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China and U.S.: What might have been 70 years after V-J Day

As the 70th anniversary of V-J Day approaches, the United States and Asia are facing another reminder that history may not repeat itself but often it seems to come around full circle. Seventy years after the end of World War II in Asia, once again the top ranks of the U.S. government and the universe of academia and think tanks are in yet another debate about the future relationship between the United States and China.

While the 1945 surrender of Japan to the allies will be widely observed on Aug. 14-15 in the United States and most of Asia, few Americans remember that soon after, 50,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers were briefly dispatched to China to try to stop the flow of Chinese Communists trying to seize control of the northern parts of the country being evacuated by the defeated Japanese occupiers.

That story and many others in the complicated history of the U.S.-China relationship are fascinatingly spelled out in Richard Bernstein’s book “China 1945”. The former New York Times correspondent and prolific author weaves a tale of many characters but one conclusion: that the United States, for all its singular vast power at the end of World War II, did not have the ability to stop the takeover by Mao Zedong’s Communists.

But as Bernstein pointed out at a recent session at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., his book is not just about history and what might have been. Just as his book is appearing, Americans are not only debating yet again the limits of American power but are engaged in a full-fledged discussion over whether the U.S. and China are heading for a new confrontation.

Indeed it is hard to go to a news website or front page of a newspaper without seeing reports of the rising tensions, whether in the South China Sea, with Japan, in cyberattacks, over the detention of human rights activists, spreading Chinese investment all over the world and China creating financial institutions that could challenge the dominance of the post-World War II economic order created by the U.S.

These examples of real or potential confrontation have produced a set of journalistic and think tank analyses concluding that the relatively benign and expanding relationship between the U.S. and China since President Nixon’s 1972 visit has come to an end. Ending with it is the expectation, which survived seven U.S. administrations, that China would evolve into a more prosperous, open and in the words of former World Bank president Robert Zoellick, “a responsible stakeholder” in the world order. Instead, the growing perception in the West and over much of Asia is of a China more assertive, expanding its military, ready to extend its influence beyond its maritime borders and under President Xi Jinping displaying Mao-like one-man rule and more severely cracking down on any questioning or opposition to the Communist Party’s monopoly of power.

How the United States should respond is subject to much debate, but several analysts have sketched out the various schools of thought that are in play and to some extent competing against each other. Two recent publications, both reaching influential audiences, have described the various policy camps and proposals.

Geoff Dyer, former Beijing bureau chief and now Washington correspondent for the Financial Times, suggested three schools: the get tougher camp; the accommodationists seeing a possible grand bargain between the two powers and a group suggesting a step by step plan of common projects to develop mutual trust.

Aaron Friedberg, a former aide to Vice President Cheney and now at Princeton University, described a policy option pie of six major slices: enhanced engagement, step by step measures especially in arms control, a grand bargain and acknowledgement of spheres of influence, the U.S. pulling back from the Western Pacific and pure containment as the U.S. and its European allies exercised against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Writing in the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ publication Survival, Friedberg comes down for the school he calls “better balancing,” a mix of policies that acknowledges different interests but is based on the reality that the two countries are locked in “a mutually profitable embrace.”

In retrospect, as Bernstein chronicles, the choices facing Americans dealing with China in 1945 were less complicated even if trying to influence events was just as confounding. The goal was the emergence of a more democratic China friendly to the United States, a war-time ally and power worthy of its seat on the United Nations Security Council.

But the reality was a China impoverished after fighting Japanese invaders since 1937 and resuming a parallel civil war between the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, based in Chungking, which was recognized by the Western powers as China’s legitimate government, and the Communist insurgents of Mao and Chou En-Lai in their northern redoubt of Yenan. (The eastern swath of China from Manchuria to Beijing down to Canton and Hong Kong was occupied by the Japanese during the war years.)

Ultimately, as Bernstein asserts, there was little the United States could have done differently to produce another result from what occurred by 1949, the Communist victory and takeover of the entire nation. But that outcome did lead to more than 20 years of poisonous American political debate over “who lost China,” as if a country then of 150 million and only 170 years old, even at the zenith of its global power, could control the fate of a distant nation five times the size and a civilization stretching over millennia.

The Chinese protagonists were or would become global figures. Bernstein, like many modern historians, paints a more positive and sympathetic picture of Chiang, who was scorned at the time by many American journalists and officials, even earning the nickname “Peanut” from American commander, Gen. Joseph Stilwell. The Communist leaders are portrayed as consummate seducers, convincing Western interlocutors of their democratic instincts while ruthlessly pursuing the goals of a global revolution in tandem with their Soviet allies.

The American cast of characters, portrayed in exquisite detail, certainly were colorful and diverse and ultimately all failing in their separate ways. Even George Marshall, a towering figure in U.S. history, could not succeed in his ill-fated mission of forging some kind of unity between the Nationalists and Communists.

Harsher judgments are rendered for numerous foreign service officers and journalists effectively seduced by Mao and Chou into believing their democratic bona fides. But as Bernstein argues, such men as John Paton Davies and John Stewart Service, were genuine China experts and American patriots and did not deserved to be treated as near-traitors in the bitter aftermath of the Communist takeover.

The twist of fate is that one of the harshest critics was the ascendant Republican politician Richard Nixon, who as president would create the opening to China. But even that breakthrough occurred because of events beyond American control, a near war in 1969 between China and the Soviet Union and after ruinous communist experiments that took millions of lives in the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.

As Bernstein concludes: “A revolutionary China under Mao was destined to single out the United States as an enemy, and to do so for a long interval, until China had exhausted itself in revolutionary fervor and it faced a greater and closer rival and threat to its independence (from the Soviet Union).”

Once again, circumstances have changed, even though China is no longer really revolutionary. It cooperates with a waning Russia to stymie American influence in Asia and elsewhere, but now as the ascendant power, not the supplicant of Moscow.

As Bernstein notes of the U.S. and China: “It is a strange rivalry in its way, because for all these decades (the two nations) would appear to have much more to gain from friendly cooperation than from conflict — gains in trade and investment, cooperation against environmental degradation, terrorism and nuclear proliferation.”

But the pattern of enmity, Bernstein writes, was established in the months surrounding the end of World War II, and all these years later still hovers over China and the United States and even over the rest of Asia.

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