes as no surprise, as it welcomes China to the dais and watches in awe, but also with a healthy dose of perennial suspicion. Beijing’s treatment of the entire range of issues—from the East and South China Seas to the renminbi and President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative—reflects a behavior that is not only more independent, but increasingly assertive if not outright confrontational. Gone are the halcyon days when China had to pay obeisance to the wills of the West.
The functional reality is clear. With wealth comes power, and with power comes the ability to pursue one’s self-interests. Nevertheless, the causal factors for China’s behavior are not nearly as well understood since the accretion of wealth and power only explains what a nation can do, but does not explain why it does what it does. For an objective analysis, the famous axiom of Chinese sage Confucius, “Study the past, if you would divine the future,” is worth considering for a glimpse into the vision of Beijing’s leadership in the world of diplomacy.
Study the Past: China in the American Image?
Effective statesmanship requires policymakers to have at least a modicum of understanding into China’s history to gain the necessary context for negotiation and diplomacy. For that, one place to look in explaining China’s behavior is in China’s national holidays. More specifically, May Fourth.
China’s support of their Western allies is not generally appreciated, much less known. During World War I, thousands of Chinese gave their lives in Flanders Fields on behalf of the Allies, thousands more were buried in Liverpool and the Commonwealth war cemeteries in England. One hundred and forty thousand in all labored on the Western Front digging ditches, working in armaments factories, docks, and rail yards or worked as interpreters. Yet, so inconvenient is the Chinese Labor Corps to the World War I historiography that they have been called “the forgotten of the forgotten.”
At the War’s end, thousands marched in the streets of Beijing on Armistice Day with signs reading “Make the world safe for Democracy” and chanting “Long live President Wilson!” as Erez Manela and John Pomfret independently documented in their acclaimed books. With America’s prestige at vertiginous heights, it was an opportunity for the United States to make China in its image.
As the Chinese marched on Armistice Day, President Woodrow Wilson’s envoy to China Ambassador Paul Reinsch wrotea hauntingly prescient letter to the president, in which the diplomat observed that Wilson’s principles had resonated deeply with the Chinese people, and they desired to “follow along the path of American action and aspirations,” wrote Harvard Professor Erez Manela. Therefore, the Chinese were putting their hopes on the United States to overcome the humiliations of the past and gain sovereign equality in the world. But the ambassador warned the president that, should their hopes not be realized, the consequences would be costly, and that:
If China should be disappointed in her confidence at the present time, the consequences of such disillusionment on her moral and political development would be disastrous, and we instead of looking across the Pacific toward a Chinese Nation sympathetic to our ideals would be confronted with a vast materialistic military organization under ruthless control.
China headed to a French château in Versailles with great expectations, hoping, among other things, to overturn the unequal treaties that had been imposed on China since the end of the Opium War in 1842, as well as the return of Shandong province, which had been a territory ceded to Germany in 1897, but seized by Japan during the War. This was not to be, as Shandong ended up being ceded back to Japan by the Big Three—the United States, Britain, and France.
America’s decision was as much a shock as the disgust was palpable. General Tasker Bliss, who had been the chief military liaison to the Allies during the War, sent a note to President Wilson saying, “It can’t be right to do wrong even to make peace.” Edward Williams, a State Department expert on East Asian affairs, bitterly lamented, “I am ashamed to look a Chinese in the face” and “my one desire is to get away from here just as soon and just as fast and just as far as I can.” The diplomat would leave the State Department within two weeks, according to Pomfret.
On May 4, 1919, some three thousand students gathered at the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing and, in a complete reversal of Armistice Day, marched on the diplomatic quarter carrying banners such as “Return Qingdao to Us” (then the imperial coastal city of Shandong province), “Refuse to Sign the Peace Treaty,” “Boycott Japanese Goods,” and “Down with the Traitors.” For China, Versailles was an epic betrayal that would result in the May Fourth Movement, the bitter undercurrents of which remains as a historical context of Sino-U.S. relations to this day.
