Do tigers fly? They did 80 years ago, forging memories, friendships and good feelings between the U.S. and China. These memories have been passed down through the generations post WWII, but are fading quickly today.
The anniversary of the Flying Tigers passed in 2021 with little U.S. fanfare. The Flying Tigers, a group of American volunteer pilots under the command of General Claire Lee Chennault or "Old Leatherface”, were supported by the U.S. Government. Some historians claim the group was technically a ‘mercenary band’ sent to China before the U.S. had officially declared war on Japan.
Chennault, his pilots, and crew, arrived in China over 80 years ago, as World War II was heating up, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Chinese people in fighting the invading Japanese. They were officially known as the American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force, but more widely known as the "Flying Tigers." The Flying Tigers’ legacy is a noted and exemplary chapter of China-U.S. collaboration, coordination, and communication, during WWII – an important part of the history of our vital and complex U.S./China relations.
The American-Chinese joint efforts bogged down Japan’s military in China, allowing the U.S. and other allies to defeat the Japanese, contributing to the end of WWII. Their efforts were strategically essential to defend against many vital elements of the Imperial Japanese Army – then on the Chinese mainland – in limiting Japan’s fight against Allied forces which were then advancing towards Japan in two Pacific war campaigns. The Flying Tigers took on the Japanese fighters who, until their arrival, had virtually free reign over Kunming, China in 1941. In seven months of intense aerial combat, the Flying Tigers destroyed nearly 300 Japanese aircraft with a loss of only 69 U.S. planes.
But as National Geographic noted in 2001, people in the West – particularly Americans – are painfully ignorant about all things Asia, especially China. As 2021 marked the 80th anniversary of the Flying Tigers, the friendship built 80 years ago this past year are still palpable in China today.
A Time For Renewal
Chinese President Xi has expressed that time and momentum are on China’s side. In 2022, China is not without issues of its own as an emerging global superpower that will rival, and perhaps soon eclipse, the United States. There is no “mandate from heaven” that the U.S. gets a free pass at remaining number one in the world. Our country has work to do in addressing pressing domestic problems as both our leaders navigate choppy global waters.
2022 is the Year of the Tiger according to the Chinese Zodiac– the best time to reflect on the glue that binds the Chinese and American people together from our shared past even as we move further apart in this second decade of the 21st century.
Regardless of Beijing’s insistence to the contrary, America is being forcefully challenged by China for global dominance. This struggle ranges from 5G technology advancement to military control in the South China Sea, and nearly everything in between. Clearly, a heated rivalry is unfolding with China, emphasized by significant cultural and value differences between our two countries, as well as economic, scientific, religious, human rights, military, and other geopolitical fault lines.
While there are significant generational challenges between the U.S. and China, perhaps the bigger challenge is how the U.S. and our allies might live in harmony with a China that has regained its ‘fuqiang’ (wealth and power) – while maintaining our collective national interests and values.
That old proverb “He who rides a tiger finds it difficult to dismount” comes to mind for the Biden Administration as it tries to realign our national China policy. One clear message may be that once a troublesome venture is begun, the safest course might be to carry it through to the end. Is it wiser then, to review the consequences of attempting to quit or abandon a more engaging, cooperative, relationship with China?
As illustrated by the U.S.’ Flying Tigers during WWII, we must find ways of maintaining an open dialog with China, focusing on the “6 C's” of communication, collaboration, cooperation, coordination, and competition, rather than engaging in unnecessary confrontations.
The consequences of not finding a smooth way forward in managing our differences with the largest and most powerful world militaries are too dire to contemplate. What kind of future can we expect if our leaders don’t find sensible ways forward?
Leadership and a genuine friendship between the American and Chinese people allowed us to join forces and prevail against the evils in the world that launched WW ll. That type of leadership is again needed today.
A path forward allows for mutual strategic interests, sovereignty over our respective internal affairs, and a genuine desire to improve the lives of the people of the U.S., China, and all of humanity.
Could the Year of the Tiger – 2022 – be the year for a renewed path forward?