Warren I. Cohen is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Michigan State University and University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of, among other books, “America’s Response to China: A History of Sino-American Relations.”
As President -elect Donald Trump witlessly roils the waters across the Pacific, foreign affairs specialists around the world agree that management of relations between the United States and a rising China surpasses all other international issues, quite possibly for the remainder of the century. In “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom,” John Pomfret reminds us that the two countries have disappointed each other since their earliest contacts but have always muddled through. Perhaps overly optimistic, he imagines they will again.
When I began my study of Chinese-American relations nearly 60 years ago, the finest analysts of that relationship were men such as Doak Barnett and Robert Barnett, Jim Lilley, and Jim Thomson, all born in China. The People’s Republic was off limits, and most of my generation studied in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Today we are blessed with hundreds of younger men and women who studied in Beijing, Nanjing and other great centers of learning on the mainland. Pomfret was one of the first of these, and he became a journalist whose reporting from Beijing, much of it for The Washington Post, was superb. And now he has joined Jim Mann, the most scholarly reporter of his generation, as a historian of Chinese-American relations.
Mann’s several books — “Beijing Jeep,” “About Face,” “The China Fantasy” — each focus on relatively narrow stretches of the relationship since Richard Nixon’s “week that changed the world.” Pomfret is much more ambitious, covering the years 1776 to 2016. Most of the volume prior to the 1930s is filled with fascinating biographical sketches and vignettes, many of which will be new to even his most diligent predecessors. He is a wonderful storyteller, and his research is impressive, in Chinese as well as American sources. He highlights each county’s contributions to the other, calling attention to the too-often-neglected importance of China in American modernization.
But the scope of his ambition has liabilities, even with a book that is more than 600 pages. His treatment of government-to-government relations, generally insignificant before the mid-19th century, is relatively thin prior to the 1930s — and not altogether satisfactory from the days of the Open Door Notes of 1899 and 1900 through the 1920s, the years when the United States emerged as a power in East Asia.
The 1930s were pivotal for the evolution of U.S. policy toward China, in the context of Japanese aggression and the coming of World War II. Pomfret’s discussion lacks the depth necessary to understand what men like Henry Stimson and Franklin Roosevelt were trying to accomplish, and he fails to see the shoals through which they had to navigate. He seems unaware of Dorothy Borg’s prize-winning volumes, “The United States and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1933-1938” and “Pearl Harbor as History” (edited with Shumpei Okamoto), both of which explain the relative unimportance of China to American policymakers.
He quite rightly challenges Barbara Tuchman’s portrait of Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek in her “Stilwell and the American Experience in China.” Gen. Joseph Stilwell was not the heroic figure she described, nor Chiang quite as thuggish. Chinese government troops did indeed fight the Japanese invaders in the 1930s and ’40s, although Chiang withheld support from those generals whose loyalty to him he questioned. When Claire Chennault, of Flying Tiger fame, asked Chiang to send aid to the troops defending his airfields in Hunan, Chiang refused. The general whose men fought bravely against the Japanese in Hunan spent most of the rest of his life under house arrest. Pomfret’s defense of Chiang often goes too far, as does his willingness to accept American responsibility for Chiang’s defeat in the subsequent civil war. Given the overwhelming military superiority of government forces, even Chiang accepted blame for his failures in his diary.
When he turns to an analysis of the Chinese communists in the 1940s, Pomfret underestimates the tension between Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin. He is right to dismiss the “lost chance in China” — whether the United States could have won Mao over had it been less hostile to the communists, a debate I started in 1967 with an article in Orbis. But Mao had seized leadership of the Chinese Communist Party against Stalin’s wishes and had refused to risk the lives of his men when Stalin demanded they be sent into action against the Japanese to relieve pressures on the Soviet Union — and Stalin had treated him badly when he went to Moscow early in 1950 to negotiate the terms of alliance. Throughout the war, Mao’s praise for Americans was not merely tactical: There is ample evidence of favorable opinion in internal memoranda of the period and in educational material — and evidence of mistrust of Soviet intentions, as well as anger at Soviet looting of Manchuria in 1945. But as Zhou Enlai told American interlocutors, the communists would surely lean toward Moscow — how far might depend on Washington. Pomfret is right that Stilwell underestimated Mao’s ties to Moscow, but he is too critical of those who imagined the possibility of a less-confrontational relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the United States.
As a foreign correspondent, Pomfret spent many of the years following rapprochement in China, and his first-hand observations are perceptive. Particularly noteworthy is his reminder of Beijing’s deceit on nonproliferation, how the Chinese first denied their violations and then promised to stop what they had claimed they weren’t doing — specifically assisting Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development, making it possible for the Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan to peddle nuclear secrets around the world.
He also points to the weakening, in the Reagan and Bush years, of American demands for improvement in Chinese respect for human rights. Of course, before them, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, were not known for their concern over human rights issues. Pomfret is very good at exposing unending American expectations that China would adopt American values as its economy improved, expectations nurtured in particular by the U.S. business community and its academic cheerleaders. In 1986, Li Peng, then state councilor for education, told a group of us that much as he welcomed our assistance in the sciences, social as well as physical, China would never adopt American values. He proved that when he presided over the Tiananmen massacres. And Chinese President Xi Jinping has not deviated from Li’s line as his government attacks churches, lawyers, journalists, academics and nongovernmental organizations — civil society in general.
A bit hastily, Pomfret squeezes in some of the events of 2016, none of which — excepting perhaps the climate agreement so dear to Obama (until the election of Trump, a climate change denier) — offered cause for optimism. Pomfret details Chinese espionage, cyberwarfare and assertiveness in the South China Sea. But he won’t give up, insisting in his afterword that there’s a chance for “a lovely concordance emerging between the two nations. . . . . Amid all the discord, there’s beauty in these ties.”
By John Pomfret
Holt. 693 pp. $40