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Foreign Policy

U.S.-China Relationship Can Use Another Anson Burlingame

Dec 20 , 2016
  • Don M. Tow

    President, New Jersey Alliance for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia
Who Was Anson Burlingame?

Anson Burlingame, a name of which most people have probably never heard, was a unique diplomat. He was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as U.S. Ambassador to China in 1861-1867. Then, China appointed him as China’s Ambassador to All the Treaty Powers, including the U.S., in 1867. He served in that role until 1870, when he caught pneumonia on a mission to Russia and died at the early age of 49 in St. Petersburg.


The 1868 Chinese delegation, headed by Burlingame, was empowered to make treaties between China and Western powers.(photo credit: South China Morning Post)

The middle of the 19th century was a period where China was forced to sign many unequal treaties with various foreign powers, including the U.S. China was essentially partitioned so that she did not even have sovereignty over her own country. China became weaker physically, militarily, and economically. Many of her citizens were addicted to opium brought in and sold by Britain, which generated strong resentment against the foreign powers among the Chinese people. Burlingame, as the U.S. Ambassador to China, not only saw that this kind of foreign policy was immoral and unjust, but had the foresight to realize that, in the long run, this approach was not in the best interests of the U.S. and the American people. If this continued, sooner or later the Chinese people would rise up and throw out all the foreign powers. Then, the U.S. would be shut off from a huge market for American products and access to China’s vast natural resources and cheap labor.
Burlingame began pushing for changes in U.S. foreign policy starting with allowing Chinese citizens to be witnesses in the American courts in China. Taking the cue from the American domestic abolitionist movement of 1860s promoting the “equality of men,” he worked with Secretary of State William H. Seward to change the American foreign policy toward China to be based on the “equality of nations.” China sensed that Burlingame was a man of integrity and wisdom, with the vision to see what, in the long term, was in the best interests of the U.S. and China. So, China offered Burlingame the job of China’s Ambassador to All the Treaty Powers, including the U.S. Realizing that this opportunity could alter the relationship between the U.S. and China in ways that would benefit both nations, Burlingame set aside his personal goal of running for higher office in the U.S. and accepted the position.
Burlingame Treaty of 1868: 
It was not an easy task to persuade the U.S. Senate to change a foreign policy of unequal treaties to a foreign policy based on the equality of nations. Using all his oratorical skills and working closely with Secretary of State Seward, Burlingame was successful in persuading the U.S. Senate to ratify what came to be known as the Burlingame Treaty, which President Andrew Johnson signed in 1868. This treaty was based on equality of nations and provided reciprocity on various foreign relationships between the U.S. and China.
Such a treaty would have established a solid foundation for selling American products in China, accessing China’s vast natural resources, and utilizing China’s cheap labor, and would have resulted in a win-win situation for both countries. Unfortunately, Burlingame died in February 1870 while on a mission to Russia. Most of the treaty was never implemented. Furthermore, with President Lincoln assassinated and Reconstruction politics creating turmoil, the Burlingame Treaty was basically repealed in the following decade. In a reactionary period, the U.S. reasserted its imperialistic attitude toward China based on military might, and extremely discriminatory anti-Chinese laws were passed in the U.S., with the most noteworthy being the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which is the only law in American history to deny citizenship or entry based on a specific nationality. This act remained in effect until 1943 when the U.S. and China were allies during World War II.
Mark Twain wrote the following obituary for Burlingame: “In real greatness, ability, grandeur of character, and achievement, Anson Burlingame stood head and shoulders above all the Americans of to-day, save one or two…He was a good man, and a very great man. America lost a son, and all the world a servant, when he died.” 
America’s Foreign Policy Toward China Since World War II: 
Ever since the late 1940s, when it appeared that the Chinese Communists would win the civil war in China, the U.S. has adopted a China policy that is not based on equality of nations but rather a policy to surround, isolate, and weaken China.
The first policy was the decision not to prosecute Emperor Hirohito, even though he was a hands-on emperor who was fully aware of and approved what Japan did during the war.[1] If the Emperor of Japan did not do anything wrong, then Japan does not have to apologize for its massive atrocities during WWII, which Japan still has not, even though 71 years have passed since the end of WWII. 
After the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, U.S. did not recognize the PRC for 30 years. The U.S. orchestrated the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty that was the official treaty ending WWII with Japan. China, the country that suffered the most damage from Japan, was not (neither the PRC nor the Taipei-based Republic of China) invited to attend, although over 50 other countries were invited. This treaty only stated that Japan should relinquish former Chinese territories such as Taiwan, but did not explicitly say that they should be returned to China. This ambiguity could be considered the beginning of a long diplomatic battle over how the U.S. and China should recognize Taiwan.
