The Asian Century 16.

            At the dawning of the Cold War in Asia, the United States limited its security commitments in the region.  Holding Japan headed the list of American concerns.  The Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang) seemed close to defeat by the Communists.  American efforts to reform or reinforce the Kuomintang, or to mediate a peace had foundered.  Nothing more could be done.  Communist victory in 1949 did not trigger an American commitment to stop further dominoes from falling.  The remnants of the Kuomintang were left to fend for themselves; American troops began to withdraw from Korea; and the Americans made clear to the French that their war in Indochina was a lost cause.[1]  Then the Korean War began (1950); Communist China intervened against the Americans; the Americans committed themselves to South Korea, Taiwan, and Indochina; and the two countries were at daggers drawn for twenty years. 

            All this suddenly changed in the 1970s.  Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger began an “opening” to China, while post-Mao China launched a sweeping transformation of its economy and society.  That transformation accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The United States and China appeared to develop a community of interest that would shape the future world.[2]  One of the sticking-points that had to be finessed was the fate of Taiwan.[3]  China has held to a “one China” policy that amounts to a determination to regain all the parts of traditional China that have been lost.  Chiefly this has meant Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.  The United States has accepted this policy as a long-term goal while insisting that it not take place by force.  Without adequate military force to face-down the United States, China had to play the long game.  Meanwhile, protected by the United States, South Korea and Taiwan flourished. 

            It seems to some observers that we are at the beginning of a new phase.  China’s rapid economic development has permitted the once-weak country to begin projecting its power and claims.  China has engaged in a massive military build-up, expressed in a sustained campaign to gain control of the South China Sea.  It has begun reeling-in lost territories.  Macao and Hong Kong have been the first to fall.  Now Taiwan has become the focus of attention.  The loss of Taiwan would harm American national interests.  Partly the reasons are economic; partly they are diplomatic and military; taken altogether they are strategic.  Which system will dominate Asia?  Will it be the American system of democratization and an open market economy?  Will it be the Chinese system of autocratic government and a state-controlled economy? 

            Grand gestures without solid backing likely will lead to humiliating climb-downs in Asia.  “Solid backing” means military spending and alliance-revival through sustained diplomacy.  It alos means looking to the economic and technological foundations of national strength.  This grave challenge comes at a difficult time for Americans.  Donald Trump’s “America First” policies expressed, rather than caused, a pre-occupation with domestic social and economic concerns.  Seeing beyond the here-and-now will take strong leadership.  


[1] Brian Crozier, The Man Who Lost China: The First Full Biography of Chiang Kai-shek (1976); Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, Patterns in the Dust: Chinese-American Relations and the Recognition Controversy, 1949-1950 (1983); Lloyd C. Gardner, Approaching Vietnam: From World War II through Dienbienphu (1989).

[2] The omnipresent British smarty-pants Niall Ferguson coined the term “Chimerica.”  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimerica 

[3] Walter Russell Mead, “Beijing Won’t Bow to Bluster,” WSJ, 12 January 2021.