Critical Affairs Part I, A Timed Outburst: Frosty Sino-US Tensions Move Like Clockwork

The U.S. and China, as much as those two entities meaningfully exist, have long been in a relationship dominated by “strategic competition.”1 Many would think this is a new feature of the Pacific’s two largest powers. They would be wrong.

Since at least the middle of the 1800s, when the U.S. built its transcontinental railway on the back of Chinese laborers (“immigrant” labor, typically used to mean non-white, built America almost completely; from the Atlantic Crossing and slavery that build the cotton-industrial complex of the South to the timber-clearing and tunnel-blasting rails of the West coast), the U.S. public opinion has ratcheted back and forth with Chinese xenophobia. So-called “yellow peril journalism” of the early 1900s is evidenced in the numerous Chinese exclusion acts (later the Geary Act) enacted by Congress in the 1860s, the 1880s, and only repealed in 1943.2 Three times the U.S. racist imaginary felt threatened enough to declare China specifically a target of legal (import) restrictions, albeit for the movement of people of Chinese descent, not goods of Chinese manufacture as we see today.

In the aftermath of the Chinese Exclusion Act at the turn of the 20th century, Chinatowns along the west coast of the United States were set on fire, hundreds of Chinese-Americans were killed by vigilantes in shootings, lynchings, and burnt buildings. Mobs in both Tacoma and Seattle in Washington state burned the neighborhoods occupied by Chinese families, survivors either then fled to or were forcibly put on trains north to Vancouver, Canada.3 4

The relationship between the two nations is a complicated one at the best of times, when the relationship is out of the public eye and away from political muddying and misinformation. America’s war for independence was, in some respect, at least partially about the ability to trade freely for tea—which at the time was a product of China. The first commercial vessel officially belonging to the United States was the Empress of China, which set sail in 1783 to Canton laden with silver to trade.5

In 1860, U.S. troops were part of an international army that invaded Beijing and destroyed the [old] Summer Palace in the Second Opium War. Conceding military defeat, the Qing government “opened” to foreign businessmen and granted them extraterritoriality6 within China.

If American capitalists were enthusiastic about the opportunities to “get rich selling every person [in China] a toothpick,” the public image was likewise enthusiastic. When China kicked foreign businesses and traders out of the country for fear of national sovereignty (as in the Taiping Rebellion), public enthusiasm waned with lost profits, and xenophobia rose.7 Such trends are not limited only to China: in the public eye, or that of the consolidated news media, countries that fail to be easily legible to American sensibilities are often denigrated and feared. A simple internet search of “China threat” today will instantly return titles focused on the “Asian Hoardes” and “Imminent Invasion” of the mainland U.S. by “hostile red-communist Chinese forces.” With the insipid blithering of such racist paranoia are fortunes made.8

In the 1940s Chinese civil war, the U.S. supplied ammunition and support to the KMT (Guo Min Dang), the government-in-exile of what is now Taiwan. Relations with the mainland were virtually nonexistent for the next twenty-five years—until detente under Nixon and Kissinger in 1972.9 It was six years later, in 1978, that Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping kicked off the Great Reform (改革开放) and transformed one of the poorest countries in the world into the “Number Two” world power. Such gains within a single generation were unprecedented, and China’s demonstration that state-led capitalism could so powerfully alleviate absolute poverty went against everything the U.S. and Europe were recommending poor countries do through the IMF and World Bank.10 11

Let’s think about this relationship from as it possibly looks from the Chinese perspective: a foreign power who was once involved in destroying your capitol, who later aided the losing side in a civil war, whose intellectuals have, since the 1970s, openly and loudly called for (or screeched about the inevitability of) “regime change” and fundamentally altering your society to look like theirs. But, and this is an important point—most people in China over the age of 30 grew up in a poor country. Many older couples grew up in villages whose richest member may have owned a bicycle—and now their country is widely considered “on par” with the global hegemon: the U.S.

The point of providing such a sweeping and superficial historical introduction is to attempt to disrupt the current narrative understanding that has taken over US domestic airwaves. It is not my contention to say that China is beyond reproach by virtue of being a developing nation—but I do want Americans to actually try and understand the world in which they are operating. Ignorance may well be a national virtue, but the current air of fear surrounding China is extremely dangerous.