Divine the Future: China’s George Washington
China again supported the West during World War II, fighting alongside American and British forces in Burma trying to secure the Stilwell Road—a major logistical route to Kunming in Yunnan province. During the War, Chinese forces pinned down approximately 600,000 Japanese troops, preventing them from being deployed to other combat areas in Asia. This war was won, however, in the midst of an internecine Chinese conflict between the Communists and the Nationalists (Kuomintang, KMT).
One person who bore witness to the calamities of the two World Wars—and whose political philosophy was deeply shaped by them—was Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In his youth, Mao had been captivated with George Washington as well as his revolutionary zeal. And Mao believed that if Washington could defeat the British and begin building-up America, so too, could China free itself from its colonial yokes and develop to become a powerful nation, explained He Di in his article, “The Most Respected Enemy: Mao Zedong’s Perception of the United States,” in The China Quarterly.
Like other Chinese, Mao had found inspiration in Wilson and placed his hopes on the United States, Pomfret writes. But these hopes were never to be realized. Not only were China’s hopes dashed after Versailles, but the U.S. then threw their support behind General Chiang Kai-Shek and his Kuomintang nationalists after World War II. Mao would later declare that “We made mistakes during the previous period….it was the first time for us to deal with the U.S. imperialists. We didn’t have much experience. As a result we were taken in. With this experience, we won’t be cheated again,” according to He.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Sino-U.S. rapprochement suffered numerous setbacks, not the least of which was the Korean War (1950-53), Quemoy/Matsu crises (1954-55 and 1958), and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ reiteration of three standing principles: that the U.S. would not recognize the PRC, would not admit China to the UN, and would not lift its trade embargo.
Commercial Intercourse: Other Means to Divine the Future
Since its recognition by the UN in 1971, its opening-up in 1979, and its membership in the World Trade Organization in 2001, U.S-China bilateral relations, especially in trade and investment, have lifted millions from abject poverty. But with such a significant deficit in trust currently, this relationship has not only remained strained, but has become increasingly complex as well.
Sino-U.S. relations have certainly had their moments during President Barack Obama’s administration, but for the most part it has been one of steadily navigating the contours of this complex relationship. One might have called this relationship a controlled and predictable tension.
In President Donald Trump’s administration, however, it is not entirely clear that American diplomacy at Foggy Bottom has a significant cadre of old China hands with the historical and surgical skills to balance the “America First” policy with the necessary negotiation required to deal with China. Indeed, one might ask if the State Department currently even has a role to play under Secretary Rex Tillerson.
Mindful of Destiny: Getting It Right With Might
If there is any doubt as to the impact the May Fourth Movement, as well as its part in the overall Century of Humiliation, the celebration of the ninety-fifth anniversary of the Movement in 2014 should put that to rest. Speaking at Peking University, President Xi Jinping emphasized that “young people’s values determine the values of the future society, and more efforts should be made to ensure young people’s cultivation of sound [Confucian] value systems, which are still in the formation stage.” Drawing a direct connection between the May Fourth Movement and China’s current position on the world’s stage, Xi said that is “just like buttoning a coat. If the first button is done wrong, all others will be buttoned wrong.” Mao had declared in 1939 that “the May Fourth Movement marked a new stage in China’s bourgeois-democratic revolution against imperialism and feudalism.”
American policymakers need to recognize that it can no longer take a paternalistic and exploitive approach to China as it has throughout history. They also need to recognize the implicit opportunity cost in national security decision-making. This was best put by President Trump’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who had remarked, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.” As goes the famous saying, “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted” (often attributed to Albert Einstein), more military expenditures may have an immediate, tangible and quantitative appeal, but it is doubtful that all of the issues dealing with China as well as Asia at large can simply be solved by the threat or use of force.
Nonetheless, when policymakers decide to deal with China, they should remember that Mao’s experience cast a long shadow over China’s history. His admiration for America in his youth as well as his later hopes for U.S.-China rapprochement was later negated by his perception of humiliation, invasion, and partitioning by foreign powers, resulting in his deep distrust of America. Whether anyone accepts it or not, this historical context rooted in the French Château will be the frame of reference, however subtle, for China when dealing with the West.