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Review by Stanton Jue

Warren I. Cohen, America’s Response to China: A History of Sino-American Relations, 5th edition, Columbia Univ. Press: New York, 2010, ISBN 078-0-231-15077-4, 326 pp. (paper) $27.50, (cloth) $84.50

In brief, it is conceivable that the greatest danger posed by China is not its rising power but the possibility, however remote, that it will collapse.

 — Warren I. Cohen

This concise, well-written book by Warren Cohen covers a tumultuous period of relations between China and the United States.  He is a perceptive analyst and a respected scholar.  He demonstrates a deft grasp of the nuances of contemporary Chinese history following the John K. Fairbank tradition to introduce China to Americans.

The present volume America’s Response to China is the 5th edition of Warren I. Cohen’s book.  He wrote the first edition on the eve of Henry K. Kissinger’s secret flight to Beijing from Pakistan in 1971.  His second edition was published eight years later in 1979 when Deng Xiaoping made his first visit to the United States amid the euphoria of a new chapter of budding U. S. relations with China.  The third edition was issued in 1989 following the Tiananmen Massacre when the PLA under the order from the Politburo killed thousands of demonstrators, both students and bystanders.  After ten years, the 4th edition came out when trade became the dominant feature in bilateral relations.  The 5th edition is an update of events of the first decade of the 21st century when, in the belief of many Americans, a rising China threatens the United States’ dominant power and influence in world affairs.

At the outset, the author offered a prologue to describe the barbarians and the tribute system of a 19th century China. This book is arranged in 12 chapters from the development of a treaty system in the mid 19th century, to the brutal killing of students at Tiananmen Square in the late 20th century,  and to what America faces in the age of a fast growing China  in the first decade of the 21st century with two persistent themes: the worrisome  threat to American interest and the allure of a potentially huge market for American manufactured goods and services..

At each stage, Cohen had opportunity to access newly released documents, both from China and the U.S. and to interview government policy makers, academics and media pundits who had knowledge to decipher the complex development of China. He used these contacts skillfully to help students to understand why and how U. S. policy is fashioned in response to a rising China in what President Obama describes as the most important bilateral relationship.

The present edition, as in other editions, is really an interpretation and analysis of US-China interactions rather than a history of relations between the two countries.

Following the cardinal principal that, if one wants to know what and why is happening today, one must study what happened in the past, and, if one wants to know the future, one must understand what is happening today.  As a distinguished historian and teacher, Cohen is well suited to the task.

One can quibble with the author over the title of this volume America’s Response to China  — whether China’s rise is a threat to U.S. security interests or a cooperative partner, peaceful, responsible and prosperous in the community of nations.  The rancorous debate over this question offers the public a glimpse of what real issues are facing Obama in his first term in office.  The picture of Obama shaking hands and smiling with Chinese leader Hu Jintao on the book cover portrays a hopeful sign of a promising relationship, but a closer examination tells a more troubling story.

It is a pleasure to see this provocative analysis, even though some historians in China, especially those who hold a nationalistic posture, may not agree fully with Cohen’s views. This is understandable, given their different background and perspectives.

The cycle of alternating ebbs and flows of the narrative centers in large part on the imbalance of trade favoring China. Beijing is accused of manipulating its currency, the renminbi or  the yuan, violating intellectual property rights, restricting market access, lack of transparency, and a host of other illegal ways to achieve an advantage.

On the other hand, Beijing accuses the U. S. of using sanctions and other discriminatory practices against Chinese goods to the United States, which created a  large gap in the balance of payments. Former Treasury Hank Paulson and his counterpart at The Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) have regularly discussed many of these issues, especially the valuation of the yuan, since 2006. But the progress has been exceedingly slow and often minuscule.

Moreover, the United States was accused of interfering in China’s internal affairs such as arms sales to Taiwan and Tibet and meeting with the Dalai Lama which Beijing considered infringing on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity or core interests. Topics of human rights, democracy, repression of religious freedom tend to dominate the U. S. policy dialogue with and approach to China.  Recriminations from both sides exacerbate tensions between the two countries.

The author cited the position of Kissinger and his disciples as “constantly argued that what China did within its border did not matter nearly as much as achieving China’s cooperation on a host of global issues.”  If this analysis is accurate, then the Obama administration clearly follows Kissinger’s advice, as exemplified by Hillary Clinton’s maiden trip to Beijing in February 2009 when she initiated a new approach to China.

As one may recall, Clinton pointedly played down human rights and human dignity issues such as freedom for Tibet and other minorities, repression of religious freedom and civil society in China by saying “We pretty much know what Beijing is going to say.  But we have to continue to press them.  Our pressing on these issues cannot interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.”

This immediately stirred up consternation and outrage from human rights groups, some congressional leaders and media commentators.  Among the liberal media, The Washington Post in its 2/24/09 editorial called Clinton’s statement misguided, understating the significance of her public expressions which might adversely affect the life of those fighting for freedom of expressions, freedom of religious rights and other basic liberties.

As a matter of policy, however, Obama has openly acknowledged on a number of occasions that there is no diminution of commitment to human rights and human dignity, which is ingrained in American culture. He further stated that American security is not more important than human rights… and the two are complementary.  The question is basically balance, depending on a specific set of circumstances in a given time and place.

Amid the euphoria that China is fast becoming a peaceful, prosperous and responsible player in the community of nations, Cohen cautions readers that China is still a poor country measured on per capita income.  Its distribution of income is extraordinarily unequal which leaves huge numbers of Chinese poor and dissatisfied.  The country is plagued with thousands of demonstrations every year, because the people have little means of obtaining redress peacefully.   In brief, Cohen offered the opinion that “it is conceivable that the greater danger posed by China is not its rising power, but the possibility, however remote, that it will collapse. He added, “Most Americans are not sure that a rising China is in their national interest.”End.

Stanton Jue
Stanton Jue

Stanton Jue is a retired Foreign Service Officer who specializes in Chinese affairs from the Cold War through reconciliation to China’s periodic cooperation and competition with the United States in first decade of the 21st century. He had postings in Cambodia, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Australia and China as well as an extended tour in Washington to help in the reopening of U. S. – China relations.  His main focus has been on China and US relations with Beijing and Taipei.  His articles have appeared in the Foreign Service Journal, American Diplomacy, and the American Journal of Chinese Studies.


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