Biden and China.

            Sailors were the first Americans to reach the Pacific and the Far East: fur traders in Nootka Sound, tea clippers in China, whalers in the South and Central Pacific, and Commodore Perry’s squadron “opening” Japan to the West.  All this happened while the rest of the country was pre-occupied with other matters: industrialization, immigration, urbanization, civil war, and territorial expansion across the continent.  The two strands came together at the end of the Nineteenth Century.  The Spanish-American War (1898) made the United States a territorial power in the Pacific and Asia (Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines).  American Christian missionaries joined those of Western European nations.  The “China Market” became an even more attractive lure for American industry.  Still, American interests and ideals combined to oppose anyone ripping China to shreds.  Instead, the United States defended the idea of the “Open Door.”  All nations should have an equal right to trade in China, while the Chinese Empire should preserve its territorial integrity. 

Color lithograph by J.S. Pughe – Library of Congress – , Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-28534Color lithograph by J.S. Pughe – Library of Congress – , Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-28534

            During the Twentieth Century, the central question in the Far Eastern policy of the United States became how to prevent any one power from dominating Asia to the detriment of the United States.   At first, this meant opposing Imperial Japan’s expansionist appetite.  That appetite seemed to grow over time, from the “Fifteen Demands” levied on China during the First World War to the seizure of Manchuria to outright invasion of China to the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” of the Second World War. 

Then the United States shifted to opposing Communist expansionism in Asia.  At the time, many disasters befell American military policy: the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, fighting to a draw in Korea, being defeated in Vietnam.  Over time, however, a different strand of American policy succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its exponents.  The U.S. supported societies engaged in rapid economic development.  As time passed, and in uneven measure, they became democracies.  Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines have become important American partners in the Far East.  Mot striking of all, since the Nixon Administration’s “opening” to the Peoples Republic of China, Beijing has profited enormously from the American-led system. 

More recently, that system has appeared to be in decay.  First, a series of poor presidents with deficient understanding of foreign affairs left the American system badly led for almost thirty years.[1]  Second, the 9/11 attacks required a devastating response against Islamist terrorism, but the decisions to extend that riposte into a long-run nation-building operation in Afghanistan and a disastrous invasion of Iraq soaked up American blood, treasure, and attention.  Third, the United States has been undermined by prolonged economic and social crises that defy easy solution.[2]  The current evening news broadcasts showing the United States Air Force flying advanced weapons to Ukraine and flying foreign baby formula to the United States nicely captures some of our issues.[3]  In any event, it isn’t difficult to understand why American leadership has come under challenge from Russia and China first and foremost, but also by lesser countries which once consulted Washington.[4] 

The Biden administration has now announced steps to reform the post-war American international system to better address the challenge from China.[5]  Declaring that the 2020s will be a “decisive decade,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced that the United States will work hard to rebuild economic and diplomatic bonds with long-time allies.  The proposed revival falls short on some details and will take time to implement.  Moreover, it is beyond Blinken’s authority to offer a plan for addressing the underlying problems of America.  Nevertheless, partly from preference for the American system and partly from fear of China, there seems to be a deep well of support in the Indo-Pacific region for an American return. 

[1] Bill Clinton (1992-2000), George W. Bush (2000-2008), Barack Obama (2008-2016), and Donald Trump (2016-2020).  Three normal children and one feral child. 

[2] This subject could fill and book and has.  Many, actually.  For social issues, see:  It is perhaps telling about the nature of the crises that it is much easier to find a long list of books on contemporary social problems than it is to find a similar list about American economic problems.  In other words, Americans are better informed about their social problems (almost always to be solved by throwing money at them) than they are about their economic problems (which is where the money will come from). 

[3] Or perhaps I just sent too much time watching the recent George Carlin documentary. 

[4] Notably Israel and Saudi Arabia, but now the Solomon Islands as well. 

[5] Walter Russell Mead, “Blinken’s Indo-Pacific Blueprint,” WSJ, 31 May 2022. 

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