A new Cold War would make many familiar names hugely wealthy, and for that reason we must be doubly suspicious of those with defense ties who harp on of the “inevitability” of armed confrontation. For as much as Kissinger was, well, a horrible person, his repeated sentiment in On China that foreign relations in the U.S. are often needlessly subject to domestic opinion is not wrong12—whereas he believed the U.S. should have the right to start “pre-war hostilities” anywhere to prevent communism without all the hippies concerned about “peace” and “the Geneva conventions” having a say, I am concerned in the ways by which domestic opinion is roiled up to support illegal operations abroad. Witness the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Or the current mass stationing of U.S. troups in South Sudan. Or the massive deployment of humanitarian aid, armed, to Venezuela.

The U.S.-China relationship has been heralded as ‘the most important bilateral relationship of the twenty-first century’ by global pundits wide and sunder. If the two countries fall into nationalist fervor and demand blood…well…the war hawks will most definitely not be disappointed. In the terrible logic of realpolitik, trust is all but impossible—even your allies only trust you as far as they know you trust them, and if anyone along the recursive chain of suspicion has a single doubt, the whole relationship falls apart. It is the terrible truth that a Cold War mentality and an actual Cold War are co-constitutive: one makes the other, and they each feed the other in perfect hermetic tautology, free from reason, compassion, or reality.

“The United States has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” –Henry Kissinger

It is worth paying attention to the return of Kissinger realpolitik, even if this time around the White House seems far more at ease with Russia than Beijing.


Further Reading on U.S. – China

Chan, Steve. The U.S., China, and the Power-Transition Theory: A Critique. Routledge: New York. 2008. Print.

Chang, Gordon. Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China. Harvard Press: Cambridge. 2015. Print.

“China National Human Development Report 2013, Sustainable and Liveable Cities: Toward Ecological Civilization.” August 2013. United Nations Development Program. Web. January 2014.

“Foreign Relations of the United States of America, 1969-1972, Vol. XVIII: China.” New York: United States Government Printing Office, 2006. Scanned PDF file by author.

Jacques, Martin. When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World. Penguin: London. 2009. Print.

“Joint Communique of the United States of American and the People’s Republic of China (Shanghai Communique).” 28 February 1972. Government of the United States, People’s Republic of China. Web. 28 January 2015.

Kissinger, Henry. On China. Allen Lane: Toronto. 2012. Print.

Leonard, Mark, ed. China 3.0. November 2012. European Council on Foreign Relations. Web PDF file. December 2012.

Roy, Denny. China’s Foreign Relations. Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998. Print.

Tan, Qingshan. The Making of U.S. China Policy: From Normalization to the Post-Cold War Era. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1992. Print.

Warner, Geoffrey. “Nixon, Kissinger and the rapprochement with China, 1969-1972.” International Affairs (2007) : 763-781. ProQuest. Web. 27 January 2015.

NYTimes. In the History of US-China Relations, a Pattern of Enchantment and Despair.


2“The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882): A Brief Overview.” Lehigh University. Web.


4Pfaelzer, Jean. Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans. U of California Press: Berkeley. 2008. Print.


6Extraterritoriality means that a foreign citizen is not subject to any local laws, regardless of where they are in the host country. It is giving every foreign tourist, businessman, official, and student diplomatic immunity. This lack of regard for local institutions is one of the hallmarks of Western Imperialism more generally, and one that many feel continues today with tourists getting “breaks” for rude, indecent, or abusive behavior on the strength of the country behind the passport. (i.e. “Sexpats” in Southeast Asia.)

7Chang, Gordon H. Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China. Harvard Press: Cambridge. 2015. Print.

8A notable exception is Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World, as it does not seek to be alarmist, despite the idiotically provocative title someone selected for it.

9As an aside, I wholeheartedly recommend Kissinger’s On China, if for no other reason than to show how cozy the ruling realpolitik elite were with China at the time. In the book, Kissinger reflects on sharing intel with Mao that the U.S. had, at the time, kept secret from the United Kingdom, one of America’s closest allies! Such cozy military relations continued under post-9/11 policies that gave China access to U.S. military reconnaissance over the Muslim-majority Xinjiang region. Erik Prince’s private mercenary army, formerly Blackwater, signed contracts in early 2019 to provide “technical and material security support” to China in the western regions.

10“China National Human Development Report.”

11“On China.” Chapters 14 -16

12Kissinger proudly quotes himself speaking about how much easier and better China’s system is because they do not have to contend with the “headache of domestic management [of opinion].”