On December 25, 1953, the U.S. Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands issued, with no legal grounds whatsoever, Civil Administration Proclamation No. 27 and unilaterally included the Diaoyu Islands as part of the Ryukyu Islands, whose administrative rights would be handed over to Japan in 1972. Although on many occasions the U.S. would state that it does not take a position regarding the territorial sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands, the U.S. would also claim that these islands are covered under the Japan-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty. In other words, U.S. showed itself willing to go to war with China with no moral or legal justification.
Regarding the South China Sea dispute, American mass media and speeches of American political leaders constantly criticize China for violating international laws as specified under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, studying the facts about this issue will lead to the conclusion that, yes, there is an abuse of power, but the country doing the abuse is the U.S., not China. The U.S. has accused China of military aggression and creating instabilities in the world, but it is the U.S. that has military bases all around China, and has military alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. The U.S.’s huge 7th Fleet is patrolling the waters all around China with 60-70 ships and submarines, 200 to 300 aircrafts, and about 40,000 sailors and marines.
The so-called pivot to Asia by the U.S. is really just a continuation of her long policy to surround, isolate, and weaken China.
Is the American Foreign Policy Toward China in the Best Interests of the U.S. and the American People?
During the 65-plus years of the U.S.’s surround/isolate/weaken foreign policy toward China, China might have been surrounded and often isolated, but today she is definitely not getting weaker nor isolated. Based on the number of countries showing interest in China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative to interconnect China and most of Asia and Europe and the related Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), China is growing economically stronger, and more connected with the global economy.
Of course, every country’s first priority is for the welfare of their country. I have no quarrel with that. I do, however, wonder if U.S. foreign policy toward China in the best interests of the U.S. and the American people over the long term.
Allying so closely will Japan could result in irreparable damage to the U.S.’ claim as an advocate of justice and human rights, since Japan has never admitted much less apologized for the massive and inhumane atrocities that she inflicted all over Asia during WWII. 
Through various mutual-defense treaties, the U.S. is ready to go to war with China over disputes that the U.S. has no legal or moral reasons to be involved. A war with China would be an extremely costly and protracted war, perhaps involving nuclear weapons. There will be no winners in a nuclear war in the 21st century between the world’s top two economies.
While competing with China, instead of adopting an uncalled-for antagonistic attitude, the U.S. should work together with China to solve many of the world’s critical problems, such as fighting against terrorism, environmental protection, world hunger, and world peace. At the same time, the U.S. can join China and other countries to improve inter-country, inter-continent infrastructure, e.g., transportation via high-speed trains. Working together on these projects not only is beneficial to the world, but U.S. companies and workers would also share in the benefits of working on these huge, cutting-edge, and profitable projects, which could lead to vast economic opportunities that these projects might open up.
Instead of adopting a Tonya Harding-like foreign policy to unfairly attack her main competitor, the U.S. should focus its energy to look within herself to improve her country’s competitiveness as a whole, which should bring vast economic benefits to the American people.
In the long run, the current U.S. policy to surround, isolate, and weaken China is not in the best interests of the U.S. and the American people. A win-win-win strategy would be more promising: A win for the U.S. and a win for China is a win for world peace.
With the recent change of political leadership in the U.S., it is an opportune time for the Trump administration to take a fresh look at the U.S.’s foreign policy toward China.    President-Elect Trump’s selection as the U.S. Ambassador to China, Iowa governor Terry Branstad, has a long relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which could lead to warmer relationship with China. On the other hand, Trump has always been a severe critic of China. Will he heighten the U.S. policy to surround, isolate, and weaken China, or will he, perhaps after some twists and turns, realize that the best interests of the U.S. and the American people will be served by a policy that is based on equality of nations. We just have to wait and see. 
Like Anson Burlingame’s vision, a realistic 21st century U.S. policy toward China must reflect honest history and appreciation of culture, and that different countries with different historical and cultural backgrounds may do things differently. Treating other countries as equals will lead to long-term friendships, cooperation, and win-win for everyone.
Which American leaders will stand up, head and shoulders above the others? The U.S. and the American people, as well as the rest of the world, will benefit from such leadership. Using Mark Twain’s words, who will become the next Anson Burlingame, a son of America, and a servant of the world?


[1] Herbert P. Nix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd; 2001.


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