Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MAY 2009

China is rapidly establishing itself as a world superpower. It soon will overtake Japan as the world's second largest economy behind the United States, it has extended its political influence to nearly every part of the world, and has accumulated an enormous stockpile of foreign currencies. Although it currently lacks America's lead in military power, China has nuclear weapons and is rapidly expanding its navy.

A major question for America's and other world leaders is: What does China intend to do with its new power? A second question is: Should the United States continue to accommodate China's expanding influence, or adopt a strategy to contain it? Here are arguments for and against.

Accommodate China. The United States and China have not clashed historically over their national interests except during the Korean War. In the late 19th century, Washington did not join European imperial powers in carving out spheres of influence in China, concentrating instead on an "open door" policy in trading relationships. After China's 1911 civil war, Washington supported the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek, and continued this policy after Japan invaded China in 1937. During WWII, China was a U.S. ally against Japan.

President Harry Truman's 1950 decision to authorize Gen. Douglas MacArthur to carry the war in Korea to China's border resulted in the new communist regime's decision to defend North Korea. The enlarged war caused a 20-year freeze in U.S.-China relations, until President Richard Nixon reopened limited ties during a visit to China in 1972.

Beginning with Jimmy Carter, all presidents have supported good relations with communist China as long as its policies didn't threaten U.S. interests in East Asia, including Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Each president reiterated Nixon's one-China policy emphasizing a capital in Beijing and peaceful reintegration of Taiwan over time. Washington also pledged to defend Taiwan if it was attacked.

Containing China. Opposition to this bipartisan accommodation approach is based on two deep-seated views, expressed mostly in conservative circles. The first, an ideological view, holds that China is an authoritarian communist state that denies human rights to its citizens, is controlled by a highly disciplined group of leaders, and has little regard for freely elected government. A second, so-called realist, view holds that as a great power, China is bound to be expansionist, and that it is naive to believe its interests will not clash with America's commitments in the Western Pacific region.

Both ideologists and realists believe that America's post-1945 interests and policies in East Asia are potentially threatened by China, especially if Beijing continues to expand its naval capabilities. That view is similar to one held by British leaders at the start of the 20th century, when imperial Germany challenged Britain's role as the leading naval power by building its own powerful navy.

The upcoming 20th anniversary of China's Tiananmen Square crackdown on massive demonstrations in Beijing will reignite the debate between advocates of accommodation and of containment. President Barack Obama no doubt will reiterate America's interest in working with China to improve security on the Korean peninsula, to help persuade Iran not to build nuclear weapons, and to aid the world's economic recovery by stimulating its domestic economy.

"Realists" will remind Americans that accommodation with China has not produced desired results on North Korea's nuclear program, or provided help in the UN Security Council on sanctions against Tehran if doesn't suspend the nuclear enrichment program, or significantly alter China's currency exchange rate, which produces a huge trade imbalance with the United States.

Pakistan as a test. One crucial area on which Obama should press China's leaders is the deteriorating political situation in Pakistan. If Taliban insurgents expand their control over additional parts of that country and the government is either unwilling or unable to stop their advance, Americans may legitimately ask: Why should the United States be the only major power willing to deal with this dangerous crisis? Why is it, for example, that China and Russia, neighboring Asian powers with seats on the Security Council, are not deeply involved in ensuring that Pakistan does not become a failed state with nuclear weapons?

After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and crushed al-Qaida's hold on that country. But al-Qaida re-established itself in northwest Pakistan, in the vicinity of Chinese territory, and threatens the stability of the entire South Asian region. Pakistan's government says it needs additional billions in U.S. aid to fight the insurgents.

Why is China not a major financial contributor to that effort? It's an appropriate question for President Obama to ask Beijing.

File last modified on Sunday, 24-MAY-2009 1:24 PM EST

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