Losing China (again)? A socio-psychological explanation of the Sino-American rivalry 

Dr Giuseppe Paparella, University of Exeter (formerly Graduate Teaching Assistant, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London)

Which factors have prevented American policymakers’ from establishing a more collaborative relationship with China since the end of the Cold War? With China growing more assertive abroad, U.S. analysts, observers and policymakershave once again rehashed the debate over a “lost chance” in effectively engaging and integrating China into the American-based international order.

Scholars such as John Mearsheimer acknowledge that American efforts to create a “robust, sustainable liberal international order” after the end of the Cold War made “integrating China…into it… especially important for its success.” However, while American efforts generated a successful outcome in incorporating states like China and Russia into “the order’s key economic institutions”, they also laid the basis for future interstate rivalry. This rivalry stemmed from China’s resistance to the American attempt at peaceful regime change in the country and the unipole’s effort “to dominate the international system economically, militarily, and politically.” 

Other analysts such as Aaron Friedberg and H.R. McMaster, are more doubtful about the impact of American grand strategic objectives on the development of U.S.-China relations after the Cold War. Rather than blaming Washington’s policy of economic and political engagement, they suggest that the failure to establish more peaceful relations should be found not just in the existence of divergent interests between the two great powers, but especially in their “incompatible visions for the future of Asia and the world.” McMaster identifies China as a threat because its leaders promote and export an international order based on “a closed, authoritarian model as an alternative to democratic governance and free-market economics.” Such incompatibility prompts China to behave more aggressively in order to “replace the United States as the world’s leading economic and technological nation and to displace it as the preponderant power in East Asia.”

This thought-provoking debate tends, however, to miss the socio-psychological determinants that might have caused the United States’ failure to engage more successfully with China, and to appreciate the role of cognitive motives alongside ideological and power considerations. In this regard, the experience of the American efforts to engage with what was the likely communist government in China between the end of 1948 and early 1949, as the Chinese Civil War was coming to an end, looms prominently. 

In analysing this crucial episode in Sino-American relations, my article – titled “Losing China? Truman’s Nationalist Beliefs and the American Strategic Approach to China, 1948–1949” and published open access in the International History Review – asks why the Truman administration failed to pursue rapprochement with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in early 1949. It argues that Truman’s nationalist beliefs and his cognitive image of China as a “colony” led the president to shift economic and military support from the Kuomintang to local Muslim warlords in Western China to encourage covert operations against the CCP from late 1948.

First, the article examines the available accounts for this episode, which focus on two main drivers: ideology and domestic politics. It analyses claims that the existence of deep ideological differences – around the liberal/communist divide – between Chinese communists and American leaders, contributed to high levels of threat perception and inhibited effective communication between the two sides. Moreover, it also examines whether the Truman administration’s need to secure public support and domestic mobilisation of resources – required for the approval of the European Recovery Program (ERP), the Military Assistance Program (MAP), and NATO – was a key determinant for Truman’s confrontational approach to the CCP in the period under consideration.

Then, by using archival research and underexploited evidence – including top secret letters outlining ‘Operation Belly’ as well as recently declassified material such as The History of Civil Air Transport (CAT) and a number of memoranda by Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, the first director of the Central Intelligence Agency – the article goes on to reveal that the American support to clandestine operations and the Ma family between March and June 1949 gained priority vis-à-vis Chinese Titoism over that period, laying the ground for a number of covert initiatives pursued by the administration between June and November 1949. This finding is significant as it demonstrates the United States’ intention to develop asystem of alliances with warlords in Western China as early as late 1948, during the final stages of the Chinese Civil War. These efforts reflected the American imperative ‘to back potential regional leaders to replace Chiang’ which were deemed to be more capable of guiding regional anti-communist movements in the mainland.

The analysis of the American strategic approach to China between late 1948 and early 1949 suggests that the establishment of a collaborative relationship between a Communist China and the United States could have been possible in the early stages of the Cold War if Truman had been more willing to listen to Secretary of State Dean Acheson and advisors in the Division of Chinese Affairs. This is also the conclusion reached in the 1980s by Warren Cohen and Nancy Tucker, who depicted Acheson as determined to improve relations between China and the United States despite opposition from the congressional China bloc and policymakers in the State Department. In addition to exploring and accounting for the motivations behind this strategic approach, the article suggests that it is likely that, had Truman applied more restraint on the cognitive outcomes of his nationalist beliefs – that is, to his nationalist ‘colony’ image of China – Sino-American relations might have developed in a different way during this period. 

Furthermore, the interpretation offered in this article complements and refines the conclusions reached over the ‘lost chance’ debate. Jussi Hanhimaki, summarising the ‘lost chance’ debate in 2003, wrote that this was between the immediate aftermath of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. There was deemed to be no chance, from both sides, of building a peaceful or at least non-confrontational relationship between the United States and the PRC. In addition to covering how Arne Westad suggests that it was during the Marshall mission, ending in January 1947, that American policymakers lost the only chance during the late 1940s to build a cooperative relation with the CCP, my article suggests that such a possibility was lost (again) between late 1948 and early 1949.

In conclusion, while John Mearsheimer draws a pessimistic assessment on the ongoing developments in the Sino-American relationship – deeming such a rivalry “inevitable” as a result of the “tragedy” of great-power politics – “Losing China?” suggests that, if an opportunity to reorient such re-emerging enmity still exists, it is likely to be missed if American policymakers give way to the type of biases that initially shaped policy back in early 1949.